Reports and Briefs
Profiles of Risk No. 8: School Readiness
This ICPH research brief is the eighth in a series that highlights the characteristics of families with young children who become homeless in the urban United States. The series explores poverty in the context of housing status and puts a spotlight on the characteristics that make families who experience homelessness different from otherwise similar poor families who consistently maintain stable housing. The current brief explores differences in child well-being and investigates how school readiness varies by housing status.
Socio-emotional Development and Behavior Problems
School readiness, a measure that takes into account both cognitive and socio-emotional development, is an important indicator of well-being in young children. Public policies that direct resources to early childhood learning programs for disadvantaged children can boost readiness for school. Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS), a national survey that followed nearly 5,000 families for five years after the birth of each family’s focal child (see description), Figure 1 compares average socio-emotional behavior scores for children at age five by their housing status over the previous five years—ever homeless or doubled up, ever at risk of homelessness, or always stably housed. Figure 1 presents two important measures of socio-emotional development: externalizing behavior scores and internalizing behavior scores.[i] The externalizing behavior scores are based on mothers’ responses to questions about their children’s aggressive and delinquent behavior, with a maximum score of 60, while the internalizing behavior scores represent reports of withdrawn and anxious/depressive behaviors, with a maximum score of 44.
Figure 1 illustrates that children who experienced homelessness between ages one and five demonstrated the highest scores for aggressive (12.8), delinquent (2.4), and thus overall externalizing behaviors (15.2) at age five. Those who were ever at risk of homelessness scored slightly lower on these same outcomes (11.7, 2.2, and 13.9, respectively). In comparison, children who were always stably housed exhibited the lowest scores for aggressive (9.4), delinquent (1.6), and overall externalizing behaviors (10.9).
|Source: ICPH analysis of Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing data. n = 1,304. Excluded are children whose mothers did not participate in the year-five, 18-city, or in-home surveys, who did not live with their mothers at least half of the time at year five, or who lived in families with an average (baseline to year five) income-to-poverty ratio greater than 1.25. Differences in behavioral problems are statistically significant at 10% for all groups.
Average internalizing scores follow the same pattern; children who experienced homelessness consistently scored higher on social withdrawal (2.7), anxiety/depression (4.1), and overall internalizing (6.6) scores, compared with at-risk (2.4, 3.7, and 6.0, respectively) and stably housed children, who demonstrated the lowest scores (2.0, 2.9, and 4.8, respectively). Healthy socio-emotional development is associated with cognitive growth and better academic outcomes (see “In Context: School Readiness and Child Outcomes,” below). That unstably housed children demonstrate more internalizing and externalizing symptoms suggests that homeless children start school less ready to learn than their stably housed peers.
School Readiness and Child Outcomes
Children’s readiness for school encompasses numerous factors. Though cognitive development and literacy skills are most frequently associated with school readiness, research suggests that children’s social and emotional development, or their ability to experience, regulate, and express emotions and to form interpersonal relationships, is equally important. Children who can regulate their emotions are better at concentrating and are more likely to have positive developmental outcomes, including higher IQ, greater sense of self-worth, and better mental health.[ii]
Further, behavioral problems in early childhood are linked to lower academic achievement, reduced probability of graduating from high school and enrolling in college, and greater risk of delinquency and criminal activity.[iii]
Attention processes are also important to school readiness, as they impact children’s academic and socio-emotional capacities. Attention control includes the ability to focus and flexibly shift attention, exhibit self-regulation, and ignore irrelevant stimuli.[iv] Attention skills are associated with achievement in math, reading, and verbal scores during middle childhood even after controlling for relevant factors.[v] Attention is also linked with socio-emotional developments such as social competence and adjustment to school, while attention problems are related to antisocial behaviors and peer rejection.[vi]
A child’s cognitive capacities upon school entry—particularly literacy and numeracy skills—are also clear predictors of later reading and math achievement. Children who begin school with strong emergent literacy skills are more likely to show academic success throughout their lives.[vii] Likewise, reading deficits at early ages tend to widen over the elementary-school years and persist throughout school and adulthood; lower cognitive and academic achievement is associated with depression, anxiety, and dropping out of high school.[viii]
[i] The externalizing and internalizing behavior scores and their subsets come from the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL), a standardized, reliable, and valid behavioral specification. The CBCL items are used to score various statements on children’s behavior on a scale from 0–2, where 0 = not true, 1 = sometimes or somewhat true, and 2 = often or very true. While the original CBCL/4-18 consists of 113 behavior problems, the version used in the FFCWS includes only 72 (age-appropriate) items. The aggressive-behavior scale includes 20 items (maximum score of 40), such as whether the child argues, gets in fights, or teases or threatens others. The delinquent-behavior scale includes 10 items (maximum score of 20), relating to behaviors such as lying, cheating, running away, or stealing. The withdrawn-behavior scale includes nine items (maximum score of 18), including whether the child refuses to talk, stares blankly, or sulks. The anxious/depressed scale includes 14 items (maximum score of 28), such as whether the child cries a lot or is nervous, fearful or depressed. For more information, please see: Thu Vu, In Five-Year In-home Longitudinal Study of Pre-school Aged Children: User’s Guide, Center for Health and Wellbeing, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, 2011.
[ii] C. Raver, “Emotions Matter: Making the Case for the Role of Young Children’s Emotional Development for Early School Readiness,” Social Policy Report 16, no. 3 (2002): 3–19; Ann Masten and J.D. Coatsworth, “The Development of Competence in Favorable and Unfavorable Environments: Lessons from Research on Successful Children,” American Psychologist 53, no. 2 (1998): 205–20; Ross Thompson, “The Roots of School Readiness in Social and Emotional Development,” Set for Success: Building a Strong Foundation for School Readiness Based on the Social-Emotional Development of Young Children 1, no. 1 (2002): 8–29; Linda Espinoza, “The Connections Between Social-Emotional Development and Early Literacy,” Set for Success: Building a Strong Foundation for School Readiness Based on the Social-Emotional Development of Young Children 1, no. 1 (2002): 30–44.
[iii] Janet Currie and Mark Stabile, “Mental Health in Childhood and Human Capital,” in The Problems of Disadvantaged Youth: An Economic Perspective, edited by Jonathan Grube (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009): 115–48; Jane McLeod and Karen Kaiser, “Childhood Emotional and Behavioral Problems and Educational Attainment,” American Sociological Review 69 (2004): 636–58; Shane Jimerson, et al., “A Prospective Longitudinal Study of High School Dropouts Examining Multiple Predictors Across Development,” Journal of School Psychology 38, no. 6 (2000): 525–49; Rebecca Bulotsky-Shearer, et al., “Behavior Problems in Learning Activities and Social Interactions in Head Start Classrooms and Early Reading, Mathematics, and Approaches to Learning,” School Psychology Review 40, no. 1 (2011): 39–56.
[iv] Clancy Blair and Adele Diamond, “Biological Processes in Prevention and Intervention: The Promotion of Self-regulation as a Means of Preventing School Failure,” Development and Psychopathology 20 (2008): 899–911; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network, “Do Children’s Attention Processes Mediate the Link Between Family Predictors and School Readiness?” Developmental Psychology 39, no. 3 (2003): 581–93.
[v] Greg Duncan, et al., “School Readiness and Later Achievement,” Developmental Psychology 43, no. 6 (2007): 1428–46.
[vi] National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network, “Do Children’s Attention Processes Mediate the Link Between Family Predictors and School Readiness?” Developmental Psychology 39, no. 3 (2003): 581–93; Ann Masten and J. Coatsworth, “The Development of Competence in Favorable and Unfavorable Environments: Lessons from Research on Successful Children,” American Psychologist 53, no. 2 (1998): 205–20.
[vii] Greg Duncan, et al., “ School Readiness and Later Achievement,” Developmental Psychology 43, no. 6 (2007): 1428–46.
[viii] Nazli Baydar, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, and Frank Furstenberg, “Early Warning Signs of Functional Illiteracy: Predictors in Childhood and Adolescence,” Child Development 64 (1993): 815–29; Shannon Lundy, et al., “Cognitive Functioning and Academic Performance in Elementary School Children with Anxious/Depressed and Withdrawn Symptoms,” Open Pediatric Medical Journal 4 (2010): 1–9.