Effects of Socioeconomic Status on Development and Behavior in Children


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            There have
been many research studies done on how the socioeconomic status of families
affects the behavior and development of children into their adolescence and
even adulthood. According to Wadsworth et al. (2008), “growing up and living
with persistent poverty is detrimental to one’s psychological, physical, and
educational health” (p. 156). Several studies have been conducted and have
recognized a link between poverty and children’s cognitive abilities and
social-emotional capabilities (Hartas, 2011).

speaking, on a national level, the achievement gap continues to grow due to
low-income and ethnic minority children performing at lower levels than
children from higher income families (Dotterer, Iruka, & Pungello, 2012).
Even though American youth have really progressed with education in recent
years, with high school dropout rates at an all-time low and diploma and
college-bound students increasing, there is still a cloud of socioeconomic
disproportion hanging over the heads of children and school systems across the
nation (Benner, Boyle, & Sadler 2016). According to Lawson, Duda, Avants,
Wu, and Farah (2013), “children who grow up in poverty tend to have lower IQs
and academic achievement scores and are less likely to develop basic reading
and mathematics proficiency than their higher-SES counterparts” (p. 641). Not
only are links to cognitive and developmental issues apparent in research, but
are also exhibited through behavior and conduct. This can be seen from early
childhood into adolescence, where the child is at a higher risk for a variety
of problematic behaviors (Wadsworth et al., 2008).

are several factors to consider when looking for the correlations between
socioeconomic status (SES) and how children are impacted by the effects of
living in poor and poverty situations. The purpose of this paper and the
research it includes, will take a closer look at those relationships and what
causes them and what the long-term effects are for these children.

Defining Socioeconomic Status

            Many factors
are observed when determining the differences between lower and higher
socioeconomic status. Factors include components such as family income,
parental education, and occupational status (Wadsworth et al., 2008). The
families with lower incomes and social status will generally have parents that
are less educated and work in lower paying jobs with long hours. Those of a
higher status typically have well educated parents who are working in higher
paying jobs and have the ability to spend more time with their families.

American Psychological Association discusses how socioeconomic status isn’t
only income, but it is more, such as educational achievement, having financial
security, and different ideas of social status and social class. Socioeconomic
status can involve quality of life aspects and also the opportunities and freedoms
afforded to people within society. Poverty however, is defined more by multiple
physical and psychosocial stressors. Socioeconomic status has a significant
impact on a person’s health, both physically and mentally. It creates the
issues in our society of having children with lower academic achievement and
poorer health (Education and Socioeconomic Status, n.d.).

status can play a role in denying people different aspects of the five domains
of well-being that humans need to survive, thrive and be successful. The Full
Frame Initiative outlines five areas that people need, regardless of
backgrounds, cultures or socioeconomic status (The Five Domains, n.d.). People
want social connectedness. It is part of the human nature to want relationships
with others; a support system, the desired sense of belonging and value.
Stability is another factor that contributes to a person’s overall health.
Individuals desire the feeling of stability and being able to expect that their
life is the same from one day to the next. People need that predictability so
that they can focus on moving towards future growth and change. The next area
of well-being is safety. Safety is important because it allows people the
opportunity to be their authentic selves and not be at risk for physical or
emotional harm. Mastery is the extent to which a person feels in control of
their lives and the decisions they make. Meaningful access to relevant
resources is the last piece in the circle of the five domains of well-being.
This is defined as the ability of an individual to meet needs that are
important at that moment, in ways that are not degrading or dangerous. These
five areas can be directly affected by having a lower socioeconomic status.
People of lower income will suffer in one or more of these areas, which can
lead to the cause and effect of developmental and behavioral issues in children
(The Five Domains, n.d.).

The Causes and Effects of
Socioeconomic Status

can lead to the exhibition of many different kinds of stressors (Wadsworth et
al., 2008). These stressors can accumulate and eventually lead to further
stress upon a family with a lower-income status. A study conducted by Wadsworth
et al., (2008) took a closer look at poverty-related stress and how it can
influence families. This particular study examined three components that are
typically viewed as important components when defining a level of socioeconomic
status. Those three components are parental education, occupational status, and
family income. The study chose 82 adolescents that are from low-income
families. Poverty, in this study, was defined as having income below 150% of the
average national poverty line. The average monthly income for families observed
was $1,615.50. The families received government aid in different forms such as
food stamps, Medicaid, and free and reduced lunch programs at the schools. The
parents and adolescents were asked to fill out surveys and be interviewed to
measure factors in their lives such as socioeconomic status, poverty-related
stress (from their point of view), symptoms of psychological disorder and
syndromes, physical health, academics, and deviancy.

all the data was analyzed, Wadsworth et al., (2008), found that the effects of
low socioeconomic status and the stress it creates, has extensive and damaging
results with the psychological and physical well-being of children and
adolescents. This stress can contribute to adolescent problematic behaviors
such as dropping out of school, substance abuse, and teen pregnancy. For
younger children it can create issues with physical and mental health,
affecting the cognitive development and producing behavior disorders and
inappropriate conduct.

Effects of Socioeconomics on Children’s Development and Behavior

(2001), examined the effects of low SES on young children and the disadvantage
it creates in their development, learning, and behavior. There is intriguing
evidence that growths in family income have a positive impact on children. More
income for a family means that the parents can provide more options for
learning and social activities. Hartas (2001) states, “impoverished learning
environments are likely to impact on children’s cognitive skills and language,
whereas poverty that impacts on parenting practices and well-being is linked to
behavioural difficulties in children as young as five” (p. 894). The choices
parents make in low-income families, of how to use and distribute their
resources, for example, energy, money, and time had a direct impact on
developing children. Having access to financial resources and income through
jobs with higher-education qualifications affect how parents engage and
interact with their children. It affects the kinds of activities they
participate in, as well as their attitudes, beliefs, and values towards
striving to learn and reach for higher education.

study Hartas (2011) conducted, surveyed the relationship between factors of
socioeconomic status and home learning at ages three and five, as well as the
impact on emotional development and cognitive development where early language
and literacy skills are learned. This study took place longitudinally over the
course of a few years, where 15,600 children were observed. Home learning, SES,
and Foundation Stage Profiles (FSP) were the three components measured in the
study. The families had incomes 60% below the average national income. The
results revealed that children coming from lower-income families are at a
higher risk for cognitive development, specifically language/literacy skills
and for displaying externalizing and internalizing behaviors.

Effects of Socioeconomics on Child Behavior and Conduct

study conducted by Dodge, Pettit, and Bates (1994) looked at the relationship
of socialization mediators and the effects of socioeconomic status on child
behavior and conduct problems. Three aspects were observed in this study; harsh
disciplinary practices by parents, parental lack of warmth toward the child,
and the aggressive behavior patterns children may learn through watching
aggressive models. It is thought that mothers in low-income families use a
harsher disciplinary practice because they are trying to prevent their children
from falling into antisocial activities and behaviors. However, it is thought
that harsh discipline can influence deviant and aggressive behaviors in

the second component being observed, lower socioeconomic status can cause
parents to be less focused and caring towards the needs of their children, which
equivalates to less love and warmth being demonstrated to the children. This
lack of warmth has been linked in other studies to produce aggression in
children (Dodge et al., 1994).

last factor studied is the modeling of aggressive behavior. Observation of
adult conflict through marital struggles to living in poor and dangerous
neighborhoods, can have instant negative effects on the child as well as long-term
child instabilities. Not only may impoverished children observe violence around
them, they may live with adults who approve the aggressive behaviors as a way
to solve problems (Dodge et al., 1994).

life events can create behavior problems for children as well as the
disadvantage of mothers in low-income families who struggle for support and
suffer from social isolation. Trying to parent in a poverty-stricken
environment with lack of support from extended family or the community, can
lead to physical abuse of the child which in turn, leads to behavior problems (Dodge
et al., 1994).

total of 585 children were used for the sample in this study. Of these 585
children, 209 were living in single-parent households. Interviews were
conducted, primarily with the female head of household. Socioeconomic status
was characterized by the mother and father’s years of education and their
occupations. Data statistics showed that 90% of the children lived in
single-parent homes, 76% are from ethnic minority backgrounds, 84% live with a
parent who is a high school dropout, and 18% live with a parent who is
illiterate. The average age of the mothers when the children were born was 19.8
years old and they have an average of 2.5 siblings in the home (Dodge et al.,

study also had a behavior checklist for the teachers of the students in the
spring of kindergarten and grades one, two, and three. The teachers would
report on the child’s behaviors based on questions such as “does the student
get into many fights” or “does the student threaten others”, or “is the student
disobedient at school”. Peer nominations were also done to gather data on what
each student’s peers thought were the three classmates more prone to start
fights or say mean things.

results of the study done by Dodge et al., (1994), resulted in all hypotheses
being supported by the data. Dodge et al., (1994) stated the following:

in the lower socioeconomic classes are more likely to be the objects of harsh
discipline, to observe violence in their neighborhoods and extended families,
and to have more transient peer groups and therefore fewer opportunities for
stable friendships. They receive less cognitive stimulation in their home
environment. These children are being raised by mothers who are relatively less
warm in their behavior toward them, who experience a relatively high rate of
family life stressors, who perceive less social support and greater isolation,
and who are more likely to hold values that aggression is an appropriate and
effective means of solving problems (p. 662).

Effects of Low SES on Sleep and Behavior Problems

can be vital to the health and development of children. Shorter sleep duration
and quality of sleep have been linked to increased behavioral problems, both
externalizing and internalizing, in young children (El-Sheikh, Kelly, Buckhalt,
& Hinnant, 2010). When detecting the areas of externalizing behaviors
exhibited through sleep deprivation, behaviors such as aggression, conduct
problems, and delinquency appear to be the most common behaviors displayed.
Internalizing behaviors that are exhibited are primarily depression and
anxiety, which can carry through to adolescence and adulthood. Other studies
have also associated the role of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) with sleep and
emotional regulation problems.

sample of students used in the study done by El-Sheikh et al., (2010), were in
the third grade from the Southeastern United States. The children all came from
a two-parent home and had no history or diagnosis of a sleep disorder, chronic
or acute illness, intellectual disability, or a learning disability. A total of
176 children of different ethnic/racial backgrounds composed the sample of
students. From the socioeconomic standpoint, the parents of the children were
classified into categories of employment such as unskilled worker, skilled
worker, and minor professional or professional workers.

was collected on the sleeping patterns of the children using actigraphy
bracelets, which could be compared to the size and weight of a wristwatch. The
watch was worn between bedtime and wake time for seven consecutive nights.
Parents also completed daily sleep logs to help confirm the reliability of the actigraphy
recordings. Overall, 75% of the sample of children had valid actigraphy data
over the seven consecutive nights. The last data collected in the study was
parent reports of child externalizing and internalizing behavior symptoms and
child reports of internalizing behavior symptoms (El-Sheikh et al., 2010).

all the data collected and analyzed, the results of the study indicate that
negative effects of sleep loss are more pronounced in children from homes of
lower socioeconomic status. Children of lower SES were also categorized to have
a higher level of externalizing behaviors compared to those of a higher SES. More
research needs to be done, however, this study brings to light the importance
of sleep and how it affects the behavior and conduct of children from
low-income families (El-Sheikh et al., 2010).

Effects of SES on the Brain

discussed in other studies, there is an association of low socioeconomic status
and the prefrontal cortex of the brain (Lawson et al., 2013). Based on
neuroimaging studies, cortical thickness is defined as the shortest distance
between the white matter surface and pial gray matter surface. According to
Lawson et al., (2013):

thickness has been shown to be a meaningful index of brain development, showing
developmental changes that may reflect the process of synaptic proliferation ad
pruning or the effect of myelination on the measurement of thickness. Cortical
thickness has also shown associations with cognitive ability and behavior among
healthy children” (p. 642).

Overall, there is compelling
research that links the effects of socioeconomic status with development in the
brain. These effects have been associated with cognitive and language delays,
behavior, and sleep patterns (Lawson et al., 2013).

Effects of SES in Adolescents Leading to Criminal Behavior

            “One of the
most ubiquitous findings of criminology has been that of consistent linkages
between measures of socioeconomic deprivation or disadvantage and elevated rates
of crime” (Fergusson, Swain-Campbell, & Horwood, 2004, p. 956). Research
shows that the lack of academic achievement, in regards to dropping out of high
school, causes poor educational qualifications which then leads to poor
occupational choices that can cause low income and low socioeconomic status
(Timmermans, Lier, & Koot, 2009). Delinquency in adolescents can lead to
increased risks in conflict with the law, being convicted of a crime, and
participating in drug-related and violent crime (Timmermans et al., 2009).
There is evidence in research that an unfortunate consequence of growing up in
a home with low-income and fewer opportunities to thrive, can eventually lead
children and young adults into a life of delinquency and crime.

Interventions for Low Socioeconomic

best method of intervention in regards to low socioeconomic status is simply
prevention. Dodge et al., (1994) recommends that prevention efforts be made for
children who are from lower-income families and at a higher risk of failing
academically and socially. As stated by Dodge et al., (1994) “these
interventions should focus on changing parental patterns of harsh discipline,
because this single variable accounts for the major portion of the effect of
socioeconomic status on antisocial development” (p. 663). Hartas (2011)
suggests that interventions take place at the family level for low-income
families and that it should be multidimensional with providing aid to help
parents raise their income, assist in enhancing family literacy and providing
educational opportunities to help the children have access to engaging and
stimulating activities. Interventions in school can help children progress academically,
which creates the hope of future educational and occupational success.


is evident through multiple research studies that families who live with a
lower socioeconomic status, encounter more challenges with living day to day
and providing their children with an adequate education and appropriate social
behaviors. The unfortunate outcomes for children who are academically
underprivileged lead to a life of stress, struggles and even crime and jail. Low
socioeconomic status is the root of many developmental and conduct issues for young
children who are not afforded a stimulating home-learning environment or extra educational
opportunities. After studying a variety of causes and effects of low SES, further
research still needs to be conducted to really discover the true depths of the effects
of socioeconomic status on children and behavior.


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