Low Family Income May Be Factor in Children’s Math Skills Entering School

A mother and young daughter doing homework together.
A UConn researcher discusses the ways that socioeconomic disparities can affect children's math development. (Getty Images)

A new UConn study suggests that low family income may be factor in children’s math skills when they enter school.

The study, “Maternal Support of Children’s Math Learning in Associations Between Family Income and Math School Readiness,” was conducted by Caitlin Lombardi, assistant professor of Human Development and Family Sciences, and Eric Dearing, professor of Applied Developmental and Educational Psychology at Boston College and senior researcher at the Norwegian Center for Child Behavioral Development at the University of Oslo. The study appears in Child Development, the journal of the Society for Research in Child Development.

The researchers studied mothers’ support of their children’s math learning at 36 months to measure the association between early childhood family income and children’s counting and calculation skills at 4½ and 6-7 years.

“Results suggest that income-based gaps in counting and calculation skills at school entry may be due in part to the constraints that low family income places on early numerical learning support,” the researchers reported.

Lombardi focuses her research on the roles of family, early child care and education, school, and community for promoting children’s cognitive and social-emotional development, particularly in the context of economic and social disadvantage. She spoke with UConn Today about the study.

How will this study help improve what we know about when children learn math skills?

One of the pressing questions in the field is the fact that it’s very well documented when children start kindergarten that there are very large disparities in their math skills as well as their reading skills. It’s very highly correlated with various aspects of home demographics — family income, parent education, and other characteristics of the home environment. Children develop a multitude of increasingly complex math skills between birth and age 5; these include an understanding that numbers are used to label a quantity of objects as well as skills in mental rotation. Across their early environments, children are exposed to numerous different toys and materials that foster these skills. The goal of this study was to investigate some of the reasons for these early disparities in math skills. In the math development world, there has been an increasing understanding of how parents support children’s math skills prior to kindergarten, similar to the way that there has been an increased understanding of how parents support early literacy and reading skills. The goal of this research was to identify some of the ways that socioeconomic disparities translate to children’s math development. What are some of the specific aspects of parent support in children’s home environments? Is it encouraging different types of learning and being responsive to the child or is it engaging in support that is specific to math skills?

You touch on spatial concepts as a significant aspect of the early development in math skills. Could you explain what that is and how that works?

When we think of early math skills, usually we tend to think about numerical development –learning the labels for numbers, how to count, add, subtract and moving to higher-level arithmetic. Math development also includes spatial skills, which allow us to rotate shapes in our mind. Mental rotation skills for children may mean being able to solve math problems in their heads without needing to count, for example. One reason that researchers are interested in spatial skills is it is something that’s not as frequently taught in early childhood. Children have a lot of natural exposure with materials such as Legos, blocks, and puzzles. Boys and girls tend to enter kindergarten with similar math skills and then, by the end of elementary school, boys have higher math skills than girls. There’s a couple of explanations for that, some of which are socialization around expectations of boys and girls, but another component is the idea that boys develop more advanced mental rotation skills in their early years, in part, because they’re given more exposure to blocks, Legos, and building tools versus more feminine type materials like dolls. Those spatial skills become a strategy that children rely on to solve higher-level arithmetic problems more efficiently and more accurately.

What is interesting is that the level of education of the mother didn’t really factor in as much as you might’ve thought to the way that a child is learning.

That was really one of our most surprising findings. A lot of research in this area looks at socioeconomic status (SES). Researchers often use a combined measure of SES, which includes family income and measure of parent human capitol, such as education, occupational status, and skills. However, there are a number of different theories from the social sciences suggesting that family income and parent human capitol have unique influences on children’s development. Therefore, in our study, we separately examined family income and parent human capitol, which was a measure of maternal years of education and verbal skills. We also had several different measures of mothers interacting with their children that were observed during a free play activity. Some of these measures examined aspects of specific math support whereas other measures examined maternal sensitivity and efforts to generally encourage learning during the interaction.

We found that the math-related measures best explained the links between family income and children’s math skills, whereas the general learning and sensitivity measures were most helpful in explaining the links between maternal human capital and child math skills. Conversely, there was little evidence that maternal math support explained links between maternal education and verbal skills and children’s math abilities. Similarly, there were weak associations between family income and mothers’ sensitivity and general learning in predicting children’s math skills. This was a surprise to us, and a bit hard to explain. They suggest that maternal math support may be a unique mechanism through which economic disadvantage transfers to school-entry disparities in math school readiness.

You did this study looking at videos of mothers working with their children. The father’s role is either different or you need another study with fathers interacting with their children to see if there is a correlation there as well.

Yes. There is research, some of which that I’ve done, looking at fathers and their children at older ages, and there also is research on fathers supporting math development in earlier ages as well. There is evidence of the fact that fathers support their children in different and important ways. There’s also some evidence of gender differences in terms of fathers supporting their daughters, versus their sons’ math skills. This can be true of mothers as well. Research in general with fathers has found their support is also very predictive of children’s skills, and they tend to support their children’s skills in different ways than mothers.

Where do you go next in looking at other issues that are related?

There is considerable interdisciplinary work occurring in this area in the social and biological sciences playing complimentary roles in asking these questions. One important next step is continuing to understand the role of family income versus parent education and skills. I’m also trying to use this research to identify specific remedies. What interventions might work? What avenues for those interventions could take place? In terms of the research, we need to replicate this work in other samples with larger, more diverse populations. The next steps are to continue to examine the different types of supports that parents provide to children, with the aim of identifying which supports are predictive of children’s development and which supports explain different types of SES-based disparities in children’s later achievement. The goal of this research is to be able to design effective programs and interventions, as well as identify specific policy avenues to positively influence children’s development through parenting. There’s a lot of work to be done in understanding the specific ways parents can help their children learn and then, simultaneously, how do we help parents, teachers, and early care and education providers in providing this support in children’s everyday environment?