School Mobility: Implications for Children’s Development

More than one-fifth of children in the United States are living in poverty. Children growing up in poverty face numerous adversities that can negatively affect their learning and development, starting at a very early age. For example, these children are less likely to have access to books and to hear rich vocabulary; and are more likely to be exposed to violence in their neighborhoods, attend low-quality, under-resourced schools, have stressed parents, live in crowded and/or noisy homes, and have unstable home environments. All of these stressful life experiences can compromise children’s learning, as well as their cognitive and social-emotional development.

The article “Does school mobility place elementary school children at risk for lower math achievement? The mediating role of cognitive dysregulation.” focuses on one specific poverty-related risk: school mobility, or changing schools. Approximately 45% of children change schools at least one time prior to the end of third grade, but rates of school mobility are even higher for low-income, ethnic minority students living in urban areas. Further, changing schools has been linked to lower academic achievement, particularly when children experience many school changes over a short period of time.

boy playing with blocks 2Less is known about why changing schools negatively affects children’s academic achievement, or how it affects children’s self-regulation. Of course, it may be that changing schools simply disrupts learning, particularly if children miss school or experience a discontinuity in curricula. However, the mechanism may be more complex. Building on developmental psychology theory and research that poverty-related risks are stressful, and that stress is associated with lower self-regulation, we tested the hypothesis that school mobility, one poverty-related risk, would compromise children’s self-regulation. And, based on prior research demonstrating a strong association between children’s self-regulation and math skills, we hypothesized that lower self-regulation would negatively affect children’s math skills. Here we define self-regulation as higher-order cognitive abilities that involve attention, inhibitory control, and planning. The current paper only focused on math achievement and did not measure reading achievement for several reasons. First, there is an abundance of prior research finding strong associations between children’s self-regulation and math achievement. Second, neuroscience research supports similar underlying brain regions involved self-regulation and solving math problems. And third, learning and doing math requires children to use complex, effortful, higher-order processes that also underlie self-regulation abilities.

We used data from the Chicago School Readiness Project (CSPR) which was an intervention implemented in Head Start classrooms in areas of concentrated poverty in Chicago. The 602 children initially enrolled in CSRP were predominantly Black or Hispanic and living in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. Children were followed from ages 3 or 4 years old, through fourth grade. The sample for the current study is limited to 381 students for whom there was available data from Head Start through fourth grade. On average, children moved 1.38 times between Head Start and third grade. Forty children changed schools 3 or 4 times during this time period, which we defined as “frequent mobility”.

We found a linear “dosage” effect of school mobility predicting children’s fourth grade math achievement such that children scored 3.35 points lower on fourth grade math achievement tests for each time they changed schools between Head Start and third grade. This translates into 2.5 months of learning. Children who changed schools frequently, 3 or 4 times over the five years, demonstrated lower math achievement in fourth grade–they scored 10.48 points lower on the state standardized test, an equivalent of 8 months of learning. Children who changed schools frequently were also reported by their teachers to have lower self-regulation skills. These lower levels of self-regulation were found to partially explain why children who changed schools frequently scored lower on math achievement tests. Self-regulation explained about 45% of the association between changing schools frequently and math achievement in fourth grade. It is important to note, however, that we did not find a difference in math achievement or self-regulation between children who never moved and those that moved at least once time.

Taken together, the results of this study suggest that problems with memory, attention, and inhibitory control may result from the stress associated with changing schools frequently during early elementary school, which in turn negatively affects children’s math achievement. The potentially harmful effects of school mobility for young children, especially when it occurs frequently, highlights the need for interventions, policies, and practices to prevent school mobility and/or support children, families, and teachers when it does occur. School-based interventions to increase family engagement and satisfaction with the school by fostering positive relationships between parents and school staff are one promising strategy for preventing school mobility.

–By Allison Friedman-Krauss, Assistant Research Professor, NIEER




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