Posted on June 30, 2016

Researchers Examine Family Income and Children’s Non-Cognitive Skills

Shankar Vedantam, NPR, June 30, 2016


You know, when we think about disparities in American education, we think about things like race, gender. There is also income, which is one of the most persistent disparities. Children from more affluent families do better in school on average than children from poor families. And there’s new social science research exploring why this is the case. To talk about it, I’m joined by NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. Hey, Shankar.


GREENE: So dig into this research for us. What are we learning here?

VEDANTAM: Well, we’ve known for a very long time that family income really matters. This could be because schools in richer neighborhoods are better schools. But it could also be that rich parents are able to give their children more learning opportunities outside of school. I was speaking with the economist Barbara Wulf. She’s at the University of Wisconsin. Along with Jason Fletcher, she recently decided to explore another explanation. She asked if income disparities might also be linked to disparities in what are sometimes called non-cognitive skills. Many researchers think that it’s these skills that undergird not just academic performance in school but a host of other abilities later in life, including in the workplace. Here’s Wulf.

BARBARA WULF: When we think about who is a good employee and who’s likely to succeed in the workplace, you hear a lot of attention paid to these what I’ll call non-cognitive skills. So they pay attention, they are persistent, they are eager. So they have a set of characteristics that make them good employees.


VEDANTAM: Wulf and Fletcher analyzed data from a national survey, David, that tracked children from kindergarten through the fifth grade. The survey data allowed the researchers to track the effects of family income on what parents and teachers were reporting about these children as they went through elementary school. The researchers find there’s a very strong correlation between family income and these non-cognitive skills. In other words, when it comes to being cooperative or dealing with conflict productively, children from wealthier families on average seem to have more of these skills than children from poorer families.


VEDANTAM: Yes. And the question of course is why is this happening? Why are children from richer families demonstrating more of these skills? The most obvious explanation, David, is that poverty creates stresses in people’s lives. If you have Mom or Dad working two jobs to make ends meet, it’s going to be harder for Mom and Dad to be spending time helping children develop these kinds of non-cognitive skills.


WULF: So if we were to have individuals who attend schools where other children are doing better, they themselves would be likely to do better.


GREENE: That is Shankar Vedantam. He is NPR’s social science correspondent. He’s also the host of a new podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It is called Hidden Brain.