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Family hardship, family instability, and cognitive development
  1. Ingrid Schoon1,
  2. Elizabeth Jones2,
  3. Helen Cheng1,
  4. Barbara Maughan3
  1. 1Department of Quantitative Social Science, Institute of Education, University of London, London, UK
  2. 2Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education, University of London, London, UK
  3. 3MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, King's College London, Institute of Psychiatry, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Professor Ingrid Schoon, Institute of Education, University of London, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL, UK; i.schoon{at}


Background Associations between the characteristics of the family environment, in particular poverty and family structure, and cognitive development are well established, yet little is known about the role of timing and accumulation of risk in early childhood. The aim of this paper is to assess the associations between income poverty, family instability and cognitive development in early childhood. In particular, it tests the relative role of family economic hardship compared with family instability in affecting cognitive functioning at the age of 5 years.

Methods The study draws on data from the UK Millennium Cohort, linking data collected in infancy, age 3, and age 5 years. Cognitive ability was directly assessed at age 5 years with the British Ability Scales. Using regression models we examine associations between persistent income poverty, family transitions, and children's cognitive ability, controlling for family demographics and housing conditions, as well as child characteristics.

Results The findings suggest that the experience of persistent economic hardship as well as very early poverty undermines cognitive functioning at 5 years of age. Family instability shows no significant association with cognitive functioning after controlling for family poverty, family demographics, housing and a set of control variables indicating child characteristics.

Conclusions Persistent poverty is a crucial risk factor undermining children's cognitive development—more so than family instability.

  • Child development
  • cognitive problems
  • early cognitive development
  • family transitions
  • longitudinal data analysis
  • longitudinal follow-up study
  • poverty

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  • Those who carried out the original collection of the data bear no responsibility for its further analysis and interpretation.

  • Funding The analysis and writing of this article were supported by grants from the Nuffield Foundation and the Welcome Trust. BM is supported by the Medical Research Council. Data from the Cohort Studies were supplied by the ESRC Data Archive.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Ethics approval This study involves secondary analysis of publicly available data. Ethics approval for data collection was obtained from the South West and London Multi-Centre Research Ethics Committees in the UK.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.