What’s The Most Determinantal Factor Blocking Children’s Developmental Growth?
It’s poverty, plain and tested. Struggling children will always come up short when compared to their non-struggling counterparts.
The developmental process of theory of mind (TOM) is a delicate one; numerous factors can hinder the eventual understanding that one has feelings, desires, and beliefs that differ from other people's desires and feelings (Lillard, 2007). Furthermore, the developmental process is one that can be easily disrupted. There are many circumstances under which theory of mind and its cohorts can experience delays, from limited cognitive abilities from birth, such as autism or other cognitive disorders (Happé, & Frith, 2006).
However, there are also environmental factors that can hurt the theory of mind development. While deviances in nature, such as an initial lack of certain cognitive abilities, can disrupt eye gaze or language or false belief understanding, which then, in turn, can delay TOM development, nurture can do the same. And one of the more nature-based, environmental factors that show a significant delay in theory of mind understanding is low socioeconomic status (SES).
Socioeconomic status is, put, the social standing of a person. While socioeconomic status is most often associated with financial resources or lack there-of, socioeconomic status is also defined by the education and the occupation of both the person in question and the background of their family (Barnett, 1998).
Furthermore, low SES does not necessarily translate into complete deprivation. Poverty can exist in two-parent, first-world homes, and while it is completely detrimental to those who live there, it does not always mean there is a complete lack of access to food, education, and housing. To concentrate on low SES itself instead of complete destitution and differentiate between the latter and the former, the overview of literature from this point on will focus only on studies that look at children from low SES statuses who were not raised in extraordinary circumstances such as war zones or orphanages where other severe factors besides poverty come into play.
Yet, even by itself, low socioeconomic status is often considered one of the most harmful influences on a child’s development (Mcloyd, 1998); (Barnett, 1998). With that in mind, there should be no surprise that a child who grows up in a low socioeconomic status background will experience significant delays to their theory of mind. Since living in a low SES environment prevents one from accessing any potential resources that might enhance cognitive development — such as quality daycare, one-on-one time with adults, or proper schooling (Lillard, 2007). any delays attributed to low SES on TOM development are caused by insignificant nurture.
On the same note, there are plenty of studies that suggest that, initially, there are no cognitive differences between young children and infants from both low and high SES backgrounds (Barnett, 1998); only when one is repeatedly exposed and in an inadequate environment do cognitive differences eventually emerge (Lupien, S. J., King, S., Meaney, M. J., & McEwen, 2001).
To assume that the low SES children are genetically inferior due to any “natural” mental deficiencies is dangerous and detrimental to their development; by assuming, so it lessens the responsibility society has to help low SES children and downplays the numerous positive effects environmental change has on their development (Capron, & Duyme, 1989).
Researchers found that while heritability of I.Q was often acknowledged as accounting for a large part of ones’ intelligence, an inadequate environment can severely decrease any initial high intelligence over time (Turkheimer, et al., 2003). Even more so, the same study found that an initial lack of intelligence can be remedied, in part, by growing up in an adequate, high SES environment.
To put it simply, children who started smart in a lacking low SES environment experienced a lifelong slide downwards in cognitive abilities. In contrast, children who initially lacked the same instinctual intelligence gained it when given the full resources of a high SES environment (Turkheimer, et al., 2003).
There were not many delays in the early landmarks for the theory of mind. The findings or lack thereof added to the argument that it is through nurture that low SES affects a child’s cognitive development; very young children in low SES homes had not yet lived in their low SES environments long enough to be significantly affected by inadequate resources. However, Cates et al. (2012) did find some delays in eye gaze at infants when tracking the infant’s eye gaze in response to actions from another person from low SES backgrounds at around 12 months. Furthermore, the delays in eye gaze/tracking accurately predicted later delays in both interaction styles and language usage at 24 months of age.
Yet the results from this study stood in contrast to both a study by Hobson (2004) and a study by Amso, Ackerman, Nussenbaum, & Markant (2013), which found an infant’s’ ability to follow eye gaze did not necessarily correlate with low SES. And ultimately, Cates et al. (2012) concluded that eye gaze was affected by the lack of cognitive stimulation in the homes of the low SES children in contrast to their higher class peers and not any initial lack of eye-tracking ability the part of the children.
While children would experience delays in eye gaze and eventual language development in the study by Cates et al. (2012), the delays could be mitigated by parents spending additional time with their infants. The differences between the two findings were not clearly stated. However, the suggested solution by Cates et al. (2012) hints that the low SES families from that study did not spend as much time with their children interacting as the other families surveyed in the other studies on eye gaze.
Interestingly enough, there was not a large correlation between delays found between imitation or goal intentionality and low SES. However, the two are usually seen later in development than following eye gaze. Imitation, which is often defined as the ability to copy another’s actions, is often considered an innate ability, one that can appear as a reflex in newborns (Metlzoff & Decety, 2003).
Furthermore, infants often imitate their caregivers to learn how to perform key actions (Meltzoff & Decety, 2003). Thus, one could hypothesize that in a low SES home, the infant would be around their primary caregiver for a shorter amount of time (due to the caregiver having to work longer hours or two jobs, etc.), which would, in turn, hinder the infant’s abilities to imitate.
However, there were no imitation delays that correlated in low SES infants who grew up without severe deprivation. That aside, it is also worth noting that there was very little literature that directly tackled the potential correlation between imitation and low SES: studies that found delays in infant imitation in regards to other factors accounted for low SES and deemed it an insignificant factor in the ability to imitate another person (Field, 1992) properly.
It’s still worth noting some of the environmental factors that were found to significantly hinder an infant’s ability to imitate and react to another person before 12 months (Hobson, et al., 2004). One of these factors was mother intrusiveness, which was found to have a higher correlation with low-SES families; at the same time, low SES was not the only factor that contributed to the parenting style and, by extension, was found not to be particularly significant for delays in goal communication in young infants (Hobson, et al., 2004). Additionally, there were relatively few delays in understanding goal intentionality in infants (Klein, 1992).
One study did find a difference in communication initiations between twenty-month-old infants from low SES and middle SES backgrounds. The researchers noted that the gap between the performances of different goal functionality between the two classes of infants could be closed if childcare quality was increased (O’Connell & Farran, 1982).
There were also almost no relevant articles on the correlation between joint attention ability and low SES children, which indicated a lack of research between the former and the latter. That aside, joint attention is often described as an infant's ability to respond to a social cue (Meins., Leekam., Arnott., Fernyhough., Vittorini., Parkinson., & Turner. 2011).
As low SES children experienced delays in following the eyes of adults (Cates, et al. 2008) due to insignificant attention, it seems unlikely that low SES families who do not give their children proper nurturance when they are developing eye gazing abilities would change their parenting styles when it comes time for joint attention abilities to develop.
Joint attention often requires social interaction to develop normally (Meins et al., 2011). As growing up in a low SES environment decreases the chance of low SES children to socialize normally, from a decrease in daycare quality (Lillard, 2007). to an overall decrease in one-on-one time spent with adults (Harnish, Dodge., & Valente, 1995), it can be assumed that, if new research were done on the correlation, due to their insignificant environmental resources low SES children would experience some delays in joint attention behaviors.
By the time pretense begins to emerge, the large differences between children from higher SES backgrounds and children from lower SES backgrounds are clear. Children from higher SES backgrounds engaged in far more joint pretend to play episodes than their low SES counterparts (Fantuzzo, et al. 1995).
When the low SES children were able to engage in pretense, their pretend play lacked the intricate social interactions of the higher SES children, with the low SES children having fewer play partners over the same amount of time than high SES children, as well as far less symbolic play than the higher SES children engaged in.
Ultimately Fantuzzo et al. (1995) found that the higher the SES status a child came from, the more likely their pretend play was to have higher quality and quantity. Lillard (2007) also noted that children from lower SES statuses lagged behind their higher SES counterparts in pretend play due to environmental factors, such as lesser quality childcare. This could translate into detrimental factors to pretense, such as overcrowding and stricter caregivers (Doyle, Ceschin, Tessier, & Doehring, 1991).
In turn, having lower-quality childcare reduced the amount of joint pretend play children could engage in, which, Lillard argued, was essential for mind development theory. It allowed children to learn to think beyond themselves, anticipating their playmates' moves and desires to keep a successful game going.
Finally, an observational study of children playing together in low and high SES classrooms found that not only did the high SES children have better quality and longer duration play episodes, but they used more varied language, which could, in turn, help them to support joint pretense as better language ability allowed them to communicate more successfully with their peers (Doyle, et al., 1991).
The correlation between pretense and language was previously touched upon by Doyle, et al. (1991) who noted that language skills that were negatively affected by a low SES environment could, in turn, impact pretend play. Increased language skills were also found to have a positive correlation with pretense (Mccyold, 1982) and a separate positive correlation with SES.
Further, language delays were found to affect children's pretense levels, even when low SES was accounted for (Mccloyd, 1982). The delays in both were found to carry over to TOM development delays as poor language ability, and a lack of joint pretense delays the socialization that is key to understanding TOM (Doyle, et al., 1991).
To expand on that, language allows a person to successfully communicate with another person and the tools to understand them. At the same time, pretense can be, as aforementioned, a particular exercise in perspective-taking.
Subpar performance in either aspect will affect theory of mind by decreasing a child’s ability to socialize successfully, which is, of course, essential in understanding that other people have desires and wants other than one’s own. Burchinal et al. (2008) further expand on the correlation between low SES and a lack of language ability, independent of pretense. They found that the higher the quality of child care a child received, the higher the child scored on language ability tests. Low SES children experienced the opposite results.
The discrepancy between the high SES children and the low SES children was suggested to be due to the latter's family’s lack of financial resources, inability to afford quality childcare, which the same article pointed out was particularly a problem because many parents from low SES backgrounds work full- time. Thus, the children are left in subpar childcare programs, where the ratio of children to adults is severely lopsided, and the children themselves get little attention. Due to this, they do not engage in conversation with people who are adept at it (adults) and their language skills. By extension, their overall socialization, which is key in developing TOM on time, suffered.
Similarly, delays in false-belief understanding, a key precursor in TOM, were found in low SES children (Shatz, Diesendrunk, Martinez-Beck, & Akar, D., 2003). It was suggested that one of the reasons for the lack of false belief understanding was due to decreased language ability in children from low SES backgrounds (Shatz, et al., 2003).
The effect of language on false belief understanding is significant because the eventual delay in the latter shows how different environmental factors affected by low SES (such as language) can have a ripple effect over different types of developmental landmarks TOM. Outside of language ability, a false-belief understanding was also found to negatively correlate with maltreatment, which is often found at higher rates in low SES populations than in the more general population (Tarullo, Bruce & Gunnar, 2007).
Interestingly enough, the children from low SES families who were not maltreated did not experience the significant delays in false belief understanding that the maltreated children from low SES backgrounds did.
Nutrition deficiencies, which are often associated with the inadequate diets provided by low SES homes, also seemed to affect timely false-belief understanding (Tarullo, Bruce & Gunnar, 2007). These potential hindrances to false-belief understanding are particularly significant as both nutrition and maltreatment are environmental factors that can be easily corrected with small lifestyle changes. Similarly, the negative effect that reduced language abilities had on false-belief understanding can also be corrected with increases of the spoken word to increase overall language ability (Shatz, et al., 2003) and allow TOM to develop on time.
By adulthood, even for those from meager SES backgrounds, the theory of mind understanding has, barring serious trauma, fully developed. Yet, there are still neurocognitive processes associated with TOM deeply delayed from having grown up in a low SES home (Raver, Cybele, Blair, Clancy & Willoughby, 2013).
For instance, when one grows up in a low SES home, they are likely to experience significant delays from about three years old in executive function (Blair & Razza, 2007). These delays often carry on to adulthood. Executive function, which is often defined as working memory and the ability to shift attention, experiences delays across associated neural systems when the systems develop in a low SES environment (Blair & Razza, 2007).
This was further suggested due to the lack of cognitive stimulation that low SES children received, due to inattention as they grew up. Carlson and Moses (2001) also found that false belief understanding is highly correlated with some aspects of executive function, specifically the ability to control one’s emotions.
The two are obviously interrelated; inhibitory control can affect emotional and social regulation, which affects the quickness and accuracy at which theory of mind understanding develops as proper socialization is important for TOM understanding. Most explicitly, Blair & Razza (2007) found that when an executive function is hindered, there are also slight delays in false-belief understanding. The inverse also holds.
Though the effect of low SES on TOM development may seem dire, the fact that all the gaps seen in TOM development in low SES children were caused by inadequate nurture is somewhat promising: unlike the previously mentioned other potential hindrances to TOM, such as ASD disorders, it is relatively easy to enhance an environment to increase cognitive performance (Hughes, Jaffee, Happé, Taylor, Caspi, & Moffitt, 2005).
Throughout the literature on low SES development, researchers noted that almost all of the negative effects of low SES on TOM development, which resulted in an overall delayed understanding, could be mitigated if the environmental factors were changed (Fantuzzo et al., 1995), (Gottschling-Lang, Franze, & Hoffmann, 2013). Researchers cited everything from increased cognitive stimulation, extended play periods and socialization, and more physical activity ways to improve theory of mind and more general abilities in young, low SES children (Gottschling-Lang, et al., 2013); (Hughes, et al., 2005).
This did not necessarily include the children living in higher SES households or moving to families with better educations or backgrounds; all the implementation of the suggested techniques would take was extra time on the part of another party and small enhancements in resources on a day to day basis. While the effects of low SES on TOM development are not ideal, it is through early intervention methods that adults can help young infants and children foster their cognitive abilities. In all of the research, there was nothing to suggest the children lacked in the first place.