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      Do early life cognitive ability and self-regulation skills explain socio-economic inequalities in academic achievement? An effect decomposition analysis in UK and Australian cohorts


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          Socio-economic inequalities in academic achievement emerge early in life and are observed across the globe. Cognitive ability and “non-cognitive” attributes (such as self-regulation) are the focus of many early years’ interventions. Despite this, little research has compared the contributions of early cognitive and self-regulation abilities as separate pathways to inequalities in academic achievement. We examined this in two nationally representative cohorts in the UK (Millennium Cohort Study, n = 11,168; 61% original cohort) and Australia (LSAC, n = 3028; 59% original cohort).

          An effect decomposition method was used to examine the pathways from socio-economic disadvantage (in infancy) to two academic outcomes: ‘low’ maths and literacy scores (based on bottom quintile) at age 7–9 years. Risk ratios (RRs, and bootstrap 95% confidence intervals) were estimated with binary regression for each pathway of interest: the ‘direct effect’ of socio-economic disadvantage on academic achievement (not acting through self-regulation and cognitive ability in early childhood), and the ‘indirect effects’ of socio-economic disadvantage acting via self-regulation and cognitive ability (separately). Analyses were adjusted for baseline and intermediate confounding.

          Children from less advantaged families were up to twice as likely to be in the lowest quintile of maths and literacy scores. Around two-thirds of this elevated risk was ‘direct’ and the majority of the remainder was mediated by early cognitive ability and not self-regulation. For example in LSAC: the RR for the direct pathway from socio-economic disadvantage to poor maths scores was 1.46 (95% CI: 1.17–1.79). The indirect effect of socio-economic disadvantage through cognitive ability (RR = 1.13 [1.06–1.22]) was larger than the indirect effect through self-regulation (1.05 [1.01–1.11]). Similar patterns were observed for both outcomes and in both cohorts.

          Policies to alleviate social inequality (e.g. child poverty reduction) remain important for closing the academic achievement gap. Early interventions to improve cognitive ability (rather than self-regulation) also hold potential for reducing inequalities in children's academic outcomes.


          • We decomposed pathways from socio-economic disadvantage to mid-childhood academic ability.

          • 2/3 effect of socio-economic disadvantage was direct (not through cognitive ability or self-regulation).

          • The indirect effect was mainly through cognitive ability.

          • Early interventions to improve cognitive ability hold potential.

          • But policies to alleviate social inequality remain essential for inequality reduction.

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          Most cited references45

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          Short screening scales to monitor population prevalences and trends in non-specific psychological distress

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            Psychometric properties of the strengths and difficulties questionnaire.

            To describe the psychometric properties of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ), a brief measure of the prosocial behavior and psychopathology of 3-16-year-olds that can be completed by parents, teachers, or youths. A nationwide epidemiological sample of 10,438 British 5-15-year-olds obtained SDQs from 96% of parents, 70% of teachers, and 91% of 11-15-year-olds. Blind to the SDQ findings, all subjects were also assigned DSM-IVdiagnoses based on a clinical review of detailed interview measures. The predicted five-factor structure (emotional, conduct, hyperactivity-inattention, peer, prosocial) was confirmed. Internalizing and externalizing scales were relatively "uncontaminated" by one another. Reliability was generally satisfactory, whether judged by internal consistency (mean Cronbach a: .73), cross-informant correlation (mean: 0.34), or retest stability after 4 to 6 months (mean: 0.62). SDQ scores above the 90th percentile predicted a substantially raised probability of independently diagnosed psychiatric disorders (mean odds ratio: 15.7 for parent scales, 15.2 for teacher scales, 6.2 for youth scales). The reliability and validity of the SDQ make it a useful brief measure of the adjustment and psychopathology of children and adolescents.
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              Cohort Profile: The ‘Children of the 90s’—the index offspring of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children

              The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) is a transgenerational prospective observational study investigating influences on health and development across the life course. It considers multiple genetic, epigenetic, biological, psychological, social and other environmental exposures in relation to a similarly diverse range of health, social and developmental outcomes. Recruitment sought to enrol pregnant women in the Bristol area of the UK during 1990–92; this was extended to include additional children eligible using the original enrolment definition up to the age of 18 years. The children from 14 541 pregnancies were recruited in 1990–92, increasing to 15 247 pregnancies by the age of 18 years. This cohort profile describes the index children of these pregnancies. Follow-up includes 59 questionnaires (4 weeks–18 years of age) and 9 clinical assessment visits (7–17 years of age). The resource comprises a wide range of phenotypic and environmental measures in addition to biological samples, genetic (DNA on 11 343 children, genome-wide data on 8365 children, complete genome sequencing on 2000 children) and epigenetic (methylation sampling on 1000 children) information and linkage to health and administrative records. Data access is described in this article and is currently set up as a supported access resource. To date, over 700 peer-reviewed articles have been published using ALSPAC data.

                Author and article information

                Soc Sci Med
                Soc Sci Med
                Social Science & Medicine (1982)
                1 September 2016
                September 2016
                : 165
                : 108-118
                [a ]School of Population Health, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia
                [b ]Population, Policy and Practice, UCL Institute of Child Health, University College London, London, United Kingdom
                [c ]School of Social and Community Medicine, University of Bristol, United Kingdom
                Author notes
                []Corresponding author. 30 Guilford Street, London, WC1N 1EH, United Kingdom.30 Guilford StreetLondonWC1N 1EHUnited Kingdom anna.pearce@ 123456ucl.ac.uk

                For AP’s main affiliation see ‘b’.

                © 2016 The Authors

                This is an open access article under the CC BY license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).

                : 19 April 2016
                : 28 June 2016
                : 17 July 2016

                Health & Social care
                socio-economic inequalities,early childhood,early intervention,academic achievement,uk millennium cohort study,longitudinal study of australian children,avon longitudinal study of parents and their children


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