Student Achievement

Students in Poverty Show Lower Planning Skills, Study Finds

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 02, 2013 1 min read
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Besides having fewer academic resources, students in poverty may also be less able to plan and marshal the resources they have efficiently, making it harder for them to close achievement gaps with their wealthier peers, according to a study released this morning in the journal Child Development.

Cornell University researchers led by Gary Evans, a professor of human ecology, studied the planning skills of 1,500 3rd grade students at 10 sites around the country who were taking part in the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child-Care and Youth Development. Children’s planning skills were evaluated using a common puzzle game called “Tower of Hanoi,” in which the player is asked to recreate a stack of rings of decreasing size on one of two other poles, moving only one ring at a time and always keeping a smaller ring on top of a larger one. The puzzle requires students to plan their steps out in advance to avoid backing themselves into a corner, and being able to complete the puzzle quickly and with the minimal number of moves also requires focus and attention skills.

The researchers found that students’ ability to perform the planning puzzle in 3rd grade predicted their mathematics achievement and, to a lesser extent, their reading achievement in 5th grade, even after taking IQ into account. Moreover, the researchers found the greater the level of poverty students experienced in their early childhood, the worse they performed on the planning puzzle.

“Low-income families are bombarded with numerous psychological and physical risk factors: ... chaotic living environments, relentless financial pressure, familial disorder and instability, and social isolation,” the authors noted. “These circumstances could lead to an inability to focus on everyday tasks necessary for the development of planning skills.”

The study is just one of many digging into the long-term effects of early-childhood poverty. For more on what educators are doing to address the problems, see my earlier coverage.

Want more research news? Follow @SarahDSparks on Twitter for the latest studies, and join the conversation.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.