The link between family background and children’s outcomes has been researched in longitudinal studies of twins. These have suggested that both nature (genetic inheritance) and nurture (a child’s emotional and physical environment) play a part in children’s intellectual development.

A significant study by Feinstein (2003) shows that the effects of socio-economic status (SES) on children’s long-term educational achievement are apparent before they reach pre-school. Children with low SES who show promising early signs of cognitive development at age 22 months are predicted to fall behind their high SES peers by the age of 5. Feinstein’s work has been instrumental in providing the evidence for targeted interventions on the grounds of social justice.

It is important, however, to note that while some disadvantages (risk factors) have the potential to lead to underachievement, other factors (resilience factors) can provide an individual child with the resources to overcome them.

Life courses that appear very similar may lead to quite different learning outcomes .

Key risk factors

  • Poverty (low socio-economic status (SES)), financial insecurity and
    poor housing
  • Poor early care – inconsistency, over-control, abuse, neglect
  • Poor relationships with siblings and other children
  • Aspirations and attitudes towards education
  • Health issues – illness and disability
  • Lack of parental bonding and attachment

Key resilience factors

Research has identified that there are family behaviours that may be encouraged to promote resilient development or that are more protective in directly countering the risks to children. Two particular areas are:

  • Parental interest and involvement in early education – this means encouraging parents to have expectations and promoting self-efficacy – believing that you can achieve your dreams
  • Providing additional educational support through an enhanced Home Learning Environment (HLE) or supplementary schooling

Other resilience factors are:

  • Mother’s education – this has a strong and positive effect on children’s learning up to the age of 11 (it is also a strong predictor for social and behavioural outcomes at age 11)
  • Attending a high quality pre-school

Parents tend to provide a higher quality HLE for girls than for boys. The
EPPE study has shown that parents offer different parenting styles to boys and girls, which suggests that parental attitudes, together with responses to children’s developmental stages and interests, are more influential than material disadvantage.

Further evidence is reported from the Millenium Cohort Study (MCS) which found differences between how baby boys and baby girls were able to use communicative gestures at 9 months. Use the interaction below to compare your assumptions on this subject with the research findings.


Research indicates that functions like this develop as a direct response to the degree of stimulus and challenge that a child experiences. The resultant gap in language and literacy skills is apparent in national assessment results from the early years through to GCSE.

Kids playing football

Reflection points

Consider the following in light of your own service:

  • whether you have any activities in place to encourage family behaviours that can promote resilient development in children
  • whether you help parents with ideas on how to support their children at home, especially in relation to the differences that have been observed in HLEs for boys and girls.

Further Reading

Bradley, R.H., Corwyn, R.F., Burchinal, M. and Pipes-McAdoo, H. and Garcia-Coll, H. (2001) ‘The home environments of children in the United States Part II: relations with behavioural development through age thirteen’, Child development, vol 72, no 6, pp 1868–1886.

Cicchetti, D. and Rogosch, F.A. (1996) 'Equifinality and multifinality in developmental psychopathology', Development and psychopathology, vol 8, pp 597–600.

David, T., Goouch, K., Powell, S. and Abbott, L. (2003) Birth to three matters: a review of the literature (DfES research report 444), London: DfES (available at DCSF Website).

Dex, S. and Joshi, H. (eds) (2004) Millennium Cohort Study first survey: a user's guide to initial findings, London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies (available at the Centre for Longitudial Studies).

Feinstein, L. (2003) ‘Very early cognitive evidence’, Centre piece, Summer, pp 24–30, London: London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance (available at the Centre for Economic Performance website).

Harvard Family Research Project (2006) Family involvement promotes school success for every child of every age (research brief: family involvement makes a difference in school success), Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard Family Research Project.

Heinicke, C.M., Fineman, N.R., Ponce, V.A. and Guthrie, D. (2001) 'Relationship based intervention with at-risk mothers: outcome in the second year of life', Infant mental health journal, vol 22, no 4, pp 431–462.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network (2004) 'Multiple pathways to early academic achievement', Harvard educational review, vol 74, no 1, pp 1–29.

O'Connor, T.G. and Scott, S.B.C. (2007) Parenting and outcomes for children, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Sidebotham, P., Heron, J. and Golding, J. (2002) 'Child maltreatment in the 'Children o the Nineties': deprivation, class and social networks', Child abuse & neglect, vol 26, no 12, pp 1243–1259.

Siraj-Blatchford, I. and Sammons, P. (2004) ‘Social mobility: the role of pre-schools and parents, evidence from the UK – DfES funded EPPE study’, paper given at HM Treasury Conference on Social Mobility, London, 30 March.

Siraj-Blatchford, I., Siraj-Blatchford, J., Taggart, B., Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P. and Hunt, S. (2007) How low SES families support children's learning in the home: promoting equality in the early years (part 3). The EPPE 3–11 Research Team promoting equality in the early years: report to the Equalities Review, London: The Cabinet Office.

Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj–Blatchford, I. and Taggart, B. (2008a) The Effective Pre–School and Primary Education (EPPE 3–11) project: final report. A longitudinal study funded by the DCSF, London: DCSF/Institute of Education, University of London.

NICHD 2004; O’Connor and Scott 2007.

Feinstein 2003 p 11; Knowledge Review 2 p 12.

Cicchetti and Rogosch 1996.

Sidebotham et al 2002.

Bradley et al 2001.

Harvard Family Research Project 2006; Siraj-Blatchford et al 2007.

Heinicke et al 2001.

Harvard Family Research Project 2006; Siraj-Blatchford et al 2007.

What parents do is therefore vitally important and can counteract other disadvantages, particularly during the pre-school period.

For this reason pre-school and school settings that do not promote parent support and positive HLEs are considered to be missing an important element in raising achievement

and enhancing social/behavioural development over the longer term.

Siraj-Blatchford et al 2007; Sylva et al 2008a.

Siraj-Blatchford et al 2007.

Sylva et al 2008.

Siraj-Blatchford and Sammons 2004.

Dex and Joshi 2004.

David et al 2003.