Family risk factors play big role in language and cognitive development

A new study from researchers at the University of Manitoba foundfamily risk factors were the driver of language and cognitive development outcomes in kindergarten .

The study, authored by Marni Brownell and colleagues, used population-level administrative data for a group of Manitoba children (8,983) to see which factors were most associated with language and cognitive development in kindergarten, as measured by the EDI.

The authors looked at four factors they predicted would relate to language and cognitive development outcomes.

  • Maternal health behaviours during the prenatal period
    • whether the mother smoked, drank, or did drugs during pregnancy
    • whether the mother received no prenatal care prior to the sixth month of pregnancy
  • Child’s health at birth
    • low birthweight
    • preterm birth
    • long birth stay (six or more days in hospital)
    • stay in intensive care (three or more days)
  • Family risk
    • any involvement with child welfare services up to the child’s fourth birthday
    • low income
    • mother was a teen at her first birth
    • family with four or more children
    • maternal depression up to the child’s fourth birthday
  • Neighbourhood socioeconomic status (SES)
    • unemployment
    • low average household income
    • no high school completion

The authors controlled for age, sex, presence of intellectual disability, and major illness in childhood, to better understand the effects of their four primary factors.

What did they find?

When the researchers examined all the predictive variables together, family risk factors emerged as the key driver of language and cognitive development outcomes in kindergarten. In turn, family risk factors were strongly influenced by neighbourhood SES.

What does it mean?

The results suggest focusing more resources on reducing family risk factors may be best for improving language and cognitive development outcomes at a population level. Children spend a great deal of time with their families, so it may be unrealistic to expect interventions to have lasting impacts if they don’t also involve families. Including home visits as a part of interventions may help improve parenting abilities and help reinforce skills learned during interventions.

The results of the study also show that family risk factors are strongly influenced by neighbourhood SES. That means focusing on individual families without addressing the larger social factors that contribute to family challenges may also limit the effectiveness of interventions. Interventions need to exist within a framework of policies and programs that ease the effects of low SES or improve SES itself. Simply put, families need to be supported by the broader communities in which they live.