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Psychological Theories on Relationship Between Socio-economic Status and Educational Outcomes

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 4805 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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 ‘how do psychological theories and processes offer explanations for the relationship between socio-economic status and educational outcomes, as reported by OECD (2017)?’.


Socio-economic status (SES) is “ related to the differences between groups of people caused mainly by their financial situation” (Cambridge Dictionary, 2019). It is clear from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2017 report, that there is a positive correlation between SES and educational outcomes. However, in some countries the strength of this correlation differs: at one end of the scale in Hungary variance in SES predicts around 40% of the variance while in Iceland and Norway the figure is around 5% (OECD, 2017). This leads us to consider the role of other factors that may impact on educational performance.

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Sameroff (1987) states that while SES can determine a number of risk factors, developmental outcomes for children are determined by multiple factors, which include but are not solely determined by SES. Transactional models such as Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model (Montgomery et al., 2018) argues that other contributing factors determine the strength of that correlation. Sameroff (1987) found these factors included family, stressful life events, coping skills of parents, and parents’ mental health, as well as the influences of the cultural code and society around the child. In exploring the psychological processes (within attachment, emotion and representation) that mediate the relationship between SES and educational outcomes such transactional models also suggest that the child can affect the environment as well as the environment affecting the child (Sameroff, 1987). Furthermore, Sameroff (1987) highlights that high educational achievement will not necessarily improve a child’s life chances as societal factors will determine what routes are open, citing Bronfenbrenner’s argument for a deeper analysis of the ecological environment (Montgomery et al., 2018).

Attachment plays a key role in a child’s adaptation to and success in education. From early childhood, attachment formation is characterised by the interactions between parents and child and the mind-mindedness of the parent (Oates, 2018) where the parent is able to accurately conclude what the child may be thinking and respond to it. Here SES may predict the availability of the parents: parents may be anxious due to poverty, or unavailable due to work schedules. Attachment formation may be hindered and the child may not begin to learn early enough that other people have different perspectives from their own (Oates, 2018). Theory of mind is significant in child development as it contributes to the child’s intellectual and cognitive ability (Gjersoe, 2018).

However, the development of a secure attachment does not invariably result in good educational outcomes, nor is it predetermined that an insecure attachment will mean that the child will perform poorly in education. Oates’s (2018) meta-analysis estimated that only one-third of attachment security was due to maternal sensitivity, highlighting that other factors including mind-mindedness and emotional responsiveness have effects on attachment security, with further studies showing that these other factors can produce additive effects on poorer attachment outcomes. There is not a simple positive correlation between educational outcomes, attachment and SES and the impact of these other mediating factors will differ between social and cultural contexts. Sameroff (1987) argues that development is a product of the continuous dynamic interactions between the child and the experience provided by his or her family and social context and explores how it is not just the behaviours of the mother towards the child that determine attachment but the effect that the child has on the mother, highlighting that interventions are possible to change these interactions. For example maternal attitudes to a colicky, crying or disabled baby are open to being reframed. Attachment is not a fixed state but malleable and therefore cannot offer a simple explanation for a cause and effect link between SES and educational outcomes.

Nevertheless, early attachment characteristics do appear to predict school adjustment because of the emotional and psychological impact of separation between parent and child (Shmueli-Goetz, 2016). A child’s performance in school may be hindered by insecure attachment and Lewis et al. (1984, cited in Shmueli-Goetz, 2016) suggest consequences may be low self-esteem and behavioural problems. Starting school is also when children begin to develop peer social groups and attachment classification seem to correlate with social competence. Groh et al. (2014, cited in Shmueli-Goetz, 2016) reviewed 80 independent samples comprising 4,441 children in total. This study indicated that those with a secure attachment showed higher level of social competence compared with those who were insecure. However, children’s peers will often be determined by SES factors. As the study on Sociometry outlines (Open University, 2018) children’s social groups can determine the development of their social skills and may predict their educational outcomes as they move into secondary school.

Attachment impacts educational achievement beyond the early years. In adolescence children will seek out their peers for reassurance and guidance. With better social relationships, particularly in education, they will therefore potentially find the school environment a secure place that offers support and opportunity, resulting in better educational outcomes. In addition to this, in difficult times those with a secure attachment will be better able to manage their own emotions and seek assistance from their parents and peers: Sroufe (2005, as cited in Barrett, 2018) showed that 15-year olds who were securely attached were more independent and competent with peers as well as more likely to be in leadership positions. If we consider these findings in relation to what the OECD (2017) report labels as “collaborative problem solving” when measuring educational outcomes, we can see how the relationship between attachment and school performance can be closely linked. Skills and characteristics such as maintaining social relationships, having high self-esteem or self-efficacy can be linked to the ability to learn more effectively.

However, Shmueli-Goetz (2018) argues strongly that attachment classification is not fixed and can change throughout development. The SES of a child and its family could change over time due to changes in parental occupation or a house move to a disadvantaged location with consequences for a child’s educational outcomes if schooling, support for education or peer relationships change. This could also impact on the child’s perception of themselves and their environment or their behaviour, resulting in a change in attachment classifications from secure to insecure. Again, cause and effect are not fixed: these environmental factors may not cause attachment changes if there are continuities in the quality in parenting, resulting in a stable internal model of the self.

Emotion knowledge (Kerawalla, 2018) , the ability to think about one’s own emotions and those of others, is another psychological factor that plays a part in children’s school readiness and educational achievement (Denham et al., 2012, cited in Kerawalla, 2018). From early childhood there is emotional reciprocity between child and mother. Through these emotional exchanges, infants develop awareness of their own emotional state and the emotional state of others which contributes to the development of theory of mind. According to research by Ladd et al. (1997, cited in Kerawalla, 2018), initial relationships with peers and teachers support a child’s academic achievement and a lack of emotion knowledge can result in aggression and a disinterest in learning (Denham et al., 2012 as cited in Kerawalla, (2018). Emotion knowledge supports building relationships as it helps us to tell stories, understand humour and lies and also supports academic performance as it aids learning and problem solving, as seen in Talk Factory (Kerawalla et al., 2013, cited in Open University, 2018), where children listen to each other’s points of view, discuss and indirectly collaboratively problem solve. The OECD (2017) report uses “collaborative problem solving” as a marker to measure educational outcomes, and here, as with attachment, we can link emotion knowledge to achievement.

It is difficult to determine what factors predict emotion knowledge (Kerawalla, 2018) due to the variety of environments in which children grow up and therefore it is considered culture-specific rather than correlated to SES. Garner and Waajid (2008, cited Kerawalla, 2018) link children who live in poverty to poorly developed emotion knowledge. However, Smith and Thelen, (2003, cited in Kerawalla, 2018) illustrate that infants, themselves complex, are embedded in complex environments made up of the interactions between the child and their family as well as broader cultural norms. There is no single factor promoting emotion knowledge but rather multiple factors: although educational outcomes do correlate with SES, the strength of that correlation can be dependent on the development of the child’s emotion knowledge in interactions with their different and complex environments. As cited in McLoyd, (1998), the association between low SES and emotional development is potentially a consequence of harsh, inconsistent parenting and elevated exposure to acute and chronic stressors.

Nevertheless, when considering the impact that environmental factors may have on a child’s emotional development, Lavelli and Fogel, (2005, cited in Kerawalla, 2018) noted that infants of depressed mothers will avert their gaze in order to regulate their own arousal levels. Maternal depression is strongly associated with poverty and the mother’s level of education, meaning SES may impact emotion knowledge (Kerawalla, 2018) and, as highlighted earlier, this could result in affected children struggling to manage future relationships and academic competence (Kerawalla, 2018).

Emotional resilience is linked to success in school. School is a stressful time which is made increasingly stressful through the development from middle childhood. In addition to this adolescents are more likely to take risks in the presence of their peers and are adjusting to changes brought on by puberty. If these young people are unable to manage their emotions, there is the risk of their behaviour spiralling and the opportunity for learning becoming unattractive as cited in (Wellens, 2018). However, this is not an inevitable outcome, as there are factors within their environment and family system that may mitigate these outcomes and while school life may test a child’s emotional resilience it also plays a part in developing it (Montgomery et al., 2018). There will be some children who have experienced a range of risk factors due to their SES who are protected by the development of resilience, while for others without the resilience the same risk factors may have a more damaging effect, resulting in them feeling unprepared for school or unravelling their emotions, impacting on school performance. (Montgomery et al., 2018). Problem behaviour is dynamic and a product of relationship history with parents and peers, which is not fixed, as established earlier. In addition to this SES, environment and family systems may be impacted by life changes in parental occupation or relocation to a more disadvantaged area (Wellens, 2018).

Emotional resilience appears to be correlated more to attachment than to SES. A longitudinal study by Werner and Smith (1955, cited in Montgomery et al., 2018) focused on the psychological and physical progress of low SES babies in Hawaii. The study explored the relationship between the child’s resilience and risk factors including poor health, poverty, resulting in poor housing as well as low parental education. Some of the children developed behavioural and learning problems but not all and the most resilient children also evidenced a secure attachment. This secure attachment provided a sound base from which infants could begin to develop self-help skills and autonomy. Research establishes therefore that transactional processes between child and their environment can determine the strength of a child’s resilience and hence impact successes in educational performance, despite risks factors such as low SES. However SES may be seen as a protective factor which can mitigate a child’s low resilience as if the child comes from a more affluent home they may be less vulnerable than those in poorer conditions. It is important to remember the complex interplay between factors that determine resilience and to bear in mind that this is a transactional process that is not fixed and that therefore educational success or failure is not predetermined (Montgomery et al, 2018).

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A further psychological factor that may play a role in mediating the influence of SES on educational achievement is representation.From early childhood children begin to make sense of the world around them through building up mental representations from their environment. These representations develop into meta-representations, part of theory of mind (Gjersoe, 2018). These representations will necessarily vary across countries and cultures and could be impacted by SES. Vygotsky (1962, cited in Sheehy & Nunes, 2018) also believed that children’s cognitive ability was developed through their cultural and social environment. It is the environment around the child that is an important contributing factor to the child’s learning rather than just the formal school setting and this environment will differ depending on SES with multiple contextual factors contributing to a child’s educational outcomes. Despite low SES, if a parent or peer is available to engage in “exploratory talk”, then the child has a better chance of developing their scientific understanding, although SES may also limit parental attitudes and understanding.

Across different cultures and societies, the learning that takes place through early and middle childhood will differ and while SES status may impact on learning and future educational outcomes it will not be the sole factor. Children’s abilities are then further developed and facilitated through formal education but the context itself may impact on their representational knowledge as the way children solve scientific and mathematical problems can vary considerably depending on context (Sheehy & Nunes, 2018). One example of this is the use of oral versus written approaches to arithmetic. Carraher et al. (1985, cited in Sheehy and Nunes, 2018) conducted a study in Brazil asking children arithmetic problems both in the streets where they worked as vendors and in school-like settings, where written solutions are favoured. The study showed that the children scored higher on the problems presented to them in the streets: in an oral situation a street vendor, very probably of low SES, was nevertheless able to demonstrate a mathematical competence potentially not evident in a more formal education setting. Sheehy & Nunes (2018) state that successful problem solving occurs because the child is able to make “human sense” of the problem. Bose and Subramaniam (2011, cited in Sheehy & Nunes, 2018) also looked at the “out of school” knowledge through exploring the way children from a large Mumbai slum solved problems, finding that when the children thought of the problems as money problems they were more successful in their answers.

Children’s cognitive ability is clearly supported by and embedded within particular social environments and this ability may not match well with a formal educational environment where the “human sense” understanding of a problem may be absent. Rampal and Makar (2012, cited Sheehy & Nunes, 2018) argue that this contextual mismatch is an international challenge and that learning too often does not have cultural relevance. For learning to be successful as children progress through school, their own understanding of the world through everyday problem solving needs to be to be integrated within the school setting. It is clear that knowledge is not context neutral and that therefore the interplay between learning and testing contexts may impact the PISA test results. The way children were assessed for the OCED (2017) report may mean the results are not a fair reflection of their academic ability or understanding. Sullivan (2001), supports this with Bourdieu’s claim that students from backgrounds poor in cultural capital may suffer most from a curriculum that avoids context associated with their dominant culture.

The PISA testing for the OECD (2017) report foregrounded ability in group problem solving. Executive functioning is important for problem solving and is imperative to school success (Hughes, 2011). There is a growing evidence that executive functioning in children is influenced by family and environmental factors (Hughes, 2011 and could be linked to SES, as a disorganised and unpredictable home life resulting from poverty could hamper emerging executive functioning skills and potentially heighten chances of risk-taking. Moffitt (2010) showed that participants with low self-control in childhood and further risk-taking behaviour as adolescents were often of low SES as adults. However, as previously stated, this is not pre-determined and adolescence is often a time for risk-taking and inhibitory behaviour (Messer, 2018) and can be highly influenced by social processes and therefore does not always determine future outcomes. Also, school interventions have proved successful in improving executive functioning skills, showing that outcomes for children are not fixed and with improving understanding of theory of mind and reward-based interventions, children’s educational outcomes can be improved (Hughes, 2011). Educational outcomes and future successes are part of a complex and intertwined transactional processes between the child and their cognition, immediate influences from parents, peers and school as well as the wider influences including SES and cultural norms. Engle et al., (2008), support this correlational relationship through their research, highlighting the effects of how poverty is interwoven through relations between family and children as a transactional process.


The variation in national performance in the OECD (2017) report makes it clear there can be no simple, direct correlation between SES and educational attainment and we have concluded that other complex factors must play a role. In considering the links between the child’s environment and their achievement we have examined psychological factors in relation to SES and education but transactional models such as Bronfenbrenner’s reminds us to consider the much broader factors that may impact on the child. This is illustrated in “Six Months” (Open University, 2018) where we see Lulu living in deprivation, which can have immediate effects on her educational outcomes (microsystem). The relationship between Lulu’s mother and the social worker (mesosystem) is inconsistent and therefore a risk factor. In the wider exosystem, we see that her unemployed mother’s health is poor and Lulu’s macrosystem highlights additional risk factors of the family’s SES and their cultural context. Finally her (chronosystem) is part of a point in history where child poverty was amongst the highest in Europe (Open University 2018). SES in relation to academic achievement therefore must be seen in the widest context.






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