Income, Family Context, and Self-Regulation in 5-Year-Old Children

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Abstract

Objective:

Self-regulation (SR) is a core aspect of child development with enduring effects on health and wellbeing across the lifespan. Early childhood poverty may shape SR development. This study examined the cross-sectional relationship among family income, family context, and SR in 5-year-old children.

Methods:

A total of 140 five-year-old children and their mothers participated in the study. Children completed a battery of SR tasks; mothers completed questionnaires. Cognitive and emotional SR composite scores were generated based on a principal component analysis of the SR tasks. The SR scores were first regressed on family income (in 10 levels ranging from <5000 to 150,000+) adjusting for age, sex, and race of the child; family context variables were subsequently added to the models.

Results:

Controlling for age, sex, and race, each level increase in family income was associated with 0.04 SD increase in emotional SR (p = .32) and 0.08 SD increase in cognitive SR (p = .01). In fully adjusted models, exposure to household instability and experiencing 10 or more negative life events was associated with worse emotional SR; exposure to mother's depressive symptoms was associated with worse cognitive SR. Higher income buffered children's SR from some contextual risk factors. Family contextual variables explained 62% of the correlation between higher income and better cognitive SR scores.

Conclusion:

Income-based cognitive SR disparities were associated with family contextual factors. Screening for family adversity in pediatric care and linking families to needed resources may protect children's developing SR capacities, with benefits to health and well-being.

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