How Parents Matter: The Role of Mothers' Education and Parenting in Young Children's Development among Economically Disadvantaged Families

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Parents play a crucial role in shaping the contexts within which young children develop, particularly in the early years of a child’s life (Bornstein, 2002; Brooks-Gunn & Markman, 2005; Maccoby & Martin, 1983). Parenting is also one of the key pathways through which socioeconomic factors, such as maternal education, may impact young children (Conger & Donnellan, 2007). In addition, both parents and their children are embedded within multiple, dynamic environments that may shape the relationship found between parents and their children’s development, such as mothers’ and children’s experiences in school. ', 'Surprisingly, much of existing developmental research does not explicitly examine the associations between parents and their children as they exist within these dynamic educational contexts. For instance, a large body of correlational research has documented the strong associations between a mother’s education level and her children’s development, but we know little about the relationship between maternal education and children’s development when a mother’s education changes over the course of key developmental time points in her child’s life. In addition, are the mechanisms that explain associations between maternal education and child development the same if a mother attains her highest level of education before her children are born versus while she is raising her children? In my two-study dissertation, I draw on ecological theories of development and utilize multiple data sets to quantitatively examine the role of mothers’ parenting and educational attainment in young, low-income children’s development as embedded within these dynamic contexts of education.', 'In my first study, I examined the associations between maternal education, parenting practices, and young children’s cognitive, social, and behavioral development among low-income families in the context of attending Head Start preschool for their first year. In this study, I used cohorts 2000-2009 of the Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) data and employed a classroom fixed effects analytic design to compare children to each other within the same classroom. This approach addresses the potential bias of parental selection into particular classrooms that vary in quality within center by netting out observed and unobserved, time-invariant characteristics of the child’s classroom. Findings indicated that more positive parenting practices and greater levels of maternal education were significantly related to children’s cognitive, but not behavioral or social, skills over the Head Start year, both when parental predictors were included separately or simultaneously in the analytic models. Results suggest that parenting and maternal education in the early years of a child’s life before they enter preschool may play a significant role in children’s later cognitive development, above and beyond the effects of Head Start preschool. ', 'In my second study, I explored how improvements in maternal education are associated with both children’s development (between the ages of 3 and 9 years old) and parental factors among a predominantly low-income sample of families in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS) longitudinal data set. I also examined how the main associations varied by key moderators, including maternal age, income, and marital status. To test these research questions, I employed an individual child fixed effects analytic design to hold constant time-invariant characteristics of the child and mother, addressing this key source of unobserved omitted variables bias. I found that approximately 15% of mothers improved their education between when their children were ages 3 to 9. Increases in maternal education from less than a high school degree to attaining a high school diploma/GED were related to lower rates of children’s internalizing behavior problems, and improvements to a certificate/AA were related to improved receptive language. No significant relationships were found between improvements in maternal education at any other level or for other child outcomes, nor with measures of parental mental health. However, improvements in maternal education from starting with a high school degree/GED to attaining a certificate/AA were related to reduced harshness and a higher likelihood of being employed. In addition, starting with a certificate/Associates’ degree and completing a Bachelor’s degree or higher was significantly associated with higher household income. Findings suggest that increases in maternal education among disadvantaged mothers may have important and positive associations with young children’s behavioral and cognitive development. This is particularly true for mothers who start with low levels of education, suggesting that even among a sample of low-income families, the children of the most disadvantaged mothers may gain the most from improvements in maternal education.

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  • 10/21/2019
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