It is universally accepted that the childhood environment influences the development of cognitive functions. Mainstream research has shown that early socioeconomic status plays a huge role in shaping the future performance of individuals. Generally, children growing within a harsh environment characterized by a low cultural level, scarce economic resources, and even abusive situations feature-poor neurocognitive abilities compared to their wealthy peers.
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On the contrary, high socioeconomic milieus result in better scores in executive function tasks. Notably, the gap between low- and high-level childhood environments seems to maintain consistency even in adolescence and adult age. However, recent studies offer new perspectives on the topic, holding that children who grown up in poor and stressful conditions in early life might have the edge over their more affluent counterparts. This paper will support such a thesis, showing how harsh childhood can enhance some cognitive responses to certain conditions.
Family socioeconomic status has been adopted as one of the main parameters to assess the cognitive impairment between lower and upper classes children, showing as well that the cognitive gap is cost ant over time. However, though this research has an unquestioned validity, some scholars hold that its findings are partial and suggest that other aspects should be taken into consideration (Hackman et al. 1-17, Mittal et al. 604-621). Hackman et al. focus on the developmental course of the socioeconomic status disparity over time and on its relation with the mediators that shape childhood experience (11).
This study analyzes the influence of income-to-needs and maternal education as mediating factors on early childhood. While some of the results align with mainstream research, it highlights how changes in family socioeconomic status are associated with an increase or decrease in executive function performance. Also, it identifies the early childhood environment, especially with regards to maternal education and parental investment, as a variable that adds casualty to the relation between socioeconomic status and cognitive performance.
On the one hand, the study by Hackman et al. questions the universality of the idea that childhood environment influences the development of cognitive performance univocally. On the other hand, it suggests that interventions in the early home environment in a lower class family might result in immediate improvement in the cognitive response of children. Other studies go even beyond and state that adverse childhood experiences might boost some specific areas of cognitive performance, giving de facto some advantages to disadvantaged children (Mittal et al. 604). According to this research, early harsh conditions might provide children with a capacity to adapt to the circumstances, resulting in improved cognitive performance in particular tasks, with better responses than more privileged subjects.
Mittal et al. refute the statement that poor childhood environments necessarily result in impaired brain development. More in detail, they aim at showing that the idea that worse scores in early life lead unequivocally to an endemic inability at planning is only partially accurate (Kazhan par. 2). From this perspective, it should be more appropriate to say that disadvantaged family and social backgrounds shape cognitive performance adaptively rather than affect cognitive development (Mittal et al. 604). Within uncertain environments, children have to deal with situations that are likely to change over time.
In lower socioeconomic classes, victims of abuse or children whose parents had divorced have to learn to cope with power-based dynamics already at an early age. It follows that they develop the ability to predict which turn the events will take (Kazhan par. 9).
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This characteristic has some unexpected outcomes, as shown in the research by Mital et al. Overall, this ability allows individuals with a past of unpredictable childhood to perform worse at inhibition and self-control but are better at shifting among different tasks (Mittal et al. 604). Indeed, at certain conditions, shifting ability and capacity to predict future events give people with harsh early backgrounds some advantages at planning.
Mainstream research has produced a large body of evidence that socioeconomic status in early life is associated with cognitive function performance. Even recent studies support the persistence of the cognitive gap between lower and upper social classes in adult age (Last et al. 1). However, Last et al. seem to be anchored to traditional measures as memory tasks and inhibitory control. Inevitably, their result will reiterate the outcomes of the past studies. To attain more credible evidence, scholars should modify the traditional approach to include variables and measures that might show that harsh backgrounds and low socioeconomic status can boost cognitive responses in certain conditions.
The relationship between childhood environment and cognitive performance in early and adult age has been analyzed from different perspectives. Most scholars, including Last et al., hold the position that disadvantaged family environments and low socioeconomic status are associated with scarce development of cognitive functions, a condition bond to last even in adulthood. Other studies, such as Mittal et al., and Hackman et al., while recognizing the validity of the traditional approach, include some variables in their methods, demonstrating that, in some case, poor and difficult backgrounds might enrich the responsiveness of disadvantaged individuals who perform better than wealthy subjects in coping shifting tasks and adapting to new and hard environments.
Hackman, Daniel A., et al. “Socioeconomic Status and Executive Function: Developmental Trajectories and Mediation.” Developmental Science, vol. 18, no. 5, 2015, pp. 686–702. Web.
Kazan, Olga. “Can a Difficult Childhood Enhance Cognition?” The Atlantic. 2017. Web.
Last, Briana S., et al. “Childhood Socioeconomic Status and Executive Function in Childhood and Beyond.” PLoS ONE, vol. 13, no. 8, 2018, pp. 1-12, e0202964. Web.
Mittal, Chiraag, et al. “Cognitive Adaptations to Stressful Environments: When Childhood Adversity Enhances Adult Executive Function.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 109, no. 4, 2015, pp. 604–621. Web.