Panel Paper: Material Hardship and School Readiness and the Moderation of Early Care and Education

Friday, November 7, 2014 : 8:30 AM
Nambe (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Natasha Pilkauskas, Columbia University and Anna D. Johnson, Georgetown University
The first five years of life are critically important for healthy child development. Poverty experienced during the early childhood years has an especially negative effect on children’s later outcomes. Children who spend their early years in poverty enter kindergarten less ready to learn, and with fewer literacy and numeracy skills than their more advantaged peers. The school readiness gaps that are apparent at the kindergarten door are alarming because children who lack school readiness have a reduced likelihood of attaining middle class status in adulthood.

As school readiness is predictive of later school and life success, identifying factors that may explain gaps in school readiness and programs that reduce those gaps is key to improving vulnerable children’s later odds of economic independence. One underexplored predictor of school readiness deficits – and a potential intervention point – is material hardship. Material hardship captures forgone consumption of basic necessities (e.g. food), which may impinge on healthy child development. Hardship is correlated with, but distinct from poverty, and may have a more direct impact on children (e.g. lack of medical treatment). Yet, to date, no research has investigated whether material hardship across the early childhood years is associated with a comprehensive profile of kindergarten school readiness skills. Moreover, no studies have tested whether children’s participation in early care and education (ECE) programs – among the most promising human capital promotion strategies – might moderate the association between material hardship and school readiness.

Using four waves of nationally representative data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – Birth Cohort (ECLS-B; n ≈ 6,850), this study investigates whether material hardship across early childhood is linked with kindergarten cognitive and social-emotional school readiness skills. Using an overall index of all hardship types (food insecurity; housing instability; lack of access to medical care), preliminary results suggest that children who experience material hardship (all types) have significantly lower math, reading and expressive language scores, fewer prosocial and more externalizing behaviors; these associations persist in multivariate analyses with extensive controls. Next steps include testing individual types of hardship (food insecurity; housing instability; lack of access to medical care), investigating differences in the developmental timing and duration of different hardships across early childhood, and exploring whether children’s ECE experiences, and in particular Head Start and public pre-k, attenuate the association between material hardship and school readiness

By determining whether hardship is negatively associated with school readiness, which types of hardship are most predictive of deficits in school readiness, and if ECE mutes those negative effects, we hope to inform how policy might intervene to enhance outcomes for disadvantaged children. By studying differences by developmental time period, we can inform when it might be best for policy to intervene to help disrupt the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage.

Selected Kindergarten Outcomes (Mean 0, SD 1) by Hardship at Age 2 and 4

Hardship 2yrs(33%)


Hardship 4years(37%)


Externalizing behavior















Expressive language