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Does socioeconomic background affect academic performance?

Kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who experience academic stress tend to have lower math and reading scores according to a new study from BYU.

Kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who experience academic stress tend to have lower math and reading scores according to a new study from BYU. (Nate Edwards, BYU)


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PROVO – New research out of BYU shows students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged are significantly more impacted by academic stress than their advantaged counterparts.

Data from the National Center of Educational Statistics asked fifth graders about their worry toward academic performance. The responses were examined and associated with standardized math and reading scores. The results show academic worry is a strong predictor of math and reading skills, and the association is amplified for socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

BYU sociology professor and lead researcher Ben Gibbs said many achievement gaps occur very early in life and set students up for the rest of their education.

"The differences between those kids are big on day one. It's not like they suddenly emerge over the high school years. Kids come to the table with already wide disparities in their readiness to overcome those emotional struggles," he said.

He said that administrators, teachers, parents, and the community should all care about the emotional struggles kids go through, especially those in disadvantaged homes where resources may be thin.

"We need to talk about these developmental periods that become scaffolding for later life experiences in schools," Gibbs said.

Gibbs said this data suggests advantaged students have more resources they can rely on to get support when going through stress. These students are able to work through their worries and still perform well on tests, whereas disadvantaged kids do not have the same support.

A disadvantaged kid might come home from a disappointing day at school and not have the family support to deal with it. When a family is struggling economically, it can be hard to be in tune with all the needs in the home and, in some instances, a child doesn't get help with their struggles.


We need to talk about these developmental periods that become scaffolding for later life experiences in schools.

–Professor Ben Gibbs, BYU Department of Sociology


Advantaged kids are typically more vocal about their needs whereas disadvantaged kids tend to be more self-reliant, according to the research. In large classroom settings, it can be difficult to make sure the disadvantaged kids are getting the help they need because they aren't asking for help, Gibbs said.

"I worry a little bit that disadvantaged kids are somewhat invisible," he said. "Disadvantaged kids are probably the least likely to be assertive in the classroom because they actually value not needing someone's help."

Academic worry does translate to lower math and reading levels, overall, the study shows.

When breaking out the data between advantaged kids who worry versus advantaged kids who don't worry, there is a minimal difference in scores. Looking at disadvantaged kids who don't worry and disadvantaged kids who do worry, there is a larger difference in outcomes.

"I don't think it's a mystery that kids have emotions," Gibbs said. "Learning is an emotional process and not all kids come to the table ready to figure that out."


I don't think it's a mystery that kids have emotions. ... Learning is an emotional process and not all kids come to the table ready to figure that out.

–Professor Ben Gibbs, BYU Department of Sociology


It's a bit surprising to think that, on average, an advantaged kid who worries will figure a way through their worry because they have enough support and resources.

"These more disadvantaged kids, when they worry, it has bigger consequences. I think there's a vulnerability they have that's different," Gibbs said. "They may not have the background to buffer some of those kind of new struggles they are experiencing."

Gibbs is currently working on a follow-up study that looks at how much grit and resilience fifth graders reported they have and how it affects their success. So far his findings further illustrate the results of this study that students deal with emotions and overcome academic stress differently depending on their socioeconomic background.

Disparities between kids have increased in recent years as the COVID-19 pandemic has further isolated disadvantaged kids, Gibbs said, causing achievement gaps to widen more than ever.

Many teachers have had to take on emotional labor to help their students post-COVID-19, and Gibbs thinks teachers should be compensated more for all they do in their jobs to meet the amplified needs of children.

"I wish we took elementary school years a little more seriously in our education and policy debates," Gibbs said. "It's good economic stimulation to invest in kids early, and I hope conversations move more and more towards early interventions."

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Cassidy Wixom covers Utah County communities and is the evening breaking news reporter for KSL.com.

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