Academic journal article Australasian Journal of Early Childhood

The Implications of Poverty on Children's Readiness to Learn

Academic journal article Australasian Journal of Early Childhood

The Implications of Poverty on Children's Readiness to Learn

Article excerpt


In Australia, about one in seven children (14.7 per cent) live in families with incomes more than 50 per cent below the equivalised median income level--one of the most commonly used poverty lines (UNICEF, 2005). This rate is higher than in most European nations (UNICEF, 2005), and is higher still among Indigenous children. According to estimates from the 1990s, nearly half of all Indigenous children live in families with incomes more than 50 per cent below the median income level (Ross & Mikalauskus, 1996). In contemporary Australia, poverty is not a marginal phenomenon but rather a lived experience that significantly affects early learning and developmental outcomes for a large number of children.

Multiple studies have documented the substantial negative consequences that growing up in poverty have on children's cognitive, socio-emotional and behavioural functioning, especially during the earliest years of life (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997; Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 2001 ; Ryan, Fauth & Brooks-Gunn, 2006). The list of adverse outcomes is expansive and indicates the broad range of effects that poverty can have. This paper examines the effect of poverty on children's readiness to learn--a concept that emphasises the developmental and transactional nature of learning. Such a concept enables consideration of the ways in which all of us, but especially parents, early childhood professionals and teachers, can nurture or neglect children's learning from birth.

This article focuses on children's learning during early childhood, their transition to school, and their early learning at primary school. The paper is divided into eight core sections. Following the introduction, section two defines and examines the 'readiness to learn' concept. Section three outlines the paper's theoretical framework, and section four reviews research related to childhood poverty and the implications for children's capacity to learn. Section five examines the pathways through which poverty affects child development. Section six examines some exemplar programs that have had measurable success in minimising the impact of poverty on the development of young children. Section seven examines key challenges to the implementation of successful programs within Australia. This paper is intended as a stimulus to debate about the connections between child poverty and learning readiness in Australia and beyond.

What is "readiness to learn'?

Two distinct, yet interrelated models dominate the 'readiness' literature. These are 'readiness to learn' and 'readiness for school'. Within the literature, 'readiness for school' is defined as a 'finite construct' (Kagan & Rigby, 2003, p. 2) that refers to the knowledge and skills needed for success at school. There has been much debate in the literature about the knowledge and skills that constitute school readiness (see, for example, Duncan et al., 2007; Kagan, 1992). The 'readiness for school' model once narrowly focused on cognitive and verbal ability, yet has been expanded more recently to include non-cognitive skills, such as children's ability to interact effectively in the classroom, listen with attentiveness, and follow simple instructions. This more holistic definition emphasises that success at school is also dependent on a range of 'non-cognitive' skills, such as persistence and the ability to maintain attention (Heckman, 2006). Such a definition stands in sharp contrast to earlier versions that used measurements of children's cognitive abilities as indicators of their school readiness.

In contrast to school readiness, 'readiness to learn' is defined more broadly as children's ability to develop and learn at each stage in life. Learning within this concept is viewed as an ongoing and multi-faceted process, incorporating children's physical wellbeing and motor development; social and emotional development; language development; and cognitive development. …

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