Do Early Life Cognitive Ability and Self-regulation Skills Explain Socio-economic Inequalities in Academic Achievement? An effect decomposition analysis in UK and Australian cohorts – Social Science & Medicine


  • We decomposed pathways from socio-economic disadvantage to mid-childhood academic ability.
  • 2/3 effect of socio-economic disadvantage was direct (not through cognitive ability or self-regulation).
  • The indirect effect was mainly through cognitive ability.
  • Early interventions to improve cognitive ability (but not self-regulation) hold potential.
  • But policies to alleviate social inequality remain essential for inequality reduction.


Socio-economic inequalities in academic achievement emerge early in life and are observed across the globe. Cognitive ability and “non-cognitive” attributes (such as self-regulation) are the focus of many early years’ interventions. Despite this, little research has compared the contributions of early cognitive and self-regulation abilities as separate pathways to inequalities in academic achievement. We examined this in two nationally representative cohorts in the UK (Millennium Cohort Study, n = 11,168; 61% original cohort) and Australia (LSAC, n = 3028; 59% original cohort).

An effect decomposition method was used to examine the pathways from socio-economic disadvantage (in infancy) to two academic outcomes: ‘low’ maths and literacy scores (based on bottom quintile) at age 7–9 years. Risk ratios (RRs, and bootstrap 95% confidence intervals) were estimated with binary regression for each pathway of interest: the ‘direct effect’ of socio-economic disadvantage on academic achievement (not acting through self-regulation and cognitive ability in early childhood), and the ‘indirect effects’ of socio-economic disadvantage acting via self-regulation and cognitive ability (separately). Analyses were adjusted for baseline and intermediate confounding.

Children from less advantaged families were up to twice as likely to be in the lowest quintile of maths and literacy scores. Around two-thirds of this elevated risk was ‘direct’ and the majority of the remainder was mediated by early cognitive ability and not self-regulation. For example in LSAC: the RR for the direct pathway from socio-economic disadvantage to poor maths scores was 1.46 (95% CI: 1.17–1.79). The indirect effect of socio-economic disadvantage through cognitive ability (RR = 1.19 [1.10–1.32]) was larger than the indirect effect through self-regulation (1.05 [1.01–1.11]). Similar patterns were observed for both outcomes and in both cohorts.

Policies to alleviate social inequality (e.g. child poverty reduction) remain important for closing the academic achievement gap. Early interventions to improve cognitive ability (but not self-regulation) also hold potential for reducing inequalities in children’s academic outcomes.

SOURCE: Pearce, Anna; Sawyer, Alyssa C.P. and Chittleborough, Catherine R. et al. “Do early life cognitive ability and self-regulation skills explain socio-economic inequalities in academic achievement? An effect decomposition analysis in UK and Australian cohorts.” Social Science & Medicine [Available online 20 July 2016]

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