Low-income children who change schools frequently are at risk for lower math scores and have a harder time managing their behavior and attention in the classroom, according to new research.
“Simply stated, frequently changing schools is a major risk factor for low-income children’s school success,” said the study’s lead author, Allison Friedman-Krauss, Ph.D., of New York University.
Children who moved frequently were predicted to score, on average, 10 points lower on standardized math tests in fourth grade than their peers who did not change schools frequently, placing them at greater risk of not meeting state math standards, according to the researchers. The point differential represents the students being eight months behind in math.
“Although moving once or twice may not be extremely detrimental to the development of children who are already at risk, moving almost every year during elementary school increased the probability that students would face more difficulty in the long run,” said co-author C. Cybele Raver, Ph.D., a professor of applied psychology at New York University.
“This suggests the need for policies at the state, district, and school levels to prevent school changes and to support students, families, and teachers when children do change schools.”
Data for the study came from 381 children enrolled in the Chicago School Readiness Project who initially enrolled in Head Start classrooms around the city and were followed through fourth grade. The sample was 68 percent black or African-American, 27 percent Hispanic, and five percent white, biracial, or another race or ethnicity, with 52 percent being girls. All were from low-income families.
The students’ early math skills were assessed while they were in Head Start and then again on a standardized math test in fourth grade.
Cognitive skills and self-regulation were assessed in preschool using a mix of direct child assessments and observer reports and again in third grade, using observer reports of the children’s attention, impulsivity, and working memory skills.
Information on their parents, their parents’ education, and race or ethnicity was also collected, in addition to the number of times the students switched schools during the five-year period.
On average, children moved 1.38 times over the five years between Head Start and third grade. Just 54 children — 14 percent — remained in the same school between Head Start and third grade, while 327 children — 86 percent — moved at least once. Forty children — 10 percent — changed schools three or four times.
Third grade teachers reported that children who changed schools often were less likely to perform well on tasks that required more critical thinking skills, even after controlling for their cognitive skills in preschool.
The Chicago public schools system has an open enrollment policy that allows children to enroll in any of its schools, not just the one closest to their home. This increases parents’ ability to change schools if they are unhappy with a school’s climate, teachers, or other students, according to the researchers.
“For children growing up in poverty in this urban Chicago sample, frequently changing schools is only one of many risks they face,” said Friedman-Krauss. “If this cannot be prevented, providing supports to make the transition to a new school less disruptive and stressful, as well as preparing students in advance of the school change, may be important to mitigate the negative consequences of frequently changing schools.”
The study was published in the American Psychological Association journal Developmental Psychology.