Children from instable families require extra push


Wes Haynie

A study by sociology professors Shannon Cavanagh and Paula Fomby found more rigorous schools could benefit students with unstable family backgrounds.

Rachel Thompson

Family instability may negatively affect student performance in rigorous high schools and impact decisions to attend college, according to a new study on family backgrounds. Sociology associate professor Shannon Cavanagh conducted the study alongside Paula Fomby, associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado-Denver, to understand how family structure and stability affect the well-being and educational success of children.

To research how students from different family situations were handling school, Cavanagh compared math scores, which she said provide a good indication of how students will perform in college.

Schools were measured according to the number of students who went on to college, what the administrators had to say about the school and how connected the students felt to the institution, Cavanagh said.

“The easy assumption is that family structure matters to kids’ well-being,” Cavanagh said. “My work tries to unlock adult relationship trajectories to understand what this means for kids.”

Cavanagh said social class plays a major role in marital success, which can positively or negatively impact a student’s performance in school. Students with unstable family situations tend to pass that instability on to future generations, she said.

“We were trying to understand, is there a way schools can reduce this intergenerational gap in inequality?” Cavanagh said. “Can schools protect kids or does it make it worse for them? We thought about schools in different ways, and found students who have experienced instability might actually benefit from being in more rigorous schools.”

More rigorous schools can mean smaller classes and more academically driven students, which Cavanagh said can offset the relationship instability. The study showed that highly ranked schools can push students to perform better, but those with unstable situations at home will still have a disadvantage compared to other students, she said.

Sociology professor Kelly Raley said determining a child’s success in school means breaking down the factors that make up instability.

“The evidence suggests that not all kids are negatively affected, and we suspect that part of the reason family instability leads to outcomes is that it disrupts routines,” Raley said. “Having stability and routines and rules is pretty important for kids.”

Cavanagh said bridging the gap between those with stable families and those without is not necessarily easy and requires work from both parents and their children’s schools.

“Schools need to be more proactive to help parents prepare their kids for college,” Cavanagh said. “It could be getting parents more involved. It’s up to families to prepare kids for that process.”

Cavanagh also said students whose parents have gone to college are already at a greater advantage than those with parents who did not receive a college degree.

Radio-television-film sophomore Brooke Brown said neither of her parents went to college, and she feels pressure to succeed and push herself as a result.

“For me, it’s not a matter of thinking I can’t be successful, it’s a matter of thinking I don’t have the upward advantage,” she said. “I have to do everything from square one. There’s always been a tremendous push for me to work hard to overcome that.”

Printed on Tuesday, January 31, 2012 as: Instability affects academics