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Family instability and children's effortful control in the context of poverty: Sometimes a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 June 2016

Melissa L. Sturge-Apple*
University of Rochester Mt. Hope Family Center
Patrick T. Davies
University of Rochester Mt. Hope Family Center
Dante Cicchetti
Mt. Hope Family Center University of Minnesota
Rochelle F. Hentges
University of Rochester
Jesse L. Coe
University of Rochester
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Melissa Sturge-Apple, Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14627; E-mail:


Effortful control has been demonstrated to have important ramifications for children's self-regulation and social–emotional adjustment. However, there are wide socioeconomic disparities in children's effortful control, with impoverished children displaying heightened difficulties. The current study was designed to demonstrate how instability within the proximal rearing context of young children may serve as a key operant on the development of children's effortful control in the context of poverty. Two separate studies were conducted that included samples of children living within homes characterized by heightened economic risk. In Study 1, we tested the differential prediction of family instability on two domains of children's effortful control: cool effortful control and delay control. Consistent with hypotheses, elevated instability was associated with decreased hot effortful control but not cool effortful control over the span of 2 years. In Study 2, we examined how children's basal cortisol activity may account for associations between heightened instability and effortful control in reward tasks. The results were consistent with sensitization models, suggesting that elevated cortisol activity arising from increased uncertainty and unpredictability in rearing contexts may influence children's hot effortful control. The findings are interpreted within emerging evolutionary–developmental frameworks of child development.

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This research was supported by National Institute of Mental Health Grant MH071256 (to P.T.D. and D.C.) and Eunice Kennedy Shriver Institute for Child and Human Development Grant HD065425 (to P.T.D. and M.L.S.-A.). Both projects were conducted at Mt. Hope Family Center. The authors are grateful to the children, parents, and community agencies who participated in this project and to the Mt. Hope Family Center staff.


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