There is no shortage of theories explaining behavior differences among children. The prevailing theory among psychologists and child development specialists is that behavior stems from a combination of genes and environment. Genes begin the process: behavioral geneticists commonly claim that DNA accounts for 30–50 percent of our behaviors (Saudino, 2005), an estimate that leaves 50–70 percent explained by environment.
This tidy division of influencing factors may be somewhat misleading, however. First, the effects of the nine months a child spends in utero are far from negligible, especially on IQ (Devlin, Daniels, & Roeder, 1997). Factors such as quality of prenatal care, exposure to toxins, and stress have a strong influence on the developing child. In addition, the relatively new field of epigenetics—the study of heritable changes in gene function that occur without a change in primary DNA sequence—blurs the line between nature and nurture. Environment affects the receptors on our cells, which send messages to genes, which turn various functional switches on or off. It’s like this: like light switches, genes can be turned on or off.
When they’re switched on, they send signals that can affect the processes or structures in individual cells. For example, lifting weights tells the genes to “turn on” the signal to build muscle tissue. Genes can be either activated or shut off by a host of other environmental factors, such as stress and nutrition. These switches can either strengthen or impair aggression, immune function, learning, and memory (Rutter, Moffitt, & Caspi, 2006).
A recent University of British Columbia and Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics (CMMT) study has revealed that childhood poverty, stress as an adult, and demographics such as age, sex and ethnicity, all leave an imprint on a person’s genes. And, that this imprint could play a role in our immune response.
The study which was published in a special volume of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that looks at how experiences beginning before birth and in the years after can affect the course of a person’s life.
Recent evidence (Harris, 2006) suggests that the complex web of social relationships students experience—with peers, adults in the school, and family members—exerts a much greater influence on their behavior than researchers had previously assumed. This process starts with students’ core relationships with parents or primary caregivers in their lives, which form a personality that is either secure and attached or insecure and unattached.
Securely attached children typically behave better in school (Blair et al., 2008). Once students are in school, the dual factors of socialization and social status contribute significantly to behavior. The school socialization process typically pressures students to be like their peers or risk social rejection, whereas the quest for high social status drives students to attempt to differentiate themselves in some areas—sports, personal style, sense of humor, or street skills, for example.
Socio-economic status forms a huge part of this equation. Children raised in poverty rarely choose to behave differently, but they are faced daily with overwhelming challenges that affluent children never have to confront, and their brains have adapted to suboptimal conditions in ways that undermine good school performance. (the word EACH is a handy mnemonic):
- Emotional and Social Challenges.
- Acute and Chronic Stressors.
- Cognitive Lags.
- Health and Safety Issues.
Combined, these factors present an extraordinary challenge to academic and social success, and eventual financial success. Feel free to download my e-book called “Discover Your Wealth Blueprint” which looks at the psychology of wealth creation.