Socioeconomic status (SES) is the measure of the influence that the social environment has on individuals, families, communities, and schools. In many ways SES is related to the concept of social class. Both have financial stability as a foundation for classification. Both are important to a child's optimal development and an adult's satisfaction with life. However, the concept of social class is considered to be continuous throughout one's lifetime and from one generation to the next. The SES classifications are established in an effort to find the means of identifying and changing inequalities. In addition, social class has economic differences as a primary influence. The concept of SES considers other influences such as the chance for social or economic advancement, influence on policy, availability of resources, and prestige of the primary occupation.


The definitions of SES emphasize that, as a construct, (1) it is conditional, (2) it is imposed on people, (3) it is used for comparisons, (4) it is based on economics, opportunity, and means of influence. Santrock (2004) defines it as “the grouping of people with similar occupational, educational, and economic characteristics” (p. 583). Woolfolk (2007) calls SES “the relative standing in society based on income, power, background and prestige” (p. 165). Santrock (2004) adds that an important qualification is “the ability to control resources and participate in society's rewards” (p. 583). Woolfolk (2007) also notes that every researcher will define it differently based on the nature of the study. In most discussions, there are three levels of SES: low, moderate, and high. Because most problems associated with low SES are related to poverty, sometimes poverty level is used as a similar concept to low SES. Race may also be considered a factor because Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately represented in the low SES.


The factors that are usually considered in establishing SES are income, occupation, education, neighborhood, and political power. For each of these five factors, the consideration of how fixed each one is also contributes to SES. For example, if a family is considered low income because one of the parents is in school to eventually get a better job, then the family is not really in the same SES as their neighbors who have little hope of a better job.

Individuals' SES is usually determined by the SES of their family. The SES of the family is calculated based on the measure of the five factors noted above. How well can the family members meet their financial responsibilities? What prestige is associated with the occupation of the head of the household? What level of education have the parents achieved? What is the safety and upkeep of the neighborhood in which the family lives? What hope do the family members reasonably have to influence the government and community policies that affect their lives? A school's SES is determined by the neighborhood in which it is located and by the SES of the families whose children attend the school.


The negative effects of low SES can interfere with a child's cognitive development. Among families of low SES, there are more occurrences of lead poisoning, fetal alcohol syndrome, and premature birth. Lead poisoning, caused by the child ingesting bits of the lead paint found in old buildings, produces neurological disorders. Children born to women who drink alcohol during pregnancy develop fetal alcohol syndrome, a condition that includes mental retardation. The child from a premature birth experiences a diminished brain development. All of these problems lead to language delays, attention problems, and learning disabilities.

Observed family differences based on SES include those constituting parenting styles. Comparing high SES parents to low SES parents, the high SES parents tend to be less directive and more conversational in their communication with their children. Low SES parents are more likely than the high SES parents to expect obedience without question from their children. Low SES parents encourage their children to conform to society's expectations, while the high SES parents encourage creativity and exploration. These differences foster self-confidence in the high SES students and an uncertainty about life in the low SES students.

Young people in the low SES neighborhood report as many pleasant experiences as the young people in high SES neighborhoods. However, children growing up in a low SES neighborhood are more likely to experience distressing events than their counterparts in the higher SES neighborhoods. These include physical punishment in the home, domestic violence in their home building, and serious crime in the neighborhood. Such demoralizing experiences lead to higher rates of depression, low self-esteem, and juvenile delinquency among children from the low SES neighborhoods.

Some children are resilient and able to develop normally under difficult conditions. However, for most children long-term problems are associated with the amount of time living in poverty.


Schools in low SES neighborhoods tend to have fewer resources. Their students, beginning school with little preparation, require an educational system with a more skillful and focused approach. However, the teachers in the low SES schools are often less paid and less trained than the teachers in the higher SES schools. The results are low achievement rates for the students. Few high school students in the low SES schools plan to attend college; therefore, the graduation rate is low.

One of the big problems in school for children of low SES is the self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. If the children do not dress well or are too shy, the teacher may not feel they are very bright. The teacher will call on these students less often and not regularly engage them in class discussion. These students are then left feeling as if they do not belong in school and as if they do not have hope of doing well. If learned helplessness builds in the students' self-concept, they will look for experiences that confirm this self-concept. This process is especially strong if the students are from an ethnic minority and face discrimination.

In mixed SES schools, the practice of tracking can negatively affect the low SES student. Tracking involves assigning students to classes in one grade based on their achievement level in the previous year. There are different expectations for the hierarchy of tracks; the high tracks set higher academic priorities and offer more encouragement than the lower tracks. Tracking disproportionately assigns low-SES students to low-achieving classrooms. Thus, the students who need the most stimulation and motivation are given the least. The original disparity between the achievement levels of the high-track students and the low-track students widens as tracking continues.

The schools in low SES neighborhoods suffer from the lack of support from the students' homes. The home environment contributes substantially to the development of academic skills. Enriching experiences in the home can contribute up to one-half of the measured achievement in verbal skills, reading, and mathematics. Three main factors distinguish the home environment of the high SES student from that of the low SES student. The high SES student is likely to do more reading, more skill building, and less television watching in the home than the low SES student, even during summer vacation (Woolfolk, 2007).

These factors are most closely associated with the educational level of the mother. The mother in the high SES family can be expected to have graduated from college. The college-graduate mother recognizes the need for home enrichment; the low-education mother likely does not. However, these problems can be resolved if the low SES schools help the parents recognize ways to improve the home learning environment, such as turning off the television. As a passive activity, watching television discourages critical thinking. Parents have to recognize that television is an educational medium that does not always present accurate information.

There are examples of low-SES students keeping up with (or even surpassing) the higher SES students. There are two serious conditions that have to be considered regarding these cases. Often, the achievement is only seen during the school year. During the summer the low SES student is likely to fall behind. The other condition occurs when the achievement level is continuous. There is usually one or both parents making the necessary sacrifices to ensure that the home life provides enrichment for (and prevents interference with) the child's academic achievement.

The detrimental effects of low SES on early childhood can be ameliorated by quality preschool programs. One such program, Head Start, has existed since the 1960s. Its goal is to give children of low SES families a chance to be better prepared for school. Similar programs include the High/Scope Preschool in Michigan, Abecedarian Intervention program in North Carolina, and Child-Parent Center in Illinois. These programs have been shown to have longitudinal effects on the cognitive development of the children attending. The results are higher reading and math scores than other children of low SES families. Furthermore, the programs' attendees are more likely to finish high school and less likely to commit a crime than their peers.


Santrock J. W. (2004). Child development (10th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Woolfolk, A. (2007). Educational psychology (10th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.