Housing mobility and cognitive development: Change in verbal and nonverbal abilities
This study investigates the influence of housing instability on verbal and nonverbal cognitive development among at-risk children and adolescents involved in the child welfare system. Frequent residential changes threaten child mental health, especially among low-income families. Little is known regarding disruptions to cognitive growth, specifically the impact on verbal and nonverbal abilities. The study tests whether developmental timing of housing mobility affects cognitive development beyond individual and family risks. A nationally representative study of families (n=2,442) susceptible to housing and family instability tracked children and adolescents aged 4-14 years (M=8.95 years) over 36 months following investigation by the child welfare system. Youth completed standardized cognitive assessments while caregivers reported on behavior problems and family risk at three time points. Latent growth models examined change in cognitive abilities over time. Housing mobility in the 12 months prior to baseline predicts lower verbal cognitive abilities that improve marginally. Similar effects emerge for all age groups; however, frequent moves in infancy diminish the influence of subsequent housing mobility on verbal tasks. Housing instability threatened cognitive development beyond child maltreatment, family changes, poverty, and other risks. Findings inform emerging research on environmental influences on neurocognitive development, as well as identify targets for early intervention. Systematic assessment of family housing problems, including through the child welfare system, provides opportunities for coordinated responses to prevent instability and cognitive threats.