In myriad ways, poverty begets poverty — an ever-widening series of concentric circles spiraling beyond one's control.

By dint of birth alone, children from poorer environs tend to fare worse in school than their more affluent peers, and cognitive planning skills seem to be a congenital problem in low-income families. A new look at American schoolchildren across ethnic and socioeconomic lines shows poor planning skills as a key reason for lowered scholastic achievement among poorer kids, a gap that emerges as early as kindergarten and continues through high school.

Gary Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University, helped to analyze data from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, looking at nearly 1,500 kids from 10 geographic areas of the United States.

"Low-income children appear to have more difficulty accomplishing planning tasks efficiently, and this, in turn, partially explains the income-achievement gap," Evans told reporters. "Efforts to enhance the academic performance of low-income children need to consider multiple aspects of their development, including the ability to plan in a goal-oriented manner."

To assess planning skills among third graders, researchers used the "Tower of Hanoi" game, which begins with a stack of rings, larger to smaller, placed on a rod. Using two other rods and moving only one ring at a time without ever placing a wider ring on a smaller ring, the children were asked to recreate the original stack on one of the two other rods.

Without even considering IQ, a child's performance in fifth grade could be explained, in part, by how well they did on the third grade planning test two years prior. The study also found that household income during infancy correlated to worse scores in reading and math later during fifth grade, bolstering evidence of the well-known achievement gap among low-income schoolchildren.

Pondering the effects of low-income on scholastic achievement, researchers suggested several reasons why poverty, or relative poverty, may disrupt the development of good planning skills, a central component of executive mental functioning. Aside from lacking a sense of entitlement to better living, children from poorer homes experience greater chaos and less stability in their daily lives, moving from place to place and changing schools. They also experience greater turmoil in familial relationships, living in crowded and noisy environments.

Additionally, parents in such homes may be less successful at planning given their own heightened levels of stress.

However, planning skills for scholastic and life achievement may be taught, with such executive functioning strengthened through early interventions beginning in preschool years, researchers say. Since the Johnson administration, the federal government's Head Start program has offered such early childhood interventions to help lift children from intergenerational poverty, receiving billions in funding.

Commenting on revisions to the program by the Obama administration, T.W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, said things could be better.

"Weighing all of the evidence and not just that cited by partisans on one side or the other, the most accurate conclusion is that Head Start produces modest benefits including some long-term gains for children," Barnett said.

After saving the program from Republican budget cutters in late 2011, President Obama announced the administration would attempt to improve the effectiveness of the program by forcing schools in poor communities to compete for Head Start funding — while raising the overall $350 million from $8.1 billion in 2011.

Source: Evans G. Poor Planning Skills Found To Contribute To Income-Achievement Gap. Child Development. 2013.