This blog was written by Posted by Kath Ford, Alula Pankhurst, Richard Freund and Sophie von Russdorf , It was originally published on the Young Lives website on 8 March 2023.

New research from Young Lives on foundational cognitive skills provides ground-breaking evidence that children from households benefitting from Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) have better long-term memory and implicit learning skills than children from similar households that do not receive PSNP support. Using innovative tablet-based games to measure children’s foundational cognitive skills at the age of 12, our new analysis shows that:

  • PSNP support can improve children’s long-term memory by mitigating the negative effects of early shocks and nutritional deficits, including shocks experienced by their mother during pregnancy;
  • PSNP support can improve implicit learning when children are able to spend more time on studying (and less time on unpaid work in the family farm or business);
  • Children who are most disadvantaged – due to malnutrition or excessive unpaid work – are likely to benefit from PSNP support the most, showing the greatest improvements in foundational cognitive skills.

These findings are very important for policy-makers because they shed new light on the specific pathways by which social protection can help to improve children’s cognitive development, with potential long-term benefits for educational outcomes and employability. Our evidence shows – for the first time – that social protection can improve foundational cognitive skills throughout childhood and adolescence, by mitigating the negative effect of early shocks and nutritional deficits. Ensuring that food insecure households receive adequate social protection during times of crisis and climate shocks is therefore imperative, particularly for adolescent girls and young women during pregnancy.

What are foundational cognitive skills and why are they important?

Researchers typically measure children’s cognitive skills using tests that focus on one specific type of academic skill, such as mathematics tests to measure numeracy. However, performance in these tests can be influenced by a range of context-specific factors such as language or prior academic knowledge, and narrowly defined test scores may not always be the best indicator of future life success.

By contrast, foundational cognitive skills are not specific to any single area of knowledge and do not rely on prior learning. They refer to basic mental processes – the building blocks – critical for complex thought and effective learning, such as long-term memory and implicit learning (the ability to learn complex tasks without having to think about the steps involved, also referred to as ’muscle memory’). Previous research in high-income countries has linked strong foundational cognitive skills in childhood to better educational achievement and labour outcomes, demonstrating their critical importance in later life.

Young Lives has been investigating the impact of early deprivation on children’s cognitive learning over many years

Young Lives has been following the lives of 12,000 children in poor communities across Ethiopia, India (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), Peru and Vietnam since 2001, and has built a unique body of longitudinal data to investigate the impact of poverty, climate shocks and food insecurity on early childhood development and later life outcomes.

Our analysis has shown that increased exposure to climate shocks, affects children’s nutrition and physical growth with direct consequences on their cognitive learning. In Ethiopia, our evidence shows that children who experience early childhood stunting due to malnutrition perform significantly worse in basic mathematics and vocabulary tests, compared to children who experience normal physical growth. Importantly, our evidence also shows that early growth stunting can be reversed over a much longer period than previously thought – even up to age 15 – with physical recovery associated with at least a partial catch up in cognitive tests and progression through school.

However, less is known about how specific policy interventions can mitigate the negative effects of climate shocks and malnutrition to support better cognitive learning.

PSNP can deliver significant nutritional benefits for children, but until now its impact on improving cognitive skills has been less clear

Ethiopia introduced its flagship Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) in 2005 to reduce food insecurity among rural households and help to build their resilience to economic shocks. PSNP provides support through cash and/or food transfers, either in exchange for engagement in public works (‘cash-for-work’ schemes) or as direct transfers where participation in public works programmes is not possible.

While the PSNP does not target children directly, there is a strong body of evidence showing it has a positive impact on childrens’ nutrition. Indeed, previous YL evidence shows that PSNP support has significant nutritional benefits throughout childhood and into adolescence, at least up to age 15.

Given what we know about the positive effect of better nutrition for cognitive skills, we would therefore expect to see improvements in test scores for children in households benefiting from PSNP support. The evidence to date, however, has been less clear. For example, while recent YL research showed a positive impact of PSNP on children’s performance in mathematics tests (at age 12), no improvement was detected in vocabulary test scores.  

One reason behind these equivocal results is the potential unintended consequences of the PSNP’s public works scheme on how children spend their time. Previous YL evidence has shown that children in households where PSNP support is received in exchange for adult participation in public works, as opposed to direct transfers, can end up spending more time on both paid and unpaid work to substitute for adults in the household, leaving them less time to study. This substitution effect could reduce the positive effect of PSNP on cognitive skills through improving children’s diets.

Young Lives’ new research on foundational cognitive skills provides deeper understanding of how PSNP can improve children’s development

Overall, our new findings show that children from households that benefit from PSNP have significantly better long-term memory and implicit learning skills at age 12, than children from similar households that do not receive PSNP support. 

These foundational cognitive skills are important for a wide range of learning: long term-memory is important for acquiring new knowledge and learning from experience, while implicit learning skills support the learning of complex information and have been closely linked to language comprehension and acquisition.  

To enable a deeper understanding of how PSNP support can improve these important foundational cognitive skills, our new research also investigated the specific pathways through which this positive benefit is most likely realised. 

PSNP support can improve children’s long-term memory by mitigating early shocks and nutritional deficits, including rainfall shocks experienced by their mother during pregnancy

The beneficial effect of PSNP on long-term memory skills was most significant for children who were physically stunted before their household received support from the programme, with little or no effect among those who were previously well nourished; this suggests that the children who were most disadvantaged by early malnutrition (leading to physical stunting) have benefitted the most.   

We also looked at whether children who had been exposed to early climate shocks were also more likely to benefit from PSNP support by matching Young Lives longitudinal data with historical rainfall data. We found that the positive effect of PSNP support on long-term memory skills is significantly greater for children who experienced at least one rainfall shock during their first year of life or even during the gestation period, while their mother was pregnant.

These unique findings suggest that while early life rainfall shocks can have a negative impact on foundational cognitive skills, this can be partly mitigated by improved food consumption and nutrition enabled through PSNP support.

PSNP support can improve implicit learning when it enables children to spend more time on studying

The positive effect of PSNP support on children’s implicit learning was only significant for children who spent no time studying, and those who spent time working in the family business or farm, before their household received support..

This result similarly suggests that it is the children who are most disadvantaged – due to excessive work – who are most likely to benefit; PSNP support can improve children’s implicit learning if the effect is to change how they spend their time, enabling them to spend more time on their studies and less time on unpaid work.

So what does this mean for future policy choices?

This important new evidence demonstrates how social protection can mitigate the negative effects of early shocks and nutritional deficits to improve children’s foundational cognitive skills – the basic mental processes critical for effective learning and future education and job success. For programmes such as the PSNP, this has a number of important policy implications:

  • Early childhood deficits in foundational cognitive skills can be improved by social protection throughout childhood and adolescence, ideally combined with early learning and school feeding programmes;
  • Support to vulnerable households needs to be flexible to respond to acute nutritional deficits during climate shocks, with targeted support to adolescent girls and young women during pregnancy;
  • Measures to protect children’s time to study and ensure they are not engaged in excessive work is also important for improving foundational cognitive skills.

Young Lives will publish further research and policy recommendations on foundational cognitive skills in 2023.