Housing Quality and Children’s Socioemotional Well-being

“By falling serendipitously into teaching in a Waldorf school for five years, I deeply learned the impact that an environment has on a person (particularly children). I saw, first hand, that the children who did best in the classroom came from the best homes, but this had nothing to do with any rich/poor divide, and all of the ingredients of the good homes that I witnessed were accessible to all.”

photo by yvestown

This teacher’s observation inspired me to look up for research on effects that housing quality has on children. And while “doing best in the classroom” could be understood as academic achievement, I’d like to look at in a broader sense of socioemotional wellbeing – it could mean the children who function the best in academic, social, and emotional aspects of their lives – who are motivated, interested, mature, creative, playful enough, cooperative, caring, etc.

photo by champagne.chic

I found two recent studies which extend  findings from 1960’s through 1980’s  that children in poorer quality housing experienced more punitive parenting (Kasl et al.,1982, according to Evans, 2001) and performed more poorly at school (Wilner et al.,1962, Essen et al, 1978, according to Evans, 2001).

photo by hownowdesign

The first study (Evans, et al., 2001) included children 8–10 years old living in rural area  in upper-state New York. Housing quality was measured by an observer-based rating scale, consisting of 6 subscales – child resources, cleanliness/clutter, indoor climatic conditions, privacy, hazards, and structural quality.
Parents were asked to assess children’s socioemotional well-being through The Children’s Behavior Questionnaire, a list of common childhood symptoms indicative of behavioral conduct (e.g., “has stolen things on one or more occasions”) as well as symptoms of depression and anxiety (e.g., “often worries, worried about many things”).  Children residing in higher-quality housing were found to have less psychological symptoms, independently of family income, exactly what the teacher above observed.

photo by katybeck

The other measure of  socioemotional well-being was children’s persistence on unsolvable puzzle task. Children residing in poorer quality housing were less persistent on an age-appropriate, challenging puzzle, suggesting  that residence in a lower-quality home is related to greater helplessness.

photo by QuintanaRoo

The second study (Gifford and Lacombe, 2006) included children 9–12 years old in a medium-sized anglophone and a medium-sized francophone Canadian city. The housing was assessed on up to 309 aspects of the residence and immediate neighborhood, based on walk-throughs and interviews with the parents in the residences. Children’s socioemotional health was assessed by one parent and one teacher, again using The Children’s Behavior Questionnaire.

photo by hownowdesign

Teacher assessments of children’s  socioemotional health were not significantly related to housing or neighborhood quality. There are a few possible explanations for that. The first is statistical – there simply wasn’t as many teachers’ assessments obtained (compared to parents’ assessment). Teachers generally reported less problems than the parents. Maybe all teachers aren’t as perceptive as the one cited above.  They have less time to observe each child, and they usually see them in a large group.  They possibly give too much importance to children’s academic achievement when appraising their functioning.

photo by andreakw

Parents assessments of children’s  socioemotional health were, on the other hand, significantly related  to housing and neighborhood quality – the higher physical quality of home interior, building exterior and neighbourhood was associated with higher levels of socioemotional health. The strongest correlation was  found between  the quality of the residential interior as a whole and children’s socioemotional health (r=0.39).

photo by rogue-designs

It might be interesting to mention that children’s wellbeing was related to the quality of some rooms, but not all. The rooms that mattered were: the target child’s bedroom, the kitchen, the main bathroom, and the living room – the better quality they were, the better children felt and behaved. Rooms that didn’t matter in this study were: the basement, dining area, other bedrooms, other bathrooms, and family room (this is interesting and challenging to explain, but there should be other research supporting these findings in order for them to be taken as facts).

photo by hownowdesign

It’s also important that the relationship between housing quality and children’s wellbeing  remained significant after controlling for household income, parental education and mental health status, the child’s gender, and time lived in the residence. Furthermore, none of these five factors moderated the relation. Taking both studies together, we can see that the findings are the same in both rural and urban setting, on children of somewhat different age.

photo by shabbyscraps

Having found the relationship, Gifford and Lancome (2006) hypothesised about some possible explanations for it. None of it is exactly how I see it, so I offer my explanation: providing a good home is an aspect of care for children, just like talking to them, preparing meals, disciplining, enjoying time together, earning money for the family, and so on. Children who live in better homes have the need of a safe and comfortable place better covered. That’s why they are happier.

photo by ex.libris

As for the perceptive teacher from the beginning, Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan followed his intuition and interest for home design and launched Apartment Therapy blog that has become a fixture on “best of” design blog rolls, all  based on a premise that  “A calm, healthy, beautiful home is a necessary foundation for happiness and success in the world.”

photo by godutchbaby

1. Evans, G. W., Saltzman, H., & Cooperman, J. (2001). Housing quality and children’s socioemotional health.
Environment and Behavior, 33, 389–399.

2. Gifford, R., & Lacombe, C. (2006). Housing quality and children’s socioemotional health. Journal Housing and the Built Environment,  21, 177–189.


3 Responses to “Housing Quality and Children’s Socioemotional Well-being”

  1. This is truly fascinating…makes me want to know more! — especially about the division of rooms and how they affect the kids. It makes sense that the child’s room matters (of course), but interesting that the kitchen means a lot while the dining room doesn’t – interesting!


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