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FINNUT-Forskning og innovasjon i utdanningssektoren

Why do educational difficulties run in families? Genetically sensitive observational and intervention research on home learning environment

Alternative title: Why do educational difficulties run in families?

Awarded: NOK 12.0 mill.

Children with dyslexia struggle with quick and accurate reading, children with dyscalculia with arithmetic and math, and children with ADHD with attentional difficulties and hyperactivity. Children with these developmental disorders tend to do less well in school and tend to go on to obtain a lower final degree. Low educational attainment is a major risk factor for poor health and wealth. It is known that learning difficulties (like dyslexia and dyscalculia) and ADHD run in families. That is, children are at increased risk if one of their parents has such a disorder. As such, this causes an intergenerational cycle of educational disadvantage. In the project GenEd, we aim to unravel why learning difficulties and ADHD run in families. The environmental side of learning difficulties and ADHD have been studied extensively in educational and pedagogical sciences, but so far, herein little attention has been paid to the genetic side. In GenEd, we will bring together expertise, data, and methods from special educational needs, public health, and behavioural genetics. We will study large cohorts of children, including information from parents, teachers, and school grade records. The genetics side will be studied using family data (e.g., twins) and using DNA data. By including genetics, the influence of the environment (parents and school) can be revealed. This insight into which environmental factors truly matter for the mitigation of learning difficulties and ADHD will inform how we can best support these children.

Poor educational achievement and ADHD in childhood are a major risk factors for poor health and low income in adulthood. Poor educational outcomes tend to run in families, generating a cycle of inequality. Children whose parents talk and read less to them, tend to struggle in school. This parent-child association has been interpreted as a causal effect of parenting, but parents provide their children not only with a rearing environment, but also genes. We can only discover causal effects of the home learning environment (e.g., parent-child interactions, reading storybooks, household chaos) if we control for genetics or run an RCT. Our overarching aim is to discover which aspects of the home learning environment causally impact children’s risk of ADHD and learning difficulties. GenEd will use a variety of innovative observational and experimental designs. We will employ existing rich datasets and will collect novel data to triangulate three intergenerational designs. Using an online-learning platform, we will assess parent and child literacy and numeracy in 3000 twin families. In an RCT, 2000 of these families will get access to the online-learning platform to boost the home learning environment. GenEd will: 1. Include gene-environment interplay in studying children’s ADHD-symptoms, motivation, and literacy and numeracy skills 2. Discover which features of the home learning environment have a causal impact 3. Test the effectiveness of offering families an online-learning platform to practice literacy and numeracy GenEd ’s interdisciplinairity (representing education and genetics), combined with breakthroughs in statistical modelling, gene-finding work, and educational technology, make us uniquely suited to lead this timely project. GenEd has the ground-breaking opportunity to unravel the mechanisms underlying familial educational disadvantage. This will inform policy on how to target malleable causal mechanisms to ensure that all children can learn and thrive.

Funding scheme:

FINNUT-Forskning og innovasjon i utdanningssektoren