Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow

Elsje van Bergen

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Research Focus

Children differ in how easily they learn at school. Elsje van Bergen studies the causes and consequences of these individual differences in learning. She does this by combining theories and methods from psychology, education, and genetics. She investigates, for instance, the causal effects between reading skills and reading enjoyment, and she studies the complex interplay between genetic predispositions and environmental experiences on educational outcomes. She argues that we need basic science, including educational. genetics, to pinpoint which levers of environmental change to pull to help children fulfil their educational potential.

My plans for the fellowship period

Children who do well in school typically have parents who played counting games and read to them. The opposite is true for children from less stimulating homes. Although this association between parents’ behaviour and children’s outcomes has been seen as cause and effect, it is important to acknowledge that parents provide their children with more than just a nurturing environment – they also provide them with their genes. Only when we account for genetics or conduct an RCT can we determine the causal impacts of the home learning environment. The home learning environment is a term used for features in the home that foster children’s learning, such as reading story books, teaching letters, or playing math games.

During my Jacobs Foundation Research Fellowship, I aim to increase our understanding of which aspects of the home learning environment causally impact children’s motivation and literacy and numeracy development.

How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?

A significant risk factor for poor health and low income in adulthood is poor educational achievement in childhood. Poor educational achievement is influenced by numerous cultural, social, neighbourhood, classroom, family, psychological, and biological characteristics. Indeed, a cycle of inequality is created by the fact that poor educational outcomes frequently run in families. This may be the result of inherited vulnerabilities (nature), unfavourable environments (nurture), or a combination of the two.

In my fellowship, I aim to increase our understanding of the mechanisms underlying this cycle of educational difficulties. Insight into why parents and children resemble one another will suggest ways to break. It will help policymakers target causal mechanisms so that all kids can learn and flourish.