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Edited by: Pablo Fernández-Berrocal, Universidad de Málaga, Spain

Reviewed by: Florence Neymotin, Nova Southeastern University, United States; Angela Jocelyn Fawcett, Swansea University, United Kingdom

This article was submitted to Educational Psychology, a section of the journal Frontiers in Psychology

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

A personality scale that identifies individuals’ general attitude to what happens to them as largely a matter of luck or fate or of powerful others (externality) or whether they feel they can influence the consequences (internality) is known as locus of control (LOC). A continuous scale can distinguish those who are more external from those who are more internal. Lower scholastic achievement is associated with externality and higher achievement with internality, but little is known about the association of parental LOC on children’s academic performance. Data collected within the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) are analyzed to assess associations between mothers’ LOC orientation, measured during pregnancy, and their children’s abilities in mathematics and science reasoning. We found that maternal external LOC is associated with lower scores for her child assessed by tests measuring mental arithmetic as well as understanding of mathematical and scientific concepts. Additionally, we determined the extent to which three separate sets of factors previously found to positively influence the developing child’s ability mediate these findings: (a) perinatal and infant exposures, such as prenatal smoking, binge drinking, consumption of oily fish, and postnatal breast feeding; (b) parenting attitudes and strategies; and (c) the interface of the parents with their child’s school. The three factors identify at least 50% of the mechanism by which maternal externality is associated with poor academic outcomes in her child and may be candidates for further investigation as possible intervention targets.

As

In this paper we attempt to determine a pathway to increased ability in maths and science by assessing ways in which the mother’s locus of control (LOC) may influence the child’s outcome.

The introduction of the concept of LOC was greeted positively by both the psychological and educational communities. One of the reasons it has maintained its popularity, as reflected in the well over 17,000 studies that have used it (

While most past studies have concentrated on correlating individuals’ LOC with some current measure of academic achievement, others have attempted to use LOC to predict future outcomes tied to academic achievement. One example was a study completed by

Thus, (1) we know internality is associated with greater academic achievement throughout the lifespan and (2) both mothers’ interest in their children’s academic pursuits, coupled with the children’s internality, predict future academic accomplishment. However, somewhat surprisingly, we know relatively little about the contribution of parents’ own LOC orientation to their children’s future academic achievement. From what we know about the LOC construct, however, it is likely that parental LOC orientations may affect how they may be able to deal with the everyday challenges of raising their children to be successful academically.

Some help in predicting how the LOC orientation of parents may be associated with the upbringing of their children comes from a summary of study results.

Based on empirical findings and Rotter’s assumptions regarding LOC, we predicted that children whose mothers are more external will: (a) have poorer educational achievements; (b) have relationships between maternal LOC and the child’s mathematical and science abilities that will be mediated through maternal lifestyle, parenting behaviors and attitudes to education.

This study takes advantage of the data collected as part of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) a pre-birth cohort which was designed to determine the environmental and genetic factors that are associated with health and development of the study offspring (

ALSPAC recruited 14,541 pregnant women resident in Avon, UK with expected dates of delivery 1st April 1991 to 31st December 1992 (an estimated 80% of the eligible population). 14,541 is the initial number of pregnancies for which mothers enrolled in the ALSPAC study had either returned at least one questionnaire or attended a hands-on assessment (“Children in Focus” clinic) by the 19th July 1999. Of these initial pregnancies, there was a total of 14,676 fetuses, resulting in 14,062 live births and 13,988 children who were alive at 1 year of age. Data were collected at various time-points using self-completion questionnaires, biological samples, hands-on measurements, and linkage to other data sets. Please note that the study website contains details of all the data that are available through a fully searchable data dictionary and variable search tool:

Ethical approval for the study was obtained from the ALSPAC Ethics and Law Committee and the Local Research Ethics Committees (

The study design included a concerted effort before the child’s birth to obtain from the parents details of their personalities, moods and attitudes, including a measure of their LOC. This involved the pregnant women completing four questionnaires during the pregnancy, one of which contained the LOC scale; in parallel they were sent two questionnaires for their partners to complete, one of which included the identical LOC scale.

The LOC measure used in the present study is a shortened version of the adult version of the Nowicki-Strickland Internal-External locus of control scale (ANSIE) comprising 40 items in a yes/no format to assess perceived control (

Test–retest reliability was assessed in this study by comparing the results 6 years later. The correlations were strong for both men and women (

These tests were devised by Nunes and Bryant for the ALSPAC study. Their aim was to assess children’s understanding and use of quantitative relations to solve mathematical problems.

Two different Mathematical Reasoning tasks were designed. The one containing 17 items, was given to school-children inYear 4 (

The aim of each task was to assess children’s reasoning about quantities and the relations between quantities in mathematical problems independently of their computation skills. None of the items in these tests contained difficult calculations; the children had to reflect on the relations between quantities in each item in order to decide how to solve the problem. All the items were presented with the support of drawings; the children could use counting to solve many of the problems if they did not know the number facts that might be used in the solution. All the problems were presented orally by the teachers to avoid an undue influence of reading difficulties on the children’s performance (

Analyses of their internal consistency using Cronbach’s α showed that on all three occasions the mathematics reasoning tasks had good levels of inter-item reliability: 0.74 at Year 4 (

Mental Arithmetic was measured as part of the WISC (

This used a test designed to examine the child’s understanding of the concepts used in science. It was designed by Terezhina Nunes (TZ) and Peter Bryant (PB) to be administered in school (

All analyses included the sex of the child together with the mother’s parity (i.e., the number of previous pregnancies resulting in a live- or still-birth) at the time of birth of the study child (0, 1+). In addition, the following analyses were undertaken.

The following variables were included since there is considerable evidence to implicate them in neurocognitive development: (i) maternal cigarette smoking mid-pregnancy (yes/no); (ii) maternal binge drinking mid-pregnancy (4 or more units of alcohol on at least 1 day in the past month) (yes/no); (iii) frequency of maternal consumption of oily fish in third trimester (none/any); (iv) duration of breast feeding (none or < 4 weeks/at least 4 weeks).

The factors included were: (i) frequency mother sings to the child at 24 months; (ii) the frequency that the mother reads to the child at 24 months; (iii) a parenting score derived from the frequency with which the mother attempts to teach and interact with the child at 24 months (<33/33+ score ranged from 18 to 40); (iv) frequency with which mother takes the child to a library at 30 months (rarely or never v. at least several times a year); (v) frequency mother takes child to places of interest at 30 months (never vs. at least several times a year); (vi) frequency is allowed objects to build with (once a week or less vs. more than once a week); (vii) exposed to people smoking when aged 3; (viii) has a diet of ‘junk’ food at age 3 (see

The following variables were included in this analysis: (i) no. of books owned by the child at age 6 (<20, 20–49, 50+); teacher report of the following: (ii) no. of children excluded from school in year 3 (0,1+); (iii) no. of children receiving free school meals in year 3 (0, 1–14, 15+); (iv) no. of disadvantaged pupils in the school (continuous); (v) frequency child does homework in year 3 (never vs. rest); (vi) teacher report of how supportive the study child’s parents are (very supportive vs. rest).

The analyses are designed to determine the relationship between the children’s mean scores on the mathematics and science tests and the mother’s LOC orientation. The basic data use backward stepwise multiple regression adjusted for sex and parity since these are not open to modification once the child is conceived. For each analysis we noted the regression coefficient (b), the measure of variance explained (^{2}) and the statistical significance (

Analytic strategy.

With the exception of the mental arithmetic score, which was only obtained by the study if the child was brought to the ALSPAC research clinic, the other tests of mathematics and science depended on the response rates of teachers rather than of the study families. As can be seen from

Proportion of children answering the different tests according to the locus of control orientation of their mothers in pregnancy.

Test | Mother external % | Mother internal % | |
---|---|---|---|

Math Year 4 | 4623 | 43.2 | 56.8 |

Math Year 6 | 6926 | 44.3 | 55.7 |

Math Year 8 | 2453 | 41.9 | 58.1 |

M.A. | 6842 | 38.0 | 62.0 |

Science | 6951 | 44.6 | 55.4 |

All children | 12471 | 45.2 | 54.8 |

The ways in which the basic social and environmental measures varied with the groups of children who completed the different measures is illustrated in

The basic details of each score are shown in

Correlation matrix between the mental arithmetic, the three maths comprehension, the science, and total IQ scores (

Test | M.A | Math Y4 | Math Y6 | Math Y8 | Science | IQ |
---|---|---|---|---|---|---|

M.A | 1.00 | |||||

Math Y4 | 0.477 | 1.000 | ||||

Math Y6 | 0.476 | 0.518 | 1.000 | |||

Math Y8 | 0.397 | 0.487 | 0.590 | 1.000 | ||

Science | 0.388 | 0.401 | 0.480 | 0.415 | 1.000 | |

IQ | 0.592 | 0.491 | 0.558 | 0.525 | 0.424 | 1.000 |

Allowing for sex of the child and maternal parity we show in ^{−22} to 10^{−62}. These results took account of the child’s sex which showed female reductions of between 0.25 and 1.79 SDs for the mathematics reasoning and arithmetic tests, with ^{−27}, but no sex differences for the science reasoning test. Parity, as a proxy for the presence of older siblings, was only independently associated with maths and science reasoning in Year 6; both indicated that having an older sibling was associated with poorer achievement. It is clear from the results of all five tests that maternal external LOC has the largest associations (<-2 SDs) with mathematical reasoning in school years 6 and 8, although all the differences are highly statistically significant.

Stepwise logistic regression results for sex of child, parity and maternal external locus of control for each of the mental arithmetic, the three maths comprehension, and the science scores.

Test | Ext LOC |
Sex |
^{2} % |
|||
---|---|---|---|---|---|---|

β [95%CI] | β [95%CI] | |||||

Math Y4 | 4623 | −1.21 [−1.39, −1.03] | 3.8 × 10^{−40} |
−0.25[−0.42, −0.07] | 0.006 | 3.89 |

Math Y6 | 6665 | −2.82 [−3.15, −2.49] | 2.8 × 10^{−62} |
−1.79[−2.12, −1.47] | 7.0 × 10^{−27} |
5.97^{a} |

Math Y8 | 2453 | −2.76 [−3.32, −2.20] | 7.6 × 10^{−22} |
−1.44[−1.99, −0.88] | 3.5 × 10^{−7} |
4.68 |

M.A. | 6787 | −0.92 [−1.09, −0.76] | 3.7 × 10^{−27} |
−0.36[−0.52, −0.20] | 1.4 × 10^{−5} |
1.98 |

Science Y6 | 6689 | −0.95 [−1.07, −0.83] | 2.1 × 10^{−52} |
DNE | 3.72%^{b} |

^{a}Model also includes parity −0.63 [−0.96, −0.31] P = 1.5 × 10

^{−4}.

^{b}Model also includes parity −0.24 [−0.36, −0.12] P = 9.2 × 10

^{−5}.

We examined the extent to which factors relevant to pregnancy and infancy and known to be associated both with the mother’s LOC and the child’s cognitive development, might explain a proportion of the mechanism by which the mother’s externality is associated with a reduction in maths and science abilities (Analyses A). Thus, in

Reductions in the effect size of maternal external locus of control after taking account of prenatal and infancy factors^{a} as well as sex and parity, for each of the mental arithmetic, the three maths comprehension, and the science scores: results of stepwise regression.

Test | Adjusted β [95%CI] | Reduction^{b} % |
^{2} % |
||
---|---|---|---|---|---|

Math Y4 | 3987 | −0.79 [−0.99, −0.60] | 35 | 5.7 × 10^{−15} |
6.81 |

Math Y6 | 5875 | −1.80 [−2.16, −1.44] | 38 | 8.0 × 10^{−23} |
10.72 |

Math Y8 | 2252 | −1.84 [−2.42, −1.25] | 33 | 1.1 × 10^{−9} |
7.69 |

M.A. | 6188 | −0.67 [−0.85, −0.49] | 27 | 2.3 × 10^{−13} |
3.73 |

Science Y6 | 5924 | −0.64 [−0.77, −0.51] | 34 | 4.1 × 10^{−21} |
7.37 |

^{a}Adjusted for maternal age, consumption of oily fish in pregnancy, smoking cigarettes mid pregnancy, binge drinking mid-pregnancy, and breast feeding.

^{b}Reduction in the adjusted beta coefficient for external locus of control compared with results in

Independent of Analyses A we assessed the degrees to which the lower scores of children with external mothers were ‘explained’ by the parenting behaviors in the preschool period as defined by visits to library, visits to places of interest, mother sings to child, mother reads to child, parenting score, child allowed objects for building, exposed to environmental tobacco smoke, child’s diet is poor (named ‘junk food diet’). These factors (Analyses B) accounted for 38–58% of the reduced maths and science scores (

Reductions in the effect size of maternal external locus of control after taking account of preschool parenting factors^{a} as well as sex and parity, for each of the mental arithmetic, the three maths comprehension, and the science scores: results of stepwise regression.

Test | Adjusted β [95%CI] | Reduction^{b} % |
^{2} % |
||
---|---|---|---|---|---|

Math Y4 | 3316 | −0.75 [−0.96, −0.54] | 38 | 6.9 x 10^{−12} |
7.15 |

Math Y6 | 4864 | −1.51 [−1.90, −1.11] | 48 | 1.1 x 10^{−13} |
10.14 |

Math Y8 | 1606 | −1.17 [−1.87, −0.47] | 58 | 0.001 | 10.31 |

M.A. | 5050 | −0.48 [−0.68, −0.28] | 49 | 3.6 x 10^{−6} |
4.63 |

Science Y6 | 4872 | −0.55 [−0.70, −0.401 | 44 | 5.3 x 10^{−13} |
7.04 |

^{a}Adjusted for visits to library, visits to places of interest, mother sings to child, mother reads to child, parenting score, child allowed objects for building, exposed to environmental tobacco smoke, child’s diet is poor (named ‘junk food diet’).

^{b}Reduction in the adjusted beta coefficient for external locus of control compared with results in

Offering all features of Analyses A and B to the regression (Analyses C;

Reductions in the effect size of maternal external locus of control after taking account of prenatal, infancy and preschool factors^{a} as well as sex and parity, for each of the mental arithmetic, the three maths comprehension, and the science scores: results of stepwise regression.

Test | Adjusted β [95%CI] | Reduction^{b} % |
^{2} % |
||
---|---|---|---|---|---|

Math Y4 | 3069 | −0.61 [−0.83, −0.38] | 50 | 1.4 × 10^{−7} |
7.53% |

Math Y6 | 4459 | −1.31 [−1.72, −0.89] | 55 | 6.6 × 10^{−10} |
11.48% |

Math Y8 | 1603 | −0.95 [−1.65, −0.26] | 65 | 0.007 | 10.98% |

M.A. | 5343 | −0.42 [−0.62, −0.23] | 54 | 2.5 × 10^{−5} |
5.07% |

Science Y6 | 4026 | −0.52 [−0.68, −0.351 | 47 | 6.0 × 10^{−10} |
7.39% |

^{a}Adjusted for maternal age, consumption of oily fish in pregnancy, smoking cigarettes mid pregnancy, binge drinking mid-pregnancy, breast feeding, visits to library, visits to places of interest, mother sings to child, mother reads to child, parenting score, child allowed objects for building, exposed to environmental tobacco smoke, child’s diet is poor (named ‘junk food diet’).

^{b}Reduction in the adjusted beta coefficient for external locus of control compared with results in

For Analyses D we took account independently of the following variables: number of books owned by the child, whether children had been excluded from the child’s class, no. of children in the class receiving free school meals, teacher reports that the parents are very supportive toward the child’s learning, and the frequency with which the child does school homework. Unfortunately, the data provided by schools resulted in a reduction in numbers such that only 618 children could be considered in analyzing Mathematics in Year 8. Consequently, those relationships were omitted from

Reductions in the effect size of maternal external locus of control after taking account of primary school age factors^{a} as well as sex and parity, for each of the mental arithmetic, the maths comprehension, and the science scores: results of stepwise regression.

Test | Adjusted β [95%CI] | Reduction^{b} % |
^{2} % |
||
---|---|---|---|---|---|

Math Y4 | 2553 | −0.79 [−1.02, −0.56] | 35 | 3.6 × 10^{−11} |
13.73 |

Math Y6 | 2090 | −1.54 [−2.12, −0.96] | 47 | 1.8 × 10^{−7} |
12.84 |

M.A. | 2316 | −0.64 [−0.93, −0.34] | 31 | 2.6 × 10^{−5} |
7.04 |

Science Y6 | 2221 | −0.54 [−0.75, −0.331 | 45 | 5.0 × 10^{−7} |
9.24 |

^{a}Adjusted for number of books owned by the child, whether children had been excluded from the child’s class, no. of children in the class receiving free school meals, teacher reports that the parents are very supportive toward the child’s learning, and the frequency with which the child does school homework.

^{b}Reduction in the adjusted beta coefficient for external locus of control compared with results in

The results of the full analyses are shown in

Reductions in the effect size of maternal external locus of control after taking account of prenatal, infancy, preschool and primary age factors^{a} as well as sex and parity, for each of the mental arithmetic, the maths comprehension, and the science scores.

Test | Adjusted β [95%CI] | Reduction^{b} % |
^{2} % |
||
---|---|---|---|---|---|

Math Y4 | 1806 | −0.63 [−0.90, −0.35] | 48 | 1.0 × 10^{−5} |
14.46 |

Math Y6 | 1953 | −1.25 [−1.86, −0.64] | 57 | 5.7 × 10^{−5} |
13.75 |

M.A. | 2121 | −0.48 [−0.79, −0.17] | 49 | 0.003 | 7.71 |

Science Y6 | 1946 | −0.49 [−0.71, −0.261 | 50 | 2.6 × 10^{−5} |
10.41 |

^{a}See text for list of factors offered to the analysis.

^{b}Reduction in the adjusted beta coefficient for external locus of control compared with results in

We hypothesized and found that children whose mothers were more external : (a) have poorer educational achievements; and (b) that the relationships between the maternal LOC and the child’s mathematical and science abilities would be mediated through maternal lifestyle, parenting behaviors and attitudes to education. Children of mothers who are externally oriented scored significantly lower on tests of mathematics and scientific understanding than children of mothers who are internally controlled. At least half of the variance was associated with mothers’ parenting behaviors and lifestyles.

The present study concentrated on assessments of mathematical and science reasoning which were designed specifically for the ALSPAC study and administered in schools. We used these data rather than data from national tests, because they assessed mathematical and scientific reasoning. Past research has shown that these maths tests (as assessed in school year 4), together with the child’s ability in mental arithmetic, make independent contributions to children’s achievement in mathematics in the national tests (

This is not the first study using the ALSPAC cohort to have shown a cognitive association with maternal LOC. Previously,

We list our study limitations below.

We did not allow for concurrent social circumstances as we wished to concentrate on factors that could be changed for mothers to become less external and more internal.

The mental arithmetic scores used were confined to the children who attended the clinic held at the ALSPAC offices when the children were aged 8. As with all such attendances, there was a bias in that children whose mothers were externally oriented were less likely to attend. This bias must be borne in mind when interpreting the results.

It is possible that there are other confounders that should have been taken into account, and which would have reduced the associations.

To our knowledge there are no similar longitudinal datasets which could be used to determine whether these results can be repeated. Such repetition would currently provide additional support for our hypotheses.

In comparison with studies on this topic, this sample size is numerically large.

Although almost all longitudinal studies find attrition in attendance for measurements as their study population ages, in contrast, for the ALSPAC tests of maths and science reasoning, all children in a school class were included, and consequently bias related to the LOC of the study mother was reduced.

The mothers’ LOC was measured in the first 6 months of pregnancy (90% by 28 weeks gestation), and can be considered a baseline, largely unaffected by the outcome of the pregnancy. The consistency of the LOC personality characteristic over time is shown by the correlations of the pregnancy measure with repeated measures of her LOC (

We demonstrated significant associations between mothers’ LOC and their children’s mathematics and science reasoning tasks, but a key question concerns whether the findings imply causality. One set of results is consistent with such an assumption; factors we have shown elsewhere to explain about half of the original association with both maternal LOC and subsequent parenting behavior.

There are two ways in which the relationship between maternal LOC and the child’s scholastic abilities could be more convincingly shown to be causal – the first concerns the repetition of the findings in other communities, but more convincing would be the undertaking of randomized controlled trials comparing groups who had been encouraged to become more internal with those where no such intervention had occurred. Opportunities for such interventions could be based in secondary schools and/or provided to women attending antenatal classes.

In this paper we have used tests of mathematical and scientific understanding since they illustrate fundamental abilities which will provide the basis for educational achievement in technical spheres in the future. We have concentrated the analysis on features of the mother that could be altered (in theory at least). It is also true that because LOC orientation is learned, it can be changed at any stage of life through learning. In the present study, we showed that children of an externally oriented mother are more likely to score poorly on tests concerning the understanding of fundamental mathematical and scientific concepts compared to children of an internally controlled mother, and, importantly, we found that about half of this is due to features of the behavior of the mothers. Programs to enable mothers to become more internally oriented may also help them use behaviors resulting in long-term benefit to the child’s educational achievements, but further research is needed to ensure that the relationship we have shown between parental LOC and child achievement results is causal.

JG and SN raised the funding; had the idea and wrote the first draft. TN and PB advised on the interpretation of the measures. SG and GE analyzed the data. YI-C contributed to the initial manuscript. All authors were subsequently involved in re-writing and editing.

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

We are extremely grateful to all the families who took part in this study, the midwives for their help in recruiting them, and the whole ALSPAC team, which includes interviewers, computer and laboratory technicians, clerical workers, research scientists, volunteers, managers, receptionists, and nurses.

The Supplementary Material for this article can be found online at: