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Parents’ DNA influence children’s education through environment

23 August 2022
Genetic research shows the environment associated with parents’ cognitive and noncognitive skills influences offspring’s education

New research from the Netherlands Twin Register at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU Amsterdam) shows that parents’ cognitive and non-cognitive skills both affect children’s educational outcomes. The researchers (biological psychologists and behavioral geneticists) looked at offspring’s school results and their highest obtained degree. The paper highlights how genetic research can tell us about the social environment.

The research, published today in Nature Communications, investigated educational records and genetic data on more than 40.000 children in the UK and the Netherlands. The scientists looked at genes associated with cognitive skills and non-cognitive skills (an umbrella term used to describe characteristics such as academic motivation, social skills, learning strategies and perseverance). They discovered that these genes affect children’s educational outcomes partly through transmission from parent to child, but also indirectly via the parental environment.  

Because both the direct transmission effect and the indirect environmental effect were included in the analyses, it was possible to establish how much parents truly affect children through the environment. The researchers argue for the importance  of genetic data to understand the mechanisms behind the multiple paths of intergenerational transmission of education, which could in turn help to inform future efforts to alleviate inequalities.

The effects were seen for both cognitive and non-cognitive skills. Both sets of genes, even if they are not passed on to offspring, have a social impact via the environments that the parents create. This is known as a parental indirect genetic effect, or genetic nurture.

Psychologist Rosa Cheesman, the senior author affiliated to King’s College London, said the social processes behind these indirect genetic effects are likely wide-ranging: “classic ‘parental nurture’ could be important – for example, genes influence parents to teach their child to stay focussed and motivated. But broader mechanisms could take place - for example, that genetic predispositions play a role in a parent’s decision to move to a certain neighbourhood, which in turn influences the child’s education.”

The investigators compared educational outcomes from three data sets – the UK Biobank, the UK Twins Early Development Study and the Netherlands Twins Register – to establish environmental effects of parents’ skills on children’s education. Educational outcomes of the participating children included standardised test results and teacher-reported grades, as well as the total number of years that they were in education as adults.

Perline Demange, the study’s first author from VU Amsterdam said, “We considered multiple designs in multiple datasets. The fact that our findings were broadly corroborated across the different methods and across studies gives us confidence to say that parental environment associated with cognitive and non-cognitive skills matter for their children’s educational success.”

Nonetheless, some differences also emerged between the Netherlands and the UK. Biological psychologist Elsje van Bergen from VU Amsterdam: Interestingly, the heritable parental environment doesn’t seem to affect children’s CITO school results at 12 years-old in the Netherlands, while it does in the UK. However, there is no difference when looking at the highest diploma obtained, the parental environment had an effect in both countries.”

This study was conducted by an international team of researchers lead by Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. It was supported by the Netherlands Organization for Health Research and Development (NWO and ZonMW) and the British Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).