Methods: Five electronic databases (CINAHL, ERIC, Medline, SocINDEX, and PsycINFO) were searched for articles published up until March 2018, resulting in 809 citations after de-duplication. The abstract and/or full-text of each study was screened for inclusion or exclusion by two separate review authors. Conflicting inclusion or exclusion decisions were reconciled by a third reviewer. Inclusion criteria were as follows: the study (1) measured residential mobility as an independent variable; (2) examined at least one domain of cognitive development as an outcome, which was measured between birth and 12 years old; and (3) utilized quantitative methods. After all screening was completed, a total of 11 citations were included in the systematic review. Using the RTI Item Bank, all included studies were examined for risk of bias and confounding variables.
Results: Included studies were categorized into two developmental periods: early childhood (birth to 5 years old), and middle childhood (6 to 12 years old). The findings were mixed across developmental stages. Frequent moves were directly associated with poor cognitive development (e.g., lower levels of language skills, mathematics performance, or inhibitory control), particularly in middle childhood. In early childhood, the residential mobility was indirectly related to cognitive development through family processes (e.g., home environment, maternal education, maternal depression, or parent-child relationship) or early academic performance. The detrimental impact of the frequent residential moves on cognitive development was found, especially, among low-income children.
Conclusions and Implications: This review reveals inconsistent findings of the relationship between residential mobility and cognitive outcomes across child developmental stages. One major finding is the importance of family factors among young children to explain the mechanism linking residential mobility to cognitive development. This review underlines the need for early intervention and prevention services related to unstable housing for children, particularly those in at-risk families. Furthermore, interventions that promote family functioning as well as cognitive development are needed for children who experience frequent residential changes.