How Poverty Impacts Brain Development and Learning


A new research study published in Nature Neuroscience shows that children who live in poverty actually have smaller brains than their wealthier peers. Through scanning the brains of 1,100 Americans aged 3 – 20, scientists found that both the surface area and the thickness of the cerebral cortex were positively correlated with family income. Children raised in low-income homes had brains that were significantly smaller than those of affluent children.

What does this mean for these kids when they attend school? The cerebral cortex of the brain is responsible for language, problem-solving, emotion, complex thought, comprehension, and visual and auditory processing, among other things. A deficit in any of these areas can obviously impact a child’s performance in school, as well as his or her ability to learn and acquire information.

The researchers believe that these results may be due to the fact that children living in poverty are more likely to have poor nutrition and health care, as well as higher exposure to toxins. In addition, these children are more likely to be under stress, which has already been shown to inhibit brain growth and function. According to an article published by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University in 2014, sustained stress can change the architecture of the brain, leading to impairments in both learning and memory.

In addition, the new research found that parental education was also associated with the size of children’s total brain surface area; parents with higher levels of education had children whose brains were larger. This makes sense, since higher educational attainment is correlated with higher income levels. As a headline in the New York Times stated, “More Education = More Income.”

I’ve written before about the growing achievement gap between low-income students and their middle to upper income counterparts. Does this new research mean that children of low socioeconomic status are doomed to learn and achieve less than their wealthier peers? Absolutely not – IF our society takes the steps necessary to change the current dynamic and eliminate the achievement gap.

Dr. Martha Farah, a neuroscience professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has found that parental nurturing can have a positive effect on children’s language skills and memory. The aforementioned article from Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child also states that the presence of a sensitive and responsive caregiver, whether a parent or an early childhood education provider, can prevent elevated stress hormones in toddlers.

By offering support to families living in poverty, we have the power to ameliorate the effects of poverty on children’s developing brains. We can increase access to nutrition programs, ensuring that infants, toddlers, and school age children are receiving the nutrients to support their growing brains and bodies. We can increase social services available to low-income parents, helping them to get the education, job skills, housing and healthcare necessary to decrease the levels of stress for their families.

Perhaps most importantly, we can increase the number of early childhood education programs available for families with children from birth to age five. We can fund more home visiting programs that support parents in their role as their children’s first and most significant teachers. We can subsidize quality early childhood learning centers that offer safe, nurturing, and enriching environments for all infants and toddlers, so that their parents can go to school or work.

An investment in early childhood care and education (ECCE) has been proven to be a sound one. An article in Brown University’s Political Review states that a child who never receives high quality ECCE is “25 percent more likely to drop out of school, 40 percent more likely to become a teenage parent and 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.” The Office of the President of the United States has published a report showing a tremendous return on investment in ECCE: $8.59 for every dollar spent.

More than 16 million children in the United States – 22% of all children living in America – live below the federal poverty level ($23,550/year for a family of four). According to the Southern Education Foundation, more than half (51%) of all students enrolled in our public schools are classified as low-income. Enhancing early childhood experiences for these children and providing social supports for their families will strengthen our nation, not just our schools.

It’s time for the funding to follow the research. Standardized testing is not going to help reverse the growing achievement gap in our schools, but funding home visiting programs, early childhood care and education centers, and increasing social supports for poverty-stricken families will.

It will likely take longer than a campaign cycle for us to see the results of these efforts. We need policymakers who are more concerned with the success of our children and this nation than with their own political gain.

This post also appeared at GoLocalProv.

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