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More American children are living in poverty today than before the Great Recession. Nationally, nearly a quarter of children live at or below the federal poverty line, and nearly half live in low-income families that struggle to meet basic needs, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
This has important ramifications for public education. Why? Research indicates that poverty has a significant impact on the brain and its ability to learn. Perhaps as toxic as drugs and alcohol to a young child’s brain, poverty not only affects the development of cognitive skills, but it also changes the way the brain tissue itself matures during the critical brain “set up” period during early childhood.
There are several ways in which family income impacts children neurologically:
- Children raised in poverty are exposed to millions of fewer spoken words at home.
Human brain maturation is experience-dependent. One of the most important times for experience to mold the brain is from early childhood through the elementary school years. So, the less language a child is exposed to, the fewer opportunities the brain has to develop language skills.
In their groundbreaking research published in 1995, Betty Hart and Todd Risley demonstrated that by age 4, children born into low socio-economic families are exposed to 30 million fewer words than those born into high socio-economic families. This means that the brain of a child in poverty has had 30 million fewer opportunities to wire itself for language.
- Weaknesses in oral language can lead to significant reading gaps.
Linguistic impoverishment deprives a child of receiving the auditory neural stimulation required to establish distinct phoneme representations, build vocabulary, and develop age appropriate oral language skills. This gap widens as children progress through school. Longitudinal research has shown that even when children are equated in reading ability at age 5, by age 13, children who had low oral language development when they entered school are more than five years behind in reading compared to their peers with high oral language skills.
- A low income level can negatively impact cognitive functions.
Language function in the brain isn’t the only casualty of poverty. Many other cognitive skills are affected, too.
Kimberly Noble has been studying the effects of poverty on cognitive development and brain structure for over a decade. As early as 2005, with M. Frank Norman and Martha Farah, she published research on the relationship between socioeconomic status and specific cognitive functions. Her findings showed that children who come from homes of poverty have limitations in a range of cognitive skills, including long- and short-term (working) memory, visual and spatial skills, executive functions like self-control, and the ability to learn from reward.
- Family income is linked to memory and attention.
More recently, Noble and Elizabeth Sowell have found compelling links between family income and brain structure — especially affecting areas of the brain important for memory and attention, which are essential for learning. In a Nature Neuroscience article published March 30, 2015, they reported that among children from lower income families, small differences in income were associated with relatively large differences in brain surface area. In contrast, among children from higher-income families, similar income increments were associated with smaller differences in surface area. These relationships were most prominent in regions supporting language, reading, executive functions and spatial skills. This research implies that income relates most strongly to brain structure among the most disadvantaged children.
- Developmental differences in the brain have consequences for academic achievement.
Further, on July 20, 2015, a Reuters Health article reported on a new study suggesting that the effect of poverty on children’s brains may explain why poor students tend to score lower on standardized tests compared to wealthier students. Seth Pollak and his colleagues reported in JAMA Pediatrics that about 20% of the gap in test scores between poor children and middle-class children may be a result of maturational lags in the frontal and temporal lobes.
How educators can help reverse these effects
The new research begs the question, “Are children raised in poverty doomed to educational struggle, no matter how well we teach?” The answer, fortunately, is a resounding “No!”
Neuroscience has not only clarified the problems caused by poverty, but provides solutions as well. In a recently published report titled “Using Brain Science to Design Pathways Out of Poverty,” Beth Babcock argues that because those areas of the brain affected by the adverse experiences of poverty and trauma remain plastic well into adulthood, neuroscience research offers promise for methodologies that can improve brain development and function. In her report, Babcock advocates, in part, for the use of “computer games” designed to “improve memory, focus and attention, impulse control, organization, problem solving, and multi-tasking skills [that] are now widely available and beginning to create positive outcomes.”
Indeed, well-designed neuroscience-based technology can build the underlying capacities that are reduced in children of poverty. For example, the Fast ForWord program, which was designed by neuroscientists at UCSF and Rutgers and tested for over a decade in many school districts with high poverty rates, has been repeatedly shown to increase academic performance in districts with high poverty levels. The beginning levels of the program target attention, memory, processing and sequencing skills — core cognitive skills essential for learning. Later levels then add specific technological instruction in reading comprehension, spelling, phonological awareness, and decoding, while also building in components to continue to build attention and memory skills.
The path out of poverty
Poverty is toxic to the developing human brain and thereby endangers academic success. Education offers students the key to a path out of poverty — but only when their brains are ready to receive it.
Children who haven’t acquired sufficient foundational perceptual, cognitive or linguistic skills require explicit “catch-up” interventions in these areas before traditional classroom instruction and reading instruction can be effective. Neuroscience now offers not only an explanation of the problem but solutions that can change the brains of all students to enable learning.
As the author of more than 100 journal articles and multiple books, neuroscientist Martha Burns is a leading expert on how children learn. She works as a consultant for the clinical provider division of Scientific Learning Corp., and for the past 15 years, she has served as an adjunct associate professor at Northwestern University.