Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Poverty's physiology

Did you see the recent story in USAToday ("Study: Poverty dramatically affects children's brains," December 7, 2008) regarding poor children and the affects of poverty on brain functioning?

Clearly, the evidence is mounting that without specific and determined interventions, poverty and its associated realities remove any real opportunity for low-income children to compete on a "level playing field" when it comes to education. Poverty, especially the long term generational variety, positions poor children far behind middle class children by just about every measure. Challenging poverty directly and investing in efforts to overturn the negative affects of living in poverty for children must become a national priority.

Further, recogniton that many children of the poor learn differently and need the benefit of specific educational techniques and strategies will be necessary in overcoming learning disparities.

Here's part of the report:

A new study finds that certain brain functions of some low-income 9- and 10-year-olds pale in comparison with those of wealthy children and that the difference is almost equivalent to the damage from a stroke.

"It is a similar pattern to what's seen in patients with strokes that have led to lesions in their prefrontal cortex," which controls higher-order thinking and problem solving, says lead researcher Mark Kishiyama, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California-Berkeley. "It suggests that in these kids, prefrontal function is reduced or disrupted in some way."

The study adds to a growing body of evidence that shows how poverty afflicts children's brains. Researchers have long pointed to the ravages of malnutrition, stress, illiteracy and toxic environments in low-income children's lives. Research has shown that the neural systems of poor children develop differently from those of middle-class children, affecting language development and "executive function," or the ability to plan, remember details and pay attention in school.

Such deficiencies are reversible through intensive intervention such as focused lessons and games that encourage children to think out loud or use executive function.

"It's really important for neuroscientists to start to think about the effects of people's experiences on their brain function, and specifically about the effect of people's socioeconomic status," says Martha Farah, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania.

Among the most studied: differences in language acquisition between low- and middle-income children. The most famous study, from 1995, transcribed conversation between parents and children and found that by age 3, middle-class children had working vocabularies roughly twice the size of poor children's.

Read more from the USA Today story.

We kid ourselves if we believe opportunity is equally distributed in this nation.



c hand said...

These are some of the arguments eugenists make. (not that you are one)

Lorlee said...

Rather it sounds to me that the argument is -- if you throw a kid into water over his head, chances are he will drown.

It is a nurture issue, not a nature one.

Amy Boone said...

This is hard for me to read. I have felt like there was truth to this theory for a long time, but hadn't seen this sort of documentation. I was intrigued when I was teaching elementary school about how some low income kids almost acted like they'd had a stroke... not across the board, of course, but still notable. I feel like now I see it all the time at Pregnancy Resources where I volunteer. It makes me want to weep. I also struggle with a mixture of utter gratitude and guilt when I think about how amazingly well my children's brains work. I think of how unfair it is that Grant and I have nurtured our children intellectually in ways that many cannot and will not. Those kids did not choose that life. That's what I find myself trying to remember. The solutions feel overwhelming....

dmowen said...

These biological differences in brain physiology are the result of nurture, not nature. Early childhood development is incredibly important for a person's future success. This American Life had a great podcast recently on the work of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone's "Baby College" program which is seeking to reverse these trends:

Larry James said...

Amy, you are correct: the challenges are overwhelming, but not if we ACT together for the good of the children. I boils down to faith, commitment and political will.