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How Growing Up in Poverty Rewires a Child’s Developing Brain

by Kayt Sukel

June 4, 2015
The higher the income, the more likely it is that a child will have access to books. Image via Flickr user hownowdesign.

Decades of scientific research have suggested that a child’s early life experience has the power to profoundly affect his or her learning. One of the most predictive factors is socioeconomic status (SES), or the standardized measure of a particular family’s social, educational, and economic position in relation to others. Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more impoverished environments are more likely to have problems with focus, control, memory, and language skills. All issues that can make it harder for a child to learn how to read. 

“You see it in study after study—children from poorer families tend to score one standard deviation below the mean on academic measures when tested against their peers,” says Suzanne Houston, a researcher at the University of Southern California (USC). “But it’s hard to understand fully why that may be.”

To date, it’s been difficult for researchers to suss out exactly why or how these observed differences in academic performance came to be. Houston says that children from lower SES backgrounds may be exposed to a variety of factors that may get in the way of learning: more stress, less quality time with parents, fewer opportunities for educational enrichment, poor nutrition, and less sleep, just to name a few. The average low-income home has one book in the house; the average higher-income home has 54. Before kindergarten, a child in a low-income home is exposed to 13 million words and 25 hours of one-on-one reading time; in a higher income home, it’s 45 million words and somewhere between 1000-1700 hours. In trying to better understand how those factors may be linked to academic performance, Houston and colleagues have looked to the brain.

In scanning the brains of 60 typically developing children from a variety of backgrounds, Houston and colleagues discovered that children who hailed from lower SES environments showed dramatic changes in cortical volume for the amygdala, a region linked to stress and emotional processing, as well as the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory. Moreover, the group discovered that the different components that make up SES had different effects on the different brain changes.

“We saw that higher parent education levels were associated with a smaller amygdala, whereas higher income was associated with greater volume in the hippocampus. So different income and education levels seem to have different effects on the brain,” she says. “These different factors are likely influencing how children learn in different ways.”

Brian Avants, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, has found similar effects—but in the frontal cortex, the brain’s executive control center. 

“This part of the brain is involved with coordinating executive function,” says Avants. “Historically, studies have shown that language and executive function areas are particularly susceptible to being compromised by lower SES environments. But what we’re also seeing now is that these differences are really only in the very low SES environments. It’s not your middle class or even your lower middle class type child that is really suffering.”

While many would see this as simply bad news, Houston says that understanding these brain changes actually offers a great deal of hope for fixing them. Since the brain is plastic, and has the power to change over time, linking specific environmental factors to brain changes can help direct targeted interventions to help children from more impoverished backgrounds. In fact, neuroscience is helping us to better focus efforts so that scientists and teachers can develop inexpensive, effective interventions that will, with luck, level the educational playing field.

The solutions are easy to pinpoint, though likely a challenge to address for families who are struggling. Researchers say that regularly reading and talking to children from a very young age introduces them to both spoken and written language. Reducing stress at home is important—young children need a stable environment that’s warm and nurturing. Meeting both the physical and emotional needs of children is crucial because it guides healthy brain development. And of course good nutrition and regular physical exercise are important, too. Taken together, both Houston and Avants argue, these types of approaches help make sure that children’s brains are primed and ready to learn.

Organizations like Parent-Child Home Program are stepping in to help parents bridge the gap, working with families with children ages two to four who face poverty, literacy and language barriers, limited education, and isolation. Those children receive 92 home visits over those two years, 46 age-appropriate books and educational toys, and guidance for parents. And First Book gives brand-new books to kids in need through virtual book drives. 

“The most important thing here is that the message should not be, ‘Oh, this child is low SES and is therefore doomed to always be on a bad track.’ What we’re saying is there are some immediate things that people can do that will mediate some of those differences we see due to SES—things we can do to help kids do much, much better academically as they are learning to read and beyond,” says Houston.

Image via Shutterstock.

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How Growing Up in Poverty Rewires a Child’s Developing Brain