Neuroscience Demonstrating What We Already Know: Poverty Impacts Learning and Early Intervention is Essential
A cover story by Mike Kemp in Newsweek earlier this month reported on the findings of neuroscience researchers in CA who found that “…children with parents who had lower incomes had reduced brain surface areas in comparison to children from families bringing home $150,000 or more a year.” Given that test results have manifested this for decades, the results are unsurprising. But here’s what researchers MAY be able to impress on policy-makers IF the policy-makers are swayed by science:
“We have [long] known about the social class differences in health and learning outcomes,” says Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. But neuroscience has now linked the environment, behavior and brain activity—and that could lead to a stunning overhaul of both educational and social policies, like rethinking Head Start–style programs that have traditionally emphasized early literacy. New approaches, he says, could focus on social and emotional development as well, since science now tells us that relationships and interactions with the environment sculpt the areas of the brain that control behavior (like the ability to concentrate), which also can affect academic achievement (like learning to read). “We are living in a revolution in biology now,” Shonkoff says, one in which new findings are finally giving us a real understanding of the interaction between nature and nurture.
For decades educators have attempted to offset the effects of poverty by immersing disadvantaged children with books and manipulative and engaging them in intellectual activities analogous to those that more affluent children experience on a daily basis. But researchers are finding that the intellectual stimulation is less important that the social and emotional stimulation. After recounting the trend toward oversimplification of the research findings, Mike Kemp concludes with this potential means of addressing the impacts of poverty on the development of a child’s brain:
Schools could add social and emotional learning courses to their elementary through high school curricula, designed to help children recognize and pay attention to their feelings, especially while coping with trauma and stress. Such courses could become requirements, like reading and math. That would require a massive re-evaluation of the priorities of our educational and development institutions—and some way of funding any new programs and tools deemed necessary.
Getting that to happen could take the kind of power wielded by Congress, local governments, school boards or the U.S. legal system. In 2013, Clancy Blair of the New York University Neuroscience and Education Lab, led a study that found the time a child spent in poverty, and in a household filled with chaos, was significantly related to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Blair says similar findings could be leveraged the way research in the past linked detrimental health outcomes to tobacco, sugar-filled drinks and junk food, and ultimately changed policies and regulation of those industries. Similarly, findings like those in Blair’s study could be used support legislation or even a landmark lawsuit targeting overcrowded living conditions, or unaffordable housing and child care.
Other systems that reinforce the cycle of poverty—inferior schools and community infrastructure; poorly protected neighborhoods and unchecked child abuse; environmental pollution; or lack of health care, public transportation and green space—could face legal challenges or new laws.
As one who is swayed by research findings and who believes that public education can make a difference, I would readily support any legislation that addressed the findings of researchers like Clancy Blair. But as one who witnesses legislators who deny climate change, who demonize teachers instead of making investments of any kind in public schools, and who want cheap, fast, and easy fixes to the complicated problems cited in this article, I fear that nothing will happen…. and the results of doing nothing will be an increase in the kind of heartless children like those described at the beginning of the article: ones who can witness a videotape of Malala Yousafzai and feel “nothing”. If we spend nothing on the improvement of social development we will get children who feel nothing.