Life is Stress: The Impact of Poverty on Childhood Brain Development

by Sharon DuPree on January 19, 2011

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Think of the most stressful moments of your life– the times when you’ve felt the most anxious, the most afraid or the least confident.  Imagine that argument with your spouse just before leaving home in the morning, only to be rear-ended by the aggressive tail-gater and then arriving at school to teach that class of antsy third graders or administer an important test. How would you do? Children in poverty—children who come from family environments plagued by unemployment, abuse and neglect, chronic housing mobility and the like—suffer stress levels higher and more chronic than the exceptional “bad morning.” This stress has a profound impact on their cognitive abilities.

In Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids Brains and What Schools Can Do About It, author Eric Jensen discusses the results of scientific studies which demonstrate that the precarious conditions under which impoverished children live affect the development of their pre-frontal cortex.  The chronic stress experienced by children living in poverty can result in working memory impairments, limited life/coping skills and socio-emotional trauma that negatively impact their ability to learn and to manage daily life. In fact, according to a 2008 study appearing in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience the neural systems of poor children actually develop differently from those of middle-class children, affecting language development and the ability for children to plan, remember details and pay attention in school. 

The good news is that these brain development delays can be reversed through intensive interventions.  Some of these interventions can take place within the school environment. Therefore, school administrators must provide adequate resources for appropriate classroom instruction.  Teachers can help these students by developing strategies that focus on building the following core skills:

  • Attention & focus
  • Short & long-term memory
  • Sequencing & processing
  • Problem-solving, perseverance and ability to apply skills in the long-term
  • School social skills/norms
  • Self-esteem & confidence

In addition to in-school academic interventions, schools can collaborate with community partners to address the health and socio-emotional challenges associated with poverty and its related issues of chronic stress.

The Annie E. Casey Making Connections Initiative is designed to provide the recommended collaborative community partnerships that address challenges associated with health and attendance issues for students from low socio-economic backgrounds. It is important for school administrators and teachers to understand that the underachievement evidenced in reading assessments of children from impoverished backgrounds may arise from delays in brain development. Importantly, achievement gaps can be decreased by implementing targeted interventions developed from individual reading success plans. These plans should include small group reading intervention instruction that helps students with sequencing & processing and the ability to apply newly learned skills in the long term.  Implementation of other programs such as Caring School Community and Time to Teach help build school social skills, self-esteem and confidence. Foundations’ consultant Valerie Salley described one such program for this blog back in September.

Although the assertion of psychologist Elizabeth Gould that “poverty is stress,” is true; educators can not only take some of the stress out of learning, but can help to heal the damage that students suffer from the stress in other areas of their lives.

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