How Poverty Affects Children’s Minds and What We Can Do About It

ACE tutor Nicole embraces our mission to teach reading to K-2nd graders in Title I schools because she is interested in combatting the effects of poverty through education. She recently read Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It. Through the book, Nicole gets a glimpse into how poverty’s negative effects on children’s minds can be changed for the better.

As you may have heard, 60% of public school children in Texas live in poverty. This number itself is alarming, but the damage caused by poverty is much more sinister. Study after study has found that socioeconomic status is significantly correlated with children’s academic success, particularly in the early grades. And the stresses and realities of living in a high-poverty household and neighborhood have measurable effects on children’s brains and psyches, putting them at a disadvantage before they even step foot into a school. Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken to reverse these damages and give children the fair chance they deserve.

The term “poverty” often brings to mind vague images of destitution, but what are the exact stresses that children in a low-income household deal with day-to-day? Children in poverty often live in crowded and/or deteriorated households in high-crime neighborhoods. I recall a student of mine who had to sleep on the couch every night because her family did not have enough room in their little apartment for her own bed. She also had no one to read to her and few books in her apartment, which is in line with findings that impoverished children have fewer educational materials in their households than the children of more affluent parents. With this lack of intellectual stimulation and the threat of crime and ever present safety hazards, poor children have to be more concerned about surviving in their world than discovering more about it.

Equally unsettling are the psychological stresses of living in poverty. Guardians of impoverished children are often single parents living with considerable stress, and who may be less emotionally available. A second-grade student I tutored last year dealt with these difficulties. She lived with her grandparents because her father was in jail. Her mother would often tantalize her with the possibility of visiting but not follow through. Unsupportive psychological environments contribute to children feeling isolated and unstable upon entering school. Without this need fulfilled, it is difficult for students to focus on learning when they are in such need of love and support.

These effects of these realities are more than speculation. Kids’ brains have had to systematically adapt to the concerns they deal with everyday and have physically changed accordingly. Chronic stress like that experienced by children in poverty has been shown to shrink the neurons in the frontal lobe[1]. The frontal lobe controls such functions as judgment, decision-making, and impulse control. How are kids supposed to sit still and pay attention in class when the part of their brain responsible for controlling their impulse to move and talk to their friends has literally shrunk?

Furthermore, this type of chronic stress impairs the hippocampus – a part of the brain essential for learning and memory – while it simultaneously increases the complexity of the neurons in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for our emotional responses[2]. What this means is that children in poverty’s brains readily remember and respond to negative emotional events but have difficulty storing knowledge. Clearly, this makes school especially challenging. I myself have seen students reduced to tears after having trouble memorizing letter sounds or sight words. Their brains have made memorizing things difficult and heightened their negative emotional response to the challenge. These brain changes create a cycle where a child experiences academic failure and becomes overly disappointed in herself. This then discourages her from trying harder, leading to another academic failure and continuing the cycle.

With these structural brain changes in mind, it is no wonder that poor children score well below affluent children on the vast majority of cognitive tasks, including reading capability. Reading is incredibly important for the healthy development of the childhood brain. Strong family support is invaluable in producing a literate child. However, due largely to a lack of time and expertise, impoverished families are often unable to provide this support for their children. The gaps between poor and wealthy children’s scores on reading tasks clearly demonstrate the effect of this lack of support. It has been found that children raised by professional parents add words to their vocabularies at twice the rate of children from poorer families.

So children from low-income households suffer from intense psychological stressors, isolation, lack of intellectual stimulation, and even physical changes to the brain. It’s understandably easy to get discouraged about the prospect of improving impoverished children’s situations. But all hope is not lost! Not even close. There has been much research on how to reverse the damage done by poverty, and it is well within the realm of possibility. With the right actions and interventions, children from low-income households can overcome their circumstances and succeed academically and personally.

Fortunately, our brains are actually designed for change – a quality called neuroplasticity[3]. Just as the stresses of an impoverished life negatively altered children’s brains, positive experiences at school can change their brains for the better. Educational interventions like the reading interventions provided by ACE tutors like me have been found to have the potential to minimize the performance gap between poor and wealthy children. Quality enrichment programs have been shown to improve language ability, cognitive processes, and even emotional intelligence.

Interventions and schools that use data to guide their decisions and take into account the psychological and biological issues unique to children in poverty have effectively helped students succeed. Though a majority of children in public schools in Texas are living in poverty today, we need not be discouraged and we must not be complacent. If we can commit ourselves to taking the steps necessary to combat the effects of poverty on our students, we can help them develop the strong brains they need to succeed in school. That is why I’m an ACE reading tutor. I know that I’m helping reverse the effects of poverty and increasing opportunities for lifelong learning for my students!

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References Cited in This Article and Teaching With Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It

Cook, S.C., & Wellman, C.L. (2004). Chronic Stress alters dendritic morphology in rat medial prefrontal cortex. Neurobiology, 60(2), 236-248.

Driemeyer, J., Boyke, J., Gaser, C., Buchel, C., & May, A. (2008). Changes in gray matter induced by learning – Revisited, PLoS ONE, 3(7), e2669

Meinzer, M., Elbert, T., Wienbruch, C., Djunda, D., Barthel, G., & Rockstroh, B. (2004, August). Intensive language training enhances brain plasticity in chronic aphasia. BMC Biology, 2, 20.

Vythilingam, M., Heim, C., Newport, J., Miller, A. H., Anderson, E., Bronen, R., et al. (2002). Childhood trauma associated with smaller hippocampal volume in women with major depression. American Journal of Psychiatry, 159(12),2072-2080.

[1] Cook & Wellman, 2004.
[2] Vythilingam et al., 2002.
[3] Meinzer et al. 2009; Driemeyer, Boyke, Gaser, Buchel, & May, 2008.