Disrupting the Effects of Poverty on the Young Child’s Brain

Growing up poor can be devastating for children. Their home environments are often unpredictable and uncertain. They can’t always count on nourishing food at mealtimes or relief from an earache or a painful cough by getting quality health care. Their parents are often unable to offer them a childhood that is nurturing and that fosters attachment and a sense of security. Age-appropriate learning materials, adult/child conversation and an attachment to books may be missing in these homes. Due to all of these factors and others, children from impoverished homes are under constant stress. These conditions, often beginning in infancy and continuing throughout toddlerhood and the early childhood years, result in children entering kindergarten lacking the prerequisite skills necessary for success. In particular, studies show that language development is affected. Studies tell us that children from low socio-economic environments suffer as much as a 30 million word gap at kindergarten when compared with their peers from middle and upper income homes. This means that children from disadvantaged environments speak and understand fewer words. This language deficiency continues and even widens as children progress through the grades. School is a language rich environment and children need to understand and process the spoken and written word in order grow and development. There is now ample scientific evidence that explains why poverty is so detrimental to young children and why it can lead to more poverty.

During the process of human development the brain expands at its most rapid rate during the years of infancy, toddlerhood and the early childhood years. Young brains need to experience stimulation, emotional attachment and healthy social interactions in the early years in order to lay the foundations for later school learning, a healthy sense of self and positive social relationships. Poverty alters the young child’s brain by reducing the number of brain cells in areas of the brain that help with memory, language and emotions all of which play a major role in learning. Researchers tell us that young children exposed to poverty have smaller brain volumes than children not living in poverty. By the age of three, for example, the pathways in the language area of the brain associated with vocabulary development are well established. If by age three children have not been enriched with language building activities that enhance these pathways, they may have difficulty building and developing vocabulary later on. They may also lack the persistence, desire and self-regulation skills needed to attend to learning. Happily there are measures that can be taken within communities to disrupt the damage that poverty inflicts on young children thereby interrupting what has become intergenerational poverty.

To disrupt the effects of poverty on children, communities around the country have invested in a variety of programs. In some cases agencies have trained practitioners to make weekly home visits during the early months of life to teach parents about nurturing parent behaviors that ensure healthy attachments between children and their parents. In other communities high quality educare programs have been established. These programs care for the very young but also engage them in learning practices suitable to the age of the child. There is often a parent education program attached. Others have weekly programs at locations such as libraries, churches or community centers where parents bring their infants and toddlers and learn how to use appropriate educational materials with their children. These programs teach parents how to read to babies and toddlers. Many of these early childhood initiatives have been researched so communities wishing to embark on one or more of these interventions will find ample evidence for implementation. Often agencies of various kinds come together in a community to guide the development of these practices. A needs assessment is usually completed and then the representatives from agencies and community organizations determine what kinds of services are needed to address the problem of educating children with the greatest need. Communities may offer many kinds of programs so parents can select one that meets their needs. High quality must characterize both the training of those who work with parents and children and in the selection and implementation of the program. Too often we try to do this on the cheap and the results are inadequate.

Poor children have few advocates and little voice in their circumstances. They depend upon caring and compassionate adults to speak and advocate for them. Many social service agencies and other community groups are working hard to meet the needs of these children and their families but the case loads are heavy and the need is great. In a recent report before the Gaston County School Board, it was reported that about 50% of children who entered kindergarten in Gaston County this fall did not have all the skills needed to begin school. Investing in quality early childhood programs has shown benefits. Studies show that these children have increased cognitive abilities, are more healthy, have fewer social and emotional problems, and cost local, state and federal governments less money when compared with children from similar socio-economic backgrounds who have not benefitted from high quality infant, toddler and preschool programs. Investing in human development at the very earliest stages of life is one of the best investments Gaston County can make.

Marilyn E. Mecca, Ph.D. Child Development and Early Childhood Education
Professor Emeritus, Lander University, Greenwood, SC; Resident of Gastonia.

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