18 February 2008

Poverty and Brain Development

On Saturday, the Financial Times reported the following: "Poverty in early childhood poisons the brain." Family stresses over finances and daily living contribute to the under-development of the critical neural networks for children even before they are born.

Martha Farah - who directs University of Pennsylvania's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience - said, "The biggest effects are on language and memory. The finding about memory impairment - the ability to encounter a pattern and remember it - really surprised us."

We know that the bulk (80%) of brain development occurs between birth and age three. How the brain is hardwired in utero and in early toddlerhood sets the stage for what happens later in life. Interventions that target very young children, and especially those in poverty, can help to offset the negative influences that poverty brings in a child's life. Children in poverty are more likely to live near and interact with other children facing the same challenges - places called areas of concentrated poverty. They are also more likely to attend school with other students who are Economically Disadvantaged (i.e. eligible for Free and Reduced Price Lunches).

A New York Times op-ed by Paul Krugman amplifies these sentiments: "Living in or near poverty has always been a form of exile. But the distance between the poor and the rest of us is much greater than it was 40 years ago, because most American incomes have risen in real terms while the official poverty line has not. To be poor in America today, even more than in the past, is to be an outcast in your own country. And that, the neuroscientists tell us, is what poisons a child's brain."

Not only is it the neural networks but the social networks that matter to a child's development. The more social networks - the social safety net - the better the chances are that a child will grow up in a safe, nurturing environment. The more neural networks, the better the brain functions in the long run. When it comes to brain development, more IS better.

There are three important things to remember about interventions which target children facing poverty:
  1. Proven programs work. Head Start has had tremendous success in giving disadvantaged children a lift. Early Head Start - the program which works with pregnant moms and children until their third birthday - is a tremendous asset to children and families in poverty.
  2. Every little bit helps. Talking to your child more. Looking your child in the eyes. Using more words (5-word sentences are best). Reading to and with your children. All these things contribute to gains that last over a lifetime.
  3. The effects of specific programs and interventions as well as what happens every day at home and in the community to alleviate the effects of poverty are cumulative.

1 comment:

Doug said...

This article underscores the 'path dependent' nature of child and family well-being. The additional difficulties confronting families in poverty - including food insecurity and turbulent housing situations - heighten the levels of toxic stress facing children and their caregivers, adding to the challenges in their path.