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3 Studies: Poverty Is Toxic to Childhood Learning

Tanya H. Lee
3/5/14

No one doubts that poverty harms children’s ability to learn in myriad ways, from causing a child to go to school hungry and tired, to making unavailable the resources a child needs to do homework, to living in dangerous neighborhoods or households where domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse distract from schoolwork and may even prevent a child from going to school regularly.

But recent research indicates that poverty—and the stress it engenders in children’s lives—has even more serious impacts on children’s learning than previously thought because it can affect brain development. Some of the effects of stress on young brains directly affect cognitive skills, but many of the effects are to the so-called “soft skills” that are required if a child is to succeed in school. Those skills include focusing on a task, paying attention to the teacher, remembering what happened a few minutes ago, regulating emotions, not becoming distracted, controlling impulses, planning ahead, understanding consequences—the non-cognitive skills that are essential to learning.

Here is some of the research:

The Effects of Poverty on Childhood Brain Development

A study by Dr. Joan Luby et al. published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics in December, “The Effects of Poverty on Childhood Brain Development,” found that “exposure to poverty in early childhood materially impacts brain development at school age…. Poverty was associated with smaller white and cortical gray matter and hippocampal and amygdala volumes.” The authors point out that these findings put childhood poverty squarely in the realm of public health issues.

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