Down and Out and Going to School

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


Teachers in schools with students living in prolonged poverty often get frustrated. In areas where a majority of students live in poverty, teachers often complain about students’ chronic tardiness, the high rate of absenteeism, lack of motivation to study, low academic achievement, disruptive social and emotional behavior, difficulty paying attention to instructions and remembering what has been taught, as well as students’ inability to process information as quickly as it is being presented.

The loss of confidence that follows can negatively impact motivation, behavior, and self-esteem, and harm overall academic performance. Often teachers blame parents or guardians and the home situation for their student’s low academic achievement, poor cognitive development, and disruptive social and emotional behavior. They say that parents or guardians do not read to their children, do not encourage their children to read and do not provide enriching mental experiences or teach them proper social and emotional behavior.

But we rarely hear teachers say a contributing factor to poor students’ emotional and social behavior and poor academic performance in school may be related to the brain and the negative effects of brain development of children living in poverty conditions, experiencing chronic stressors. We believe teachers and school administrators should know more about how the brain functions and about student learning. They should be aware of emerging neuroscience-research results reporting a strong relationship between children living in prolonged poverty and the negative effects on their brain development. The brain damage is reported to affect three parts of the brain — the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala — causing a negative impact on social and emotional behavior, memory, attention, concentration, academic achievement, cognitive development, goal-setting, decision-making, and planning.

The damage to a child’s brain cells from prolonged poverty is similar to a child being hit hard in the head with an object. However, children do not have to be stuck with this damage, because of the brain’s neuroplasticity, its ability to change over a lifetime. Various strategies based on research have proven successful and could alter how educators approach their students and their teaching strategies in classrooms of high-poverty schools.

Emerging research suggests that growing up poor isn’t merely hard on kids; it might also be bad for their brains. According to a study appearing in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, the neural systems of poor children actually develop differently from those of middle-class children. There is a physiological, neurological or biological effect on children’s brains starting at an early age, eventually showing up in school and affecting them through adolescence and adulthood.

Infants in Poverty

Recent research contends that weak or anxious attachments formed by infants in poverty become the basis for full-blown insecurity during early childhood, and this shows up in the classroom. Very young children require healthy attachments, learning, and exploration for optimal brain development. Unfortunately, in impoverished families, there is higher prevalence of such adverse factors as teen motherhood, depression, and inadequate health care — all of which lead to decreased sensitivity toward the infant. As a result, children later face emotional and social instability, as well as poor school behavior and academic performance. Often, if a mother is abusing drugs, under tremendous stress, being physically abused before a child is born can add to the lack of social and emotional support after they are born.


New research suggests that the complex web of social relationships children experience early in life — with family members, peers, and adults in their school — exerts a much greater influence on their brains and behavior than researchers had previously assumed. This process starts with students’ core relationships with parents or primary caregivers in their lives, which form personalities that are either secure and attached or insecure and unattached. Securely attached children between birth and 24 months typically behave better in school.

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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1 Comment

  1. It’s not that all teachers are not aware, many are now and are implementing web based technology that are bearing real results, it is more that school curriculum and policy is driven more from the top now then ever and rarely are those the people in the classroom. Programs like Sci Learn are also showing huge results, but it’s not cheap and it’s been an uphill battle getting the program through the upper strata of budget driven policy makers.

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