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 2008 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.
Beginning at birth, the attachment formed between parent and child predicts the quality of future relationships with teachers and peers and plays a leading role in the development of curiosity, arousal, emotional regulation, independence and social competence. The brains of infants are hardwired for only six emotions: joy, anger, surprise, disgust, sadness and fear. To grow up with the tools to be emotionally and socially healthy, children under age 3 need a strong, reliable primary caregiver who provides consistent and unconditional love, guidance, and support; safe, predictable, stable, nurturing, loving environments; 10 to 20 hours each week of harmonious, reciprocal interactions; and enrichment through personalized, increasingly complex activities.
Children raised in poverty are much less likely to have these crucial needs met than are their more affluent peers, and, as a result, are subject to some grave consequences. Deficits in these areas inhibit the production of new brain cells, alter the path of maturation and rework the healthy neural circuitry in children’s brains, thereby undermining emotional and social development and predisposing them to emotional dysfunction.
In many poor households, parental education is substandard, time is short and warm emotions are at a premium—factors that put the attunement process at risk. Caregivers tend to be overworked, overstressed and authoritarian with children, using the same harsh disciplinary strategies used by their own parents. They often lack warmth and sensitivity and fail to form solid, healthy relationships with their children. Parents living in prolonged poverty are also often overwhelmed by diminished self-esteem, depression and a sense of powerlessness and inability to cope—feelings that may get passed along to their children in the form of insufficient nurturing, negativity and a general failure to focus on dependents’ needs. A 2001 study of emotional problems of children of single mothers found that the stress of poverty increases depression rates among mothers, which results in an increased use of physical punishment. Children themselves are also susceptible to depression; research shows that poverty and prolonged stressors are major predictors of teenage depression.
Chronic Stressors and Children’s Brain Development
Some stressors that children living in prolonged poverty experience are having very young, single or low-educational-level parents; poor nutrition; parents or guardians experiencing chronic unemployment; abuse and neglect; substance abuse; dangerous neighborhoods; homelessness and mobility; and exposure to inadequate educational experiences.
Chronic stress is a state of ongoing physiological arousal. This occurs when children have so many stressors, like the ones above, that they remain in a heightened state of arousal and do not feel they have any control over the stressors. Their autonomic nervous system rarely has a chance to activate the relaxation response. Our fight-or-flight response, which was designed to help us fight a few life-threatening situations (acute stress) spaced out over a long period (like being attacked by a bear every so often), can wear down our bodies and cause us to have brain damage or become ill, either physically or emotionally. Chronic stressors can have a negative impact on the parts of our brain responsible for memory, attention, language development, reading, emotions, goal-setting and overall cognitive development—all important for success in school.
Three Parts of Children’s Brains Affected by Chronic Stressors
A cognitive-response study in 2009 noted that chronic stressors have a physiological impact on a child’s prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and amygdala. The prefrontal cortex, located in the very front of the head, behind the forehead, carries out executive functioning—i.e., short-term memory, social and emotional control, problem-solving, decision-making, planning, thinking, goal-setting and the ability to suppress urges which, if not suppressed, could lead to socially-unacceptable outcomes.
The hippocampus is a part of the limbic system, often called the emotional brain. It plays important roles with emotions and in consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory, important for memory and learning. A damaged hippocampus in children can negatively impact their memory.
The amygdala is also a part of the limbic system and deals with emotions, helping to process memories and managing response to fear and stress. The amygdala’s job is to determine how to respond to a wow type of event, be it an emergency or something that simply startles a child—any type of event that produces an emotional response.
Stress wreaks havoc on children’s brains. Scientists believe that stress changes the activities of neurotransmitters, chemical messengers in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and amygdala; suppresses the creation of new neurons in the three parts of the brain; causes neurons to undergo remodeling of dendrites—part of the brain’s communication network—for the worse; and shrinks the volume of the parts of the brain most closely associated with working memory, the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus.
If the stressors have not been removed, the adrenal glands secrete a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is intended for use in short-term stressful situations, such as fleeing from a dangerous animal. When a person suffers from chronic stress, including the stress of poverty, the long-term presence of cortisol can damage brain cells. The hippocampus is particularly sensitive to cortisol levels and suffers the most damage.
Nutrition and Children’s Brain Development
Brain research has indicated that the foods children eat or do not eat affect their brain development, functioning and behavior. Chemicals released in response to stress and from foods can prevent higher-order thinking. Chronic stress causes the body to deplete nutrients, inhibits the growth of dendrites and limits interconnections among neurons. The results are no nutrients available for learning; thinking is slowed; learning is depressed. When protein foods, often lacking in diets of poor children, are digested, tyrosine is released into the bloodstream. Tyrosine becomes L-dopa in the brain and is then converted into dopamine. Dopamine produces a feeling of alertness, attentiveness, quick thinking, motivation and mental energy. Fear of failure, isolation and trauma, usually present in poor children, cause dopamine to be converted into norepinephrine. This causes alertness to be converted into aggression and agitation. When nutrition is poor, children have difficulty tolerating frustration and stress, become apathetic, and are non-responsive, inactive and irritable. How can they even attempt to learn?
Carbohydrate foods cause the production of serotonin. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression and low self-esteem. The body manufactures its own serotonin when an individual experiences positive self-esteem, success in problem-solving and other accomplishments. Teachers should find ways for students to be successful, thereby increasing levels of serotonin. In terms of nutrition, students should have access to breakfast and lunch programs, as well as nutritious snacks.
In the end
Children of poverty do not choose to behave differently in school, but they are faced daily with overwhelming challenges that affluent children never have to confront. Their brains have adapted to suboptimal conditions affecting the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and amygdala in ways that undermine good emotional and social behavior and academic performance. We believe that school systems should meet the needs of these students. Happily there are schools such as Timbuktu Academy that are implementing strategies like the Brain Education System to address improvements in attention, memory, readiness for learning, focus, concentration, self-confidence and self-esteem.
Living in poverty and experiencing chronic stressors present students with an extraordinary challenge to academic and social success. This reality does not mean that success in school or life is impossible. On the contrary, a better understanding of these challenges points to actions educators and administrators can take to help these students succeed.
Brain-development issues caused by chronic stressors can be reversed through intensive interventions. Some of these interventions can take place at home and within the day-to-day school environment. For example, at Timbuktu Academy, reflection time (meditation) was added every morning for all Junior High and 9th graders. The school also has Family Groups. Each faculty member has about 10 students assigned to them, and they meet with them each day as a family. The teachers personally bond with them. Both of these strategies affect positive neurotransmitters and help the brain get ready for learning. The children are more open to listening and paying attention.
Brain Education Curriculum
At Timbuktu Academy, the Brain Education organization conducted highly experiential professional-development training to introduce the Brain Education curriculum to the staff. The experiential brain-focused curriculum involved brain-related activities to help students to increase attention, memory, focus, concentration and relaxation, and how to reduce unhealthy stress, as well as teaching exercises and movements to improve readiness to learn.
The brain-related activities aimed to increase self-confidence, self-esteem and ways to control social and emotional behavior. Current brain research supports this type of instruction for students struggling in reading, writing and spelling. This training was followed up with Timbuktu Academy faculty training sessions with Dr. Kenneth Wesson, a leader in assisting faculty with understanding children’s brain functioning and learning.
Whole Brain Teaching
Faculty trained in Whole Brain Teaching focused on how the brain learns best—especially for students in high-poverty schools. It is a method that integrates an effective classroom management system with learning approaches that tap the way the brain learns best. It is a multisensory approach to instruction, which helps students learn through more than one of the senses at the same time. Students are taught using all pathways of learning simultaneously, in order to enhance memory and learning.
Whole Brain Teaching classroom environments are encouraging and student-centered. At Timbuktu, we believe that teaching methods must be aligned with what cognitive science tells us about the brain and how learning happens. For example, educators need to make allowances for the limitations of working memory and the fact that we all need extensive practice to gain mastery in just about anything we are learning. In addition, we encourage faculty to use multimodality strategies along with multisensory approaches.
Timbuktu Academy faculty was also trained in Phonics First. It is RLAC’s (Reading and Language Arts Center) accredited methodology to teaching literacy, which our students need. It is prescriptive, structured, sequential, cumulative, cognitive and flexible. Based on how the brain learns best.
In addition, faculty was trained in Zoophonics, which is also a multisensory language-arts program based on phonemic awareness and phonics, taught kinesthetically and mnemonically. It is a kinesthetic, multimodal approach to learning all aspects of language arts.
Timbuktu faculty has been trained in Math Corps, a system out of Wayne State University that recognizes how the brain learns best and the cognitive mechanisms for learning mathematics and ways to differentiate mathematics instruction through a multisensory approach.
For these methods to succeed in schools like Timbuktu Academy, teachers must be highly effective, hard-working, committed and able. There must be high expectations for student success, success for themselves, parents and the community. There are no excuses; there is no blame for students’ low achievement. What is needed always is more time on-task, instructional time, extended day, extended school year, Saturdays and summer. Also there must be relentless use of data, ongoing, diagnostic assessment of student progress and multiple opportunities for improvement.
Warrington S. Parker, Jr., PhD, is the president of Magnum Educational Management Company. Brenda A. Parker is the principal of Timbuktu Academy of Science and Technology in Detroit, Michigan. The academy enrolls over 450 students and is considered a high-poverty school.