Sunday, April 19, 2009

poverty, neuroscience, and stress

when we came home last night my husband had left the economist from april 4th on my bedside, folded to a story whose subtitle read "neuroscience and social deprivation." how well does he know me?

new research has been completed on the impact of poverty on the brain. researchers out of the university of pennsylvania found that "the working memories of children who have been raised in poverty have smaller capacities than those of middle-class children". this is something any of us could have inferred from our work with these kiddos, but of course, it is only observation. now, they've completed the research that proves it.

the most significant factor of what impacts working memory is not the child's birthweight, the mother's age at the child's birth, whether or not the child was raised in a one parent or two parent household, or even if the child is raised in a middle class or in poverty. the number one impact on working memory is stress on the child.

other research has shown that "stress changes the activity of neurotransmitters" so that it actually suppresses the generation of new nerve cells and forces existing ones to remodel. (all this paraphrased/copied from the economist- it's too early to worry about putting into my own words).

so the little one i work with who can't remember his abc's- it's because of the drama happening every night at home... drama keeping his brain from developing. his working memory isn't stepping up to take on this new information. nor is the little girl whose in charge of making sure her brothers and sisters get fed at night. or the little boy from the middle class household whose mother is always telling him he's not smart enough, boyish enough, or strong enough. no wonder he struggled to get the most basic work completed. or the child from the incredibly loving family whose just journeyed over here as a refuge from ethiopia?

of course, what happens when we take these young third graders and add onto their already stressful lives with standardized testing? what happens to their short-term memory then?

i'm going to get on google scholar and see if i can get the actual research. i don't know what it means for us, as teachers, other than we can continue to provide children with a nurturing environment. i wonder if the next step will be research on how we can keep keep children's nerve cells in their brain from remodeling.


Snippety Gibbet said...

Fascinating. It makes so much sense.

Joe Burke said...

Here's the paper by UPenn reseracher Farrah, et al:

The article goes on to mention this paper by Gary Evans and Michelle Schamberg of Cornell University:
This paper uses a more precise method of measuring stress and ends up with similar results.

Here's some interesting commentary on the statistics of the two studies and their presentation in the Economist article:

Greg said...

I remember reading Hart & Risley's study (the 30 Million Word Gap, nicely discussed here) toward the end of my masters program and wondering why I was teaching high school instead of early childhood.

The conclusion I draw from all of this is that educational change will come from systemic change. If we think more systemically (and teach kids to do the same), they'll be ready to do the same.