Children and Poverty and the Brain


A boy that we’ve known and worked with for the past couple of years is famous infamous for not being able to sit still. In school and during after school programs, he continuously gets up, interrupts, does cartwheels, etc. One time, I wondered if he was just being “bad,” or he couldn’t control it.

I told him, “I’ll give you a dollar if you can sit still and quiet for 5 minutes.” He accepted the challenge, and for the next 300 seconds, he clenched his hands together while facing the wall. For the last couple of minutes, his arms were shaking. He looked at me with longing eyes, as if he bet his life.

He succeeded, and I was glad. It would have crushed his soul, and mine, had he fallen short.

But it made me realize that for him to sit still requires the vast majority of his energy and concentration. So, how were we to expect him to actually learn in class, when most of his efforts were needed to focus? (And that assumes he was motivated enough to focus in the first place.)

What does this story mean? It’s an illustration of the effects of poverty on a developing brain.

Children and Poverty

From a press release of a report from the Society for Research in Children Development,

“While most children are looking forward to getting gifts during the upcoming holiday season, it is worth noting that one in five children live in poverty. Poverty is a major risk factor for children’s development and deep poverty is linked to a range of physical-biological, cognitive-academic, and social-emotional problems.”

Did you catch that? About twenty percent of children in the good ol’ USA live in poverty. We could list a number of short-term concerns about children living in poverty, such as the basic needs of clothing, health care, food, and warm homes. But we must also consider the long-term effects of poverty.

Long-Term Effects of Poverty

The typical child who grows up in poverty will have a lower economic productivity and higher health care costs over his or her lifetime. And as these children become parents, the cycle of generational poverty will continue.

Will giving resources, jobs, and health care to adults break the cycle? Not necessarily, and definitely not by themselves. Why? Because living in poverty not only changes brain structure (see Cuddling Is Good for Your Child’s Brain), it also changes the brain’s function.

Canadian researchers, led by Amedeo D’Angiulli, have used electroencephalography (EEG) and saliva samples to compare brain function for children of different socioeconomic statuses (SES). They found:

  • Lower SES children “have to exert more cognitive control to avoid attending to irrelevant stimuli than higher SES children.”
  • Lower SES children had higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that is released in response to stress. Prolonged high levels of cortisol can have significant physiological effects.

This boy I spoke of earlier needs help. I don’t know how much he’ll learn to control his actions, while also learning to focus. But I know that he won’t learn these things without the combination of stern guidance and gracious understanding.

This boy I spoke of earlier, and any child in poverty, needs a chance, and they need someone to show them unconditional love. He’s not going to grow up to be a heart surgeon (not mine, at least), but he needs basic life skills. Like how to sit still when his boss is meeting with him.

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**image courtesy of CherieWren via


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  1. Surprising Ways Your Brain Works | KidzMatter - October 14, 2013

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