Poverty, Stress, and the Brain

Poverty-ASCD-Cover-75pFrom Teaching with Poverty in Mind (Eric Jensen):

Although the body is well adapted to deal with short-term threats to homeostasis, chronic or acute stressors challenge the body differently. Among low-income families, stressors may include living in overcrowded, substandard housing or unsafe neighborhoods; enduring community or domestic violence, separation or divorce, or the loss of family members, and experiencing financial strain, forced mobility or material deprivation (Evans & English, 2002).

The frequency and intensity of both stressful life events and daily hassles are greater among low-SES children (Attar, Guerra, & Tolan, 1994). For example, in any given year, more than half of all poor children deal with evictions, utility disconnections, overcrowding, or lack of a stove or refrigerator, compared with only 13 percent of well-off children (Lichter, 1997). . . .

More often than than not, low-income parents are overstressed in trying to meet the daily needs of their families. The resulting depressing and negativity often lead to insufficient nurturing, disengaged parenting, and a difficulty in focusing on the needs of children.

Compared with middle-income children, low-SES children are exposed to higher levels of familial violence, disruption, and separation (Emery & Laumann Billings, 1998). Lower levels of parental education and occupation also correlate with greater incidence of neighborhood crimes (Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997). And compared with their well-off peers, 2- to 4-year-olds from low-income families interact with aggressive peers 40 percent more often in their neighborhoods and 25 percent more often in child care settings (Sinclair, Pettit, Harrist, Dodge, & Bates, 1994). . . .

The cost of these constant stressors is hard to quantify. Exposure to chronic or acute stress is hardwired into children’s developing brains, creating a devastating, cumulative effect (Coplan et al., 1996). Compared with a healthy neuron, a stressed neuron generates a weaker signal, handles less blood flow, processes less oxygen, and extends fewer connective branches to nearby cells.

The prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, crucial for learning, cognition, and working memory, are the areas of the brain most affected by cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone.” Experiments have demonstrated that exposure to chronic or acute stress actually shrinks neurons in the brain’s frontal lobes — an area that includes the prefrontal cortex and is responsible for such functions as making judgments, planning, and regulating impulsivity (Cook & Wellman, 2004) — and can modify and impair the hippocampus in ways that reduce learning capacity (Vythilingam et al., 2002).

Unpredictable stressors severely impair the brain’s capacity to learn and remember (Yang et al., 2003). . . .

Chronic, unmediated stress often results in a condition known as an allostatic load. Allostatic load is “carryover” stress. Instead of returning to a healthy baseline of homeostasis, the growing brain adapts to negative life experiences so that it becomes either hyper-responsive or hypo-responsive.

I had the pleasure of hearing Eric Jensen talk at the National Youth-At-Risk Conference. This book is HIGH on my recommendation list. You can buy it by clicking the link below:

Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do about It

Related Links:

**bottom image courtesy of Wikipedia

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