Poverty and Kids' Brains

I heard you give a talk not too long ago about how brain science can help us understand and solve many of our educational challenges. Can brain science explain the "achievement gap" that we teachers are struggling to close?

--Kim, McKinney, TX

Thanks Kim.  The answer to that question is an emphatic "yes." A full answer would go beyond what I can write here. In fact, I have developed an entire workshop on "Poverty and Brain Development." Here are the main points to remember.

  • The achievement gap is caused by poverty. The differences are not attributed to race or ethnicity.

  • Neuroscientists have begun to study the brain development differences between low socieconomic (SES) children and their middle and high SES peers.

  • They have found significant differences in attention, working memory, long term memory, executive function, and spatial reasoning. It goes without saying that these cognitive functions are critical for classroom success.

  • The evidence is clear that poverty causes the deficits not the other way around. The main culprits are likely nutrition, iron deficiency, chronic stress, and impoverished learning environments.

  • Here’s one example: Low SES children spend about 25 hours in one to one picture book reading by the time they enter kindergarten. Their middle SES peers have logged approximately 1,700 hours.

  • The important and good news is that all of this is reversible. Economists have shown that investment in early childhood and pre-school programs for low SES children produces a great return on the investment. Kindergarten readiness is key.

  • Brain science tells us that current moves to cut funding for early childhood programs makes no sense whatsoever. It’s the equivalent of shooting ourselves in the foot.

For a quick summary, check out my tips to closing the achievement gap for kids.