Poverty Harms Students’ Brains

Most people understand that an unhealthy lifestyle adversely affects their health.  If you eat lots of junk food and don’t exercise, you’ll probably gain weight and may have high blood pressure or high cholesterol.  That’s no big surprise.

But, it may be a surprise to learn that the brain is affected by lifestyle.  In a new study, cognitive psychologists at the University of California found that in comparison with the brain functions of wealthy children, the brain functions of some low-income elementary school children are so much lower that it resembles the loss of brain function caused by a stroke.

The brain functions that are affected by poverty include the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls higher-order thinking and problem solving skills. 

The new study adds to the evidence that malnutrition, stress, illiteracy and toxic environments harm a child’s ability to do well in school.  Just like a poor diet leads to poor health, the brain’s neural networks may not develop properly when a child is raised in poverty.  Low-income students do not develop the “executive functions” that allow them to plan, remember details, and pay attention in school.

Fortunately, studies have found that the deficiencies in brain function caused by low-income environment can be reversed.  Through lessons and games that focus on the executive function skills, the brain can develop those skills.

If your family is  low-income, ask your child’s teacher for activities that you can do with your child at home that will help them develop higher-level thinking skills.  Providing a healthy diet is important.   Sometimes healthy foods are pricier than other foods, but try making just one or two different choices to  feed your child’s brain some power food.   Foods with high omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, walnuts, and kiwi are good for the brain.  Blueberries provide antioxidants, and spinach, orange juice, and yeast provide folic acid.  Diets heavy in trans fats and saturated fats may actually lower the brain’s learning capacity.  Buy as few processed food items as possible, and read the labels on cartons and cans of food.  For more information on the diet and the brain, go to www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080709161922.htm.  

Finally, sleep is important to developing brain functions.  If a child is stressed out over a long period of time, brain development is also affected.  Encourage good bedtime routines to help your child get the rest they need, and ask for help from your school or church if you think your child is suffering from long-term, constant stress.

Christmas is a time to focus on children.  As you focus on your own children, don’t forget about the children out there who are not as fortunate.  It’s important for those of us in the parenting and education arena to encourage the kind of focused intervention necessary for low-income students to develop the same cognitive skills as more privileged students. 

Please, volunteer with your communities literacy programs, volunteer at your child’s school, or become involved with programs that benefit poor families.  A small amount of your time might make a huge difference for a low-income child.


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