School Readiness, Poverty and Children’s Brain Development
A recent Press Democrat article (May 1, 2017) entitled “Learning Lag Still Persists” describes a Sonoma county study regarding school readiness, revealing how 60% of children enter kindergarten unprepared for social and academic activities. According to the study, 3 in 5 kids overall were not ready for kindergarten last fall. Further, three-quarters of kids from Spanish-speaking households were behind. The study addressed several student struggles such as an inability to focus on tasks, control their impulses, or recognize shapes, colors, or letters. As informative and important as the study is, there was little mention of the effects of poverty on children’s readiness, brain development and future school success.
With this in mind, I decided to move up the learning ladder and see what happens to these children’s brains that fall behind early in their school experiences and research successful programs that can reverse or at least mitigate such trends.
For example, researcher, Sean Reardon at Stanford University, recently completed an analysis showing that children in CA school districts with high levels of poverty score an average of four grade levels lower on tests in reading and math, far below peers from the most affluent districts. Further, kids born to low-income families have a greatly reduced chance of getting a college degree than children born to a high-income family, affecting economic and career opportunities (Gabriella & Bunge, 2017).
Moreover, an M.I.T. study compared the cortex’s (brain’s executive thinking area) thickness among 58 eighth-grade students from lower income versus higher income families. The results of the 2015 study showed that the lower income group had a thinner cortex in many areas of the brain. For all students, regardless of income, a thicker cortex was associated with better scores on statewide reading and math tests. Lastly, the study related family income, brain anatomy and education achievement to higher school achievement.
Interestingly, researchers also considered another factor concerning a reduced cortex. That is, a reduced cortex may simply be due to the negative effects of impoverished environments or what researchers described as a “protective adaptation to such environments”(Gabrieli and Bunge, 2017)). In other words, “accelerated thinning could diminish the influence of negative experiences on the developing brain.” In short, the researchers theorized that preventing the brain from being shaped by negative school experiences over the course of many years could be a cause of what researchers describe as an “adaptive evolutionary response” or thinning of the cortex.
There are a number of ways researchers suggest how to improve learning for disadvantaged children. First, it can come from prevention of negative impacts, such as sleep, nutrition, and then remediation or cognitive and academic skill development and for parents in areas such as finances, career development, and parenting strategies.
One approach is a program called Kids in Transition to School. The KITS program offers 24 sessions of therapeutic play for children as well as an eight-session workshop for parents. The program addresses children’s basic classroom skills (raising hands, taking turns, etc.) while their parents learn strategies about routines with children that encourage positive behavior. A follow-up study of the KITS program showed that nonverbal IQ and language skills increased (Gabrieli and Bunge, 2017).
Another program called “Tools of the Mind Curriculum” serves as an alternative to the traditional kindergarten. The curriculum focuses on building executive functions through “scaffolding play.” Scaffolding play enables a child to solve a problem, carry out a task or achieve a goal that is just beyond his or her abilities. In 2014, follow-up studies found this program to be especially beneficial to high poverty preschoolers.
Due to the brain’s resilience, researchers see hope for disadvantaged children. The most successful programs will involve multiple, regular sessions that incorporate children, caregivers and educators engaging in a range of skills in a diverse manner. However, the best approach would be public policies and societal changes that attempt to reduce child poverty and income inequality as well school readiness. (Gabrieli and Bunge, 2017). David Sortino Ph.D., a Graton resident, is director of The Neurofeedback Institute: Go to his blog and/or email him: neurofeedbackinstitute.blogspot.com.