How Poverty Affects a Child’s Brain and Education

Although children are some of the most resilient creatures on earth. Living in poverty has risks that can cause children all types of issues. That makes you wonder, does poverty have an effect on a child’s brain development? The million dollar question. How does poverty affect children’s brain development? Poverty can cause health and behavioral issues. There is suggestive evidence that living in poverty may alter the way a child’s brain develops and grows, which can, in turn, alter the child’s life.

From birth to the age of four is when the human brain grows the fastest. The frontal lobe or control center manages cognitive functions like planning, organizing, attention span and impulse control. The parietal lobe controls sensory processing, things like interpreting and understanding sensory stimulation and visual attention. Since the frontal and parietal lobes are the last parts of the brain to develop, growing continuously throughout the childhood years, they are vulnerable to environmental stress.

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MRI scans of children’s brains at different stages show children that come from affluent families have a significantly higher average of frontal and parietal lobes than those children born into poverty. The same studies have also shown lower gray matter growth over the first three years, even though newborns had approximately the same volume of gray matter on both sides of the spectrum. This suggests that everyone begins life with almost the same amounts of gray matter.

The scales begin to tilt, and the stressors of poverty take its toll on the vulnerable children from families on the low end of the socioeconomic ladder.

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Before long variables like inadequate housing, physical abuse, and neglect to name a few aids in slowing the children’s learning ability well before they are of school age.

“Poverty seems to put children’s brains on a different trajectory of development. It’s slowing the development of the brains of infants living in poverty.” Children that are raised in poverty have obstacles that wealthy children probably wouldn’t understand, or have the ability to cope with if they had to live life on the other side briefly. Children raised by parents low on the socioeconomic scale are less likely to give their children the cognitive stimulation a young mind needs. Dysfunction in the household, living in high crime neighborhoods and not having access to resources like computers, libraries or space to play doesn’t help the situation. Parents are stressed out and leave children to their own devices instead of engaging their kids in conversation that would greatly help with the child’s development.

Policies put in place to help low-income families with children like Earned Income Credit (EIC) started to reduce hardship and increase the families income. Researchers say that benefits like EIC are not only cost-effective but will allow parents the ability to invest in their children, causing an increase in achievement in school. High-Quality preschool programs have also been implemented. There is strong evidence that enrichment programs for three and four-year-olds are also cost-effective and increase successful outcomes for the families.

To combat neglect and abuse low-income families get visiting nurses. The nurses go to low-income homes for regular visits from pregnancy through the first couple of years, teaching young mother parenting skills, about healthy behaviors, and strategies for healthy long-term development.

Babies are born every day to parents on every income level, parents are overjoyed, elated, and also a bit overwhelmed. The thought of socioeconomic status affecting the development of babies probably never crosses their minds. How does poverty affect children’s brain development? It’s slowing the development of the brains of infants living in poverty.” At birth, all newborns have roughly the same volume of gray matter. Then poverty begins is an adverse effect on the child’s rapidly developing brain. I guess in cases like this the saying is true for children in impoverished areas. They are a product of their environment.

Society has a misconception about impoverished people. It isn't that they don’t want to live in better conditions, or that they are just lazy. It is an unfortunate cycle that is very hard to break. They are living and surviving the only way they know how. If you look back on their family members before them they basically had the same struggles.

If a mother is in a very unhealthy, violent relationship with her spouse. Her daughter will more likely than not follow in her footsteps. If all you know is struggle it is hard for you to teach your children anything different. Due to the growing numbers of families living under the poverty line. The methods that the government uses to calculate how many people live below the poverty line are unrealistic and outdated. Most of the families that live below the poverty line the head of household is usually minimally education. If they are employed they make minimum wage or less in some cases live on government assistance.

Poverty affects everyone. It brings up the numbers of thefts, murders, and other violent crimes. It also has horrible effects on children. Children that come from poor households have struggles that are extreme. They don’t have adequate housing, meals, or clothing. These things alone make it almost impossible for a child to thrive. They have worries that children shouldn’t. No child should worry about where their next meal is coming from. They look forward to going to school just to get a meal, attention good or bad. Some children hoard food and are ostracized. That is truly a terrible way to live. More mothers are employed now, and that leaves children in the care of others. Child care providers spend more time with the children then the parents, unfortunately. We really don’t give poverty as much thought as we should. I know that I work in an impoverished neighborhood, but I really haven’t put much thought into why some of the families live the way they do. I know that for some, it’s due to a life of drug abuse, lack of education, and in some cases, teenagers having babies will limited education and resources. Then there is a high crime and now more and more people are being diagnosed with mental health issues which also makes it difficult to thrive in society without the proper support system.

Government assistant was put in place to help people get on their feet or to help families in need make ends meet. People take advantage of what was set up to be temporary assistance and milk it for everything it is worth. Which is unfortunate because those who really need aren’t able to get it. It is abused by many and that also causes people to be stuck in situations that aren't conducive to making life better for themselves. There are many programs to help those in need, many people have used it to get on their feet. But then there are those that use it as a crutch and milk the system for everything that it wasn't meant for. Things like free health insurance, Food stamps, and low-income housing are great programs but when you have families that aren’t using them the way they were intended it causes problems and needs to be reformed. The eligibility criteria need to be revamped and there needs to be a time limit for people to get these benefits.

If we could eliminate poverty it would be wonderful. Poverty is not an accident, there are many factors that have contributed to making poverty the tremendous problem that it is today. Today global poverty levels are higher because of unfair debt, trade, and tax policies. Wealthy countries are exploiting the weaknesses of poorer or developing countries.

The link between child welfare and education surpasses the obvious. Also the link between education, child abuse, neglect, poverty, and homelessness. All are topics that seem to slip under the radar when discussing education. If you don’t meet the basic needs of a child, how do you expect them to learn? Well, simple they can’t.

Child abuse and neglect is a very broad topic, it can range from not having proper clothing or shelter to severe physical and or emotional abuse. The need for preventative services and counseling is in high demand in New York City. As it stands there aren't enough agencies to provide much-needed services. Within these agencies, the case managers are often inexperienced and have a heavy caseload. Often times families are placed on waiting lists for mediocre services. How does all of this correlate with education? Children that are neglected and abused tend to act out and are placed in a special education setting, instead of receiving the necessary treatment for their problems.

Experiencing abuse and neglect may impact children's school performance in multiple ways, including lower grades, increased absences, increased disciplinary problems, and higher rates of school dropout. As reported by the National Clinical Evaluation Study, over 50% of abused children experienced some type of difficulty in school, including poor attendance and disciplinary problems; approximately 30% had some type of cognitive or language impairment; more than 22% showed evidence of a learning disorder; and approximately 25% required some type of special education services.

The connection between education and poverty is evident in New York City and all over the United States. The educational system in the more affluent neighborhoods tends to receive better funding. That is the sad reality of not being raised with money. Although there are many different programs that claim that they will help close the achievement gap in the impoverished schools, they don’t address the nucleus of the problem. POVERTY! If parents can’t afford to supply their children with the basics such as shelter, food, proper clothing and school supplies the child can’t be comfortable in school.

Some students have perfect attendance just so they are guaranteed at least two meals a day, hot water and heat during the winter. There are some kids that come to school to get attention, just to feel as though someone cares about them even if it is just for a few hours. Some children come to school dirty, smelling of urine and feces or in clothes that don't fit either too big or too small. Some children don’t have proper clothing to protect them from the elements i.e. no socks, coats, hats, gloves or scarves. So many children walk to school through terrible conditions, be it through gang activity or passing crack houses and drug addicts. Lets us not forget the child whose parents are the drug addicts or gang bangers. Some believe that living in poverty is a choice or a consequence of having made bad decisions.

What about those who were born into poverty and know nothing more? What about the single mother/father of 6 children that are working two or more jobs trying to make ends meet, but is still unable to do better for lack of education. Some parents are in the country undocumented or functionally illiterate, in these cases, they are unable to help their children who may be struggling in school. This is what seems to be a never-ending cycle.

The rational mind knows without education this terrible cycle just goes on and on. Education is your only way out of a life of poverty. That is what has been drilled into our brain since early childhood but the sad reality is the deck is stacked against us.

Being raised in poverty exposes children to many risk factors for developing disabilities. Biological factors include toxin exposure (e.g. lead paint in older buildings), malnourishment, premature birth from no prenatal drug and alcohol use, vitamin deficiencies in the mother (e.g. folic acid). In addition, children living in low-income homes have limited access to books, poor quality child-care and less interaction between themselves and their primary caregivers. The NRC identified time between parents and their children to be the most important factor in early childhood development, and parents in low-income households often do not have the time to devote to their children. Less time with parents ‘ means less verbal discussions, less vocabulary development, and less social skills development- all contributing to a tougher time in school.

Lastly, the connection between education and homelessness is a huge issue in the United States. Not having a home can be extremely stressful for anyone be it, adult or child. The National Center on Family Homelessness reports that more than 1.6 million children were homeless annually in America between 2006 and 2010, marking a 20% increase. It is estimated that roughly 40% of homeless children were under the age of six. There are many reasons families become homeless, lack of education, single parents of multiple children. I have come across many of these families working as a special education teacher. In my school, more than 80% of the students are from homeless shelters.

Research suggests that early experiences and environmental influences can negatively impact a child’s development in the following ways: The typical moving around creates children with high levels of emotional and behavioral problems at home and in school. Homeless children are twice as likely to go hungry, have acute medical problems, and less access to dental care. The long-term effects on academic performance can cause grade retention and more referrals to special education. Homeless children are more than twice as likely to be expelled, suspended or drop out of high school. As an educator in a 3K-8 school, I see why these statistics are as high as they are. The homeless population in my school is very high. It has opened my eyes and made me want to do more. I see how these statistics come to fruition, I see the need for attention, food, and clothing not only in my school but also in my school community.

My experiences with my students throughout the years has guided me to my choice to become a special education teacher. I want to make a difference in my community by teaching my kids they shouldn’t let the ignorance of others define them. They can overcome any obstacle that life throws at them with faith in themselves and hard work. Education is the key that unlocks the door to a successful future.

Updated: Dec 14, 2021
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How Poverty Affects a Child’s Brain and Education. (2021, Dec 14). Retrieved from

How Poverty Affects a Child’s Brain and Education essay
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