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Study: Structural brain differences due to childhood poverty may account for 20% of the academic achievement gap

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Brain scans reveal how pover­ty hurts children’s brains (Bloomberg):

Grow­ing up poor has long been linked to low­er aca­d­e­m­ic test scores. And there’s now mount­ing evi­dence that it’s part­ly because kids can suf­fer real phys­i­cal con­se­quences from low fam­i­ly incomes, includ­ing brains that are less equipped to learn.

An analy­sis of hun­dreds of mag­net­ic res­o­nance imag­ing (MRI) brain scans found that chil­dren from poor house­holds had small­er amounts of gray mat­ter in areas of the brain respon­si­ble for func­tions need­ed for learn­ing, accord­ing to a new study pub­lished on Mon­day in JAMA Pedi­atrics. The anatom­i­cal dif­fer­ence could explain as much as 20 per­cent of the gap in test scores between kids grow­ing up in pover­ty and their more afflu­ent peers, accord­ing to the research…

Chil­dren in house­holds below the fed­er­al pover­ty lev­el-an annu­al income of about $24,000 for a fam­i­ly of four-had gray mat­ter vol­umes 7 per­cent to 10 per­cent low­er than what would be expect­ed for nor­mal devel­op­ment. About 20 per­cent of Amer­i­can chil­dren lived at this income lev­el in 2013, accord­ing to Cen­sus data…

Gabrieli cau­tions that the dif­fer­ences in devel­op­ment don’t mean poor­er stu­dents can’t catch up in the right cir­cum­stances. “We have so much very strong evi­dence that there’s lots of room for brain plas­tic­i­ty all the way through adult­hood,” he says.

Study: Asso­ci­a­tion of Child Pover­ty, Brain Devel­op­ment, and Aca­d­e­m­ic Achieve­ment (JAMA Pedi­atrics). From the abstract:

  • Impor­tance: Chil­dren liv­ing in pover­ty gen­er­al­ly per­form poor­ly in school, with marked­ly low­er stan­dard­ized test scores and low­er edu­ca­tion­al attain­ment. The longer chil­dren live in pover­ty, the greater their aca­d­e­m­ic deficits. These pat­terns per­sist to adult­hood, con­tribut­ing to life­time-reduced occu­pa­tion­al attain­ment.
  • Objec­tive: To deter­mine whether atyp­i­cal pat­terns of struc­tur­al brain devel­op­ment medi­ate the rela­tion­ship between house­hold pover­ty and impaired aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance.
  • Main Out­comes and Mea­sures: Children’s scores on cog­ni­tive and aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment assess­ments and brain tis­sue, includ­ing gray mat­ter of the total brain, frontal lobe, tem­po­ral lobe, and hip­pocam­pus.
  • Results: Pover­ty is tied to struc­tur­al dif­fer­ences in sev­er­al areas of the brain asso­ci­at­ed with school readi­ness skills, with the largest influ­ence observed among chil­dren from the poor­est households.…As much as 20% of the gap in test scores could be explained by mat­u­ra­tional lags in the frontal and tem­po­ral lobes.
  • Con­clu­sions and Rel­e­vance: The influ­ence of pover­ty on children’s learn­ing and achieve­ment is medi­at­ed by struc­tur­al brain devel­op­ment. To avoid long-term costs of impaired aca­d­e­m­ic func­tion­ing, house­holds below 150% of the fed­er­al pover­ty lev­el should be tar­get­ed for addi­tion­al resources aimed at reme­di­at­ing ear­ly child­hood envi­ron­ments.

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  1. Howard Ellison says:

    Heart­break­ing. And, here in UK, there is still resis­tance to the ‘Liv­ing Wage’. Most employ­ers are guid­ed by the ‘Min­i­mum Wage’ which is a lot less. Poor, poor kids — not to men­tion the knock-on for their even­tu­al chil­dren.

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