Poor kids’ brains aren’t the same

Low-income children’s brains don’t develop in the same way as the brains of high-income children, concludes a Berkeley study using EEGs. “Normal 9- and 10-year-olds differing only in socioeconomic status” showed differences “in the response of their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is critical for problem solving and creativity.” Some of the poor kids showed patterns similar to stroke victims with frontal lobe damage.

“These kids have no neural damage, no prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol, no neurological damage,” (cognitive scientist Mark) Kishiyama said. “Yet, the prefrontal cortex is not functioning as efficiently as it should be. This difference may manifest itself in problem solving and school performance.”

Researchers believe lack of intellectual stimulation and stress affect brain development in low-income children. If so, it’s reversible.

. . . Adele Diamond showed last year that 5- and 6-year-olds with impaired executive functioning, that is, poor problem solving and reasoning abilities, can improve their academic performance with the help of special activities, including dramatic play.

The study will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

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  1. Margo/Mom says:

    If anyone’s paying attention, perhaps this will help us stop the lock step to drill and kill that has been adopted as a short cut to improved test scores.

  2. Margo/Mom says:

    Now that I think about it, maybe we should invest in some more green space in the cities. More accessible arts, music and drama programs for folks without lots of bucks.

  3. Wait a minute. Halt.

    One study of a tiny number of kids shows intriguing results. Those results must be replicated by other researchers in other settings, multiple times, before we can be certain of anything.

    The study hasn’t been published yet. We don’t know the criteria used to select the study participants, and that can be the most tricky part, particularly when we’re talking of a study of only 26 children. How were the two groups defined? At what point in income do the differences show up? Can researchers detect the same effects in London? In Hong Kong?

    I agree that drill and kill in the preschool and kindergarten years is not right. I love the effects of dramatic play. However, despite the researchers’ conclusions, and hope that targeted interventions could change brains, they aren’t at that point yet. They’re only at the point of first defining a measurable difference. The reasons for that difference are a matter of speculation on their part.

  4. The most unpopular finding of further studies may be the effect of parenting in infancy. By parenting I don’t mean only care given by parents, although that has been the standard model for centuries. I mean the duration, measured in hours, of one-on-one interaction by a baby or small child with a dedicated, educated caregiver. Most studies I’ve read about show a distinct difference in children at the time they enter preschool, let alone kindergarten.

    Can a few games with a therapist make up for years of poor interaction with caregivers in infancy? I doubt it. I think the brain is a very adaptive organism, and I think it is learning from the very first moment. The higher a family’s socioeconomic status, the more likely a child is to receive nurturing care in infancy, via a parent, nanny, or grandparent.

    It would be interesting to study the differences in brain physiology patterns between children of the same SES status, but different parenting choices. Compare only children to children who have four or more siblings. Compare children who have a parent at home to children who were raised by au pairs, or who spent a significant amount of time in daycare before kindergarten.

  5. deirdremundy says:

    Hmm… the children differed only by economic status? So their parents had identical educations/careers/values?

    I’m just curious–because they claimed that “poor” families don’t provide books or museums.

    But my family (and several others I know) qualify as lower middle class because only one parent is working.

    And we also value books and museum memberships, and make sue our kids have them.

    But the paper seems to suggest that difference in paychecks alone will affect your kids’ brains…..

    Seems to me they might need larger and more varied samples.

  6. Margo/Mom says:

    Hey parent2–looks like we have the board to ourselves.

    I would agree with your wait and see recommendations if the results of this study weren’t lining up with previous research–as well as some moral common sense that the things that people of means provide for their kids are probably also pretty good stuff for kids whose families are lacking in means.

    One thing that we know to be effective with regard to good health and well-being of low income kids is nursing home visits. There is a combination of relationship, meeting parents on their own home turf, teaching and follow-up that has been shown to be effective–over time. We don’t do enough of it. In education we do even less (home visiting).

    Personally, I wasn’t looking for a few hours weekly remediation with a therapist. I was looking for something more like a preventive environment (through increased access to arts/recreation/museums, etc) before kids even get to school, as well as expansion of the arts and creative kinds of programs that are supportive (and tend to be far more available to upper SES kids) within schools.

  7. If by “drill and kill” you mean rote memorization and practice sessions for standardized tests, there’s not a lot of that going on in PreK – 2nd grade. Standardized testing typically doesn’t kick in until 3rd grade, and I’m not aware of how “drilling” plays into to that. Mind you, endless practice tests and test-taking “strategy” sessions are not exactly filled with high caloric content, but drilling it ain’t.

    One problem is the thin gruel of early elementary education. It’s fashionable to say a rich curriculum can wait until kids learn to read, but there’s much to suggest kids won’t read well for comprehension on a subsistence diet of reading strategies and math. If this study is borne out, it seems like an argument for lots of read alouds, lots of vocabulary, lots of rich and varied content, early and often, at home and at school.

  8. This study that found poor children have freakishly shrunken and useless frontal lobes is proof we need school choice and vouchers… Of course, I see all studies that way.

  9. GoogleMaster says:

    Can we tie this one in with the previous study that found that by the time they are 4 years old, children of poor families have heard X number of words while children of middle class and wealthy families have heard 4X (or 10X or 100X or whatever it was) words?

    Short of going all Brave New World-ish and collecting all the infants at birth so we can raise them in group situations where they are all exposed to the same influences, I don’t see what’s to be done here.

    As someone who lives in a large urban area and eats out a lot, I have the opportunity to encounter small children from a variety of different backgrounds. Frequently, I am in a Mexican restaurant at 11pm (because that’s what’s open that late), and encounter at least one family with multiple toddler-age children, still awake long past the hour when they should be asleep. In Wal-Mart I have observed parents alternately ignoring their children (who are chasing each other through the aisles shrieking and annoying the other shoppers) and yelling at them to “stop that” or “get over here”. In other situations, I encounter yuppie moms in Whole Foods constantly talking to their toddlers, asking whether they want oatie-o’s or crunchables, saying things like “see the bananas?” and “let’s drive the cart!”

    So yes, the amount and type of parental interaction does make a difference.

    In other news, researchers have found that more than 99% of liquid water is wet.

  10. Pat Stanley says:

    As a middle school teacher in the Bronx, the debate and discussion about the brain development of low-income children compared to that of high-income children hits close to home. In the area that I work in, virtually all the students come from low-income families. I am not going to say that all children from low-income families are less intelligent or have lower functioning brains than children from high-income families. Obviously that would be a ridiculous statement to make.
    However, this study, no matter how short-sighted it may be, brings up an undeniable point, which is that many lower-income children are falling behind their peers educationally at a very young age. This is a huge problem in urban areas, such as where I work, because when these children fall behind so early, it becomes extremely difficult for us, as educators, to get them to the level that they need to be at. Instead of focusing on the shortcomings of this study, I think it is crucial to identify the causes of and solutions to this critical issue in urban education.
    I believe that one of the main causes of the slower brain develop in low-income children is exactly what the researchers say it is, a lack of intellectual stimulation at a young age. Children do not go to school until they are about five years old or so. Up to that point, where brain development is most crucial, children spend virtually all their time with their parents, or family of some sort. It is the job of the parents to help these young children develop as best they can, both intellectually and emotionally. However, I feel that many parents are not involved enough in raising their children correctly.
    I cannot say how many times I have been on the subway and witnessed young children sitting idly next to their parents while the adults have headphones on, listening to music. It is as if their children aren’t even there. It is obvious that these children are not being stimulated in a way that is going to help them grow mentally as they grow physically. I witness this lack of parenting first hand every day with my students. It is impossible for these children to succeed academically; no matter how great their teachers are and how much effort they put in, when they have virtually no parental involvement at home.
    For many of my students, the only time they have structure in their lives, with positive interaction with adults, is when they are at school. When they leave the building, all of that is lost. Many come from single-parent households where the parent works two or more jobs just to pay the bills. Obviously these parents are doing what they can to help their children. However, there are many parents who are around their children often but are still detrimental to the development of their kids.
    So what is the solution to this problem? Obviously dedicated, hard-working teachers can make a huge impact in the lives of any children. However, that is not enough. Parents MUST be involved in the education of their children. I think that schools, especially in urban areas, need to do more to get parents and the community involved in the education of their children. I believe that if more schools offered support to parents, it would be a great big step in the right direction. Many parents have never been taught how to be parents. It is never too late for parents to get more actively involved in the lives of their children. Whether the child is four or fourteen, getting their parents involved in their development will have a huge impact on their future.
    As I mentioned earlier, obviously not all low-income children are facing this problem. However, at least in my experiences, the lack of parental involvement in the development of children in low-income and urban areas is an ongoing issue and the schools, parents, and the community as a whole must work together to help change it.

  11. Judge Crater says:

    I actually think well-taught “lock step to drill and kill” (if by that you mean some form of Direct Instruction) could well have a positive effect on the EEGs.
    Particularly given that “Researchers believe lack of intellectual stimulation and stress affect brain development,” it would seem that gaining mastery of a skill, such as basic literacy, would provide both “intellectual stimulation” and reduce stress through the sense of accomplishment.

  12. GoogleMaster says:

    Thank you, Pat, for fleshing out the details of what I was trying to get at.

    One thing I find disturbing about infant parenting trends is the tendency to haul babies around in car seats as if they were inanimate accessories. I see this a lot, but it’s mostly middle and upper class families doing it (because the poorer parents don’t have car seats, not having cars!).

    A family will go somewhere and take the baby with them. While mom and/or dad are sitting chatting with their friends, the baby is in its car seat on the floor beside the chair/table/couch, getting no direct mental stimulation whatsoever. When mom and dad are done with their meal or whatever, they get up, pick up the car seat without a word to the baby, and off they go.

    Now I’m rambling, but that reminds me of another recent study about rear-facing vs. front-facing strollers and how much interaction the parents had with the babies. I bet I read about that one here on Joanne’s blog, too.

    Pat, have you noticed a difference in the brain development of the oldest child from a poor family with little parental interaction, versus that of the younger siblings of that child? I would think that the younger siblings, having had older sibs to interact with, would fare better than the oldest child.

  13. deirdremundy says:

    Probably not if the oldest child is already behind…

    I mean, asking a vocab-deprived 4 year old to teach words to a one year old seems kind of pointless.

    I would still argue that this isn’t a MONEY problem as much as a cultural problem. Talking to your children is free. A family museum membership costs as much as 2 video games….

    crayons and paper are dirt cheap…

    The problem isn’t money–it’s that people haven’t been taught how to parent!

  14. Pat Stanley says:

    In my experiences in teaching more than one child from the same family, the younger children seem to be very similar to their older siblings. If the older child was inattentive, hyper-active, or disrespectful, their younger brother or sister tended to act more or less the same way.
    At the same time, if the older child is focused and hard working, their siblings tend to be the same. I think that most children look up to their older siblings as role models, regardless of what their behavior is like. This is especially true when the parents are not as involved in their lives as they should be.
    And I absolutely agree that it is more of a social or cultural issue rather than a money issue. However, in a lot of cases that culture goes hand in hand with poverty.

  15. Didn’t Joanne just discuss this recently with some links to City magazine and a very interesting study of young, poor students IQ influenced by DI?

    The cause is a lack of childhood influence and good teaching to counter that. The effect is a lack of brain utilization even at a higher age.

  16. We are assuming it has something to do with personal interactions in infancy. That’s just an assumption.

    There are other possibilities. “Differing only in socioeconomic status” covers a huge range of difference. It could be influenced by nutrition. The “high SES” kids might be more likely to be breast fed. Substances in breast milk might influence brain development. The “high SES” mothers might be more likely to avoid caffeine and alcohol during pregnancy, and more likely to get enough sleep. We just don’t know.

    It’s an interesting start, but that’s all it is. It would be interesting to look at the brains of twins adopted into families of different SES.

    It’s intriguing that we start talking of the high SES kids as “wealthy” kids. The article doesn’t make the difference explicit.

  17. FuzzyRider says:

    Correlation is not causality.

  18. Margo/Mom says:

    Certainly we cannot understand much about causality from this study. But, what is more important, is that some effective intervention has already been identified. So–while we go searching for further understanding of where this phenomenon comes from, perhaps we could move on with turning it around.

    I recall exactly where I was when I first heard a report that it had been established that kids who went to school hungry didn’t learn as well as kids who were well fed. I wasn’t real old–high school/college. But I remember thinking how silly it was that we had to do this kind of research to know that it is wrong for kids in this country to be going to school hungry–and that the adults ought to be doing something about it.

  19. True. However, children who have been locked up in closets for years show severe deficits in mental functions. In that case, we would not hesitate to blame a grave lack of care.

    This study is only a small start. It’s interesting, but a great deal of research should be done. Its results may not hold with a different population. Observing a difference says nothing about the causes of that difference.

  20. I was replying to fuzzyrider’s post when I said “true.”

    I would not agree that “some effective intervention has been identified.” It’s one thing to try to prove that environmental conditions can have a strong impact on brain development. It’s another to try to improve those conditions. I would argue that the last 40 years have seen many attempts to improve environmental conditions for the children of the poor. Few have shown any lasting improvement.

    A study was published a little while ago, studying the differences between working and middle class values. While trying to find it on Google, I found an abstract on ERIC, of a study performed in 1971:

    “This study was conducted to observe the effects of
    social class on the interaction of mothers and their 12-week-old infants. Data on the infants’ cognitive and attentive behavior was also obtained. Each of 32 white and black infants from five different levels of social class was observed at home for two full hours of waking time. Observed infant behavior included move, vocalize, fret/cry, play, noise, and smile. Findings indicate that lower SES infants vocalize and smile more and fret/cry less than upper middle SES infants. Maternal behaviors of touch, hold, smile, look, and play were more frequent among lower SES than middle SES mothers, and lower SES mothers spend more time watching TV than the middle SES mothers. There is a relatively strong relationship between infant and maternal behavior. Middle SES mothers vocalize when their infants vocalize, touch and hold them when they fret and watch them play. Lower SES mothers tend to touch their infants when they vocalize, when they cry and when they are at play. There were no class differences on the two infant mental tests. Performance on a measure of attention indicated that two-thirds of the middle class infants failed to show response decrement while all the lower class infants demonstrated response decrement. In general, this study supports the presence of social class differences in terms of both cognitive and attentive behaviors.”
    Eric #ED049836

    Note that at 12 weeks, these researchers noted differences in the infants’ performance on a measure of attention. It is hard, maybe impossible, to change parents’ behavior.

  21. Margo/Mom says:

    I have to confess–I don’t have a clue what “response decrement” is, and whether or not it is something to be desired. From the rest of the description, I was seeing more good things in the lower SES moms (but I guess vocalizing is a better response than touching?). Actually, it is not hard to change parents’ behavior. You might want to read some of Bronfenbrenner and his analysis of studies on maternal behavior given a variety of interventions.

    I also recall reading some comparisons of Japanese and American mothers’ baby-talk experiences. American mothers language tends towards nouns and a concern with naming things. Japanese mothers focus on language of relationship and conversation. Interesting and perhaps significant findings. The value we place on them depends a good bit on our societal values.

    But all of this focus on parental behavior overlooks some really pertinent environmental differences–things that we know about. The kids in the upper-middle class kindergarten are far more likely to have attended some form of high quality pre-school, had multiple formal socializing experiences in groups of children, attended classes in music, dance, arts or midget sports, swimming or gymnastics. They have been to plays and museums. They have experienced high levels of safety and free play experiences.

    But they are also getting a very different education once they reach kindergarten. They are less likely to have any of these experiences within their schools. Their teachers are less experienced and more likely to focus on tested content to the exclusion of everything else.

    These things all appear to be crucial when we look at the one intervention that appears to have some impact on the development of the part of the brain that deals with these higher order skills. Adele Diamond’s work incorporates exactly those things that we know are lacking, and shows success. I say that while we continue to research, we look at levelling the playing field in the area of dramatic play and some of the other things that merely SEEM to make a difference. It is not likely to hurt. Maybe it would help.

  22. “I actually think well-taught “lock step to drill and kill” (if by that you mean some form of Direct Instruction) could well have a positive effect on the EEGs.
    Particularly given that “Researchers believe lack of intellectual stimulation and stress affect brain development,” it would seem that gaining mastery of a skill, such as basic literacy, would provide both “intellectual stimulation” and reduce stress through the sense of accomplishment.”

    I agree.

    As a tangent, I think that learning methods such as rote memorization/learning are unfairly demonized in certain education circles today, especially among the anti-testing faction. These people gasp in horror at the idea of kids doing seemingly endless drills of arithmetic problems. But really, there are certain basics that you just have to memorize to get it out of the way, so you can be prepared for the harder stuff.

    For example, there’s the multiplication table. Obviously teachers should also explain what multiplication means so that it’s not just a meaningless concept. However, I think it’s stupid for someone to have to waste time trying to figure out what 8 * 7 is because he can’t recall it at a moment’s notice. Drills and rote learning help with that. I still remember doing timed worksheets where we’d have to finish 99 problems in a minute. Good times. Or those afternoons spent at Kumon. Which…wasn’t exactly a good time (more like torture), but they helped.

    Art and music are important, but I think we should be more focused on making sure our kids know the basics first. Arithmetic and literacy take precedence.

  23. The trouble, from my perspective, with publicizing this research is that it can be misinterpreted and can lead to very bad conclusions. I believe the researchers know this, and are trying to counter it by emphasizing that they believe some activities can change the difference.

    “Poor kids’ brains aren’t the same” could also be used to justify an attitude which believes that there is a limit to what poor kids can learn.

  24. Parent2–I also regret the headline–for which the researchers are not reponsible.