Enriched Environments: Neuroscience Learns From Poverty

in Article, News
September 30th, 2013

In the last century, treatment of social and learning disabilities has drastically changed. Through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, every student who qualifies for special education is entitled to a free and appropriate public education, delivered through an individualized education plan. An ‘IEP’ is designed through the collaboration of parents, teachers, and special education specialists. The largest category of learning disability is the specific learning disability, of which dyslexia is a typical example.

The amount of care put into special education has drastically changed the lives of many individuals, however, special education excludes those who have a learning disability due to economic situations. This reflects a longstanding social and educational belief that learning disabilities are innate, the result of genetic predisposition and not due to upbringing. The prevailing paradigm did not believe that upbringing could have a significant effect on the development on the brain.

To little surprise, neuroscience is showing otherwise.

All Children Can Learn

Every Student is Entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education.

We have always known that acute incidents can have a significant effect on brain development and function (such as in the effects of repeated physical trauma on function), but recent research is suggesting that external factors during development, including many associated with poverty, can have significant, long-term effects. These factors include higher levels of environmental toxins, lower nutritional levels, and increased levels of parental neglect. Recent research suggests that external factors, including poverty, can have significant internal effects on the brain, including brain development and function. Poverty affects the development of the brain in multiple ways, including through poverty-associated factors such as higher environmental toxins, lower nutritional levels, and higher levels of parental neglect. However, the research of Gary Evans and Michelle Schamberg of Cornell University indicates that solely the added stress of low socioeconomic status is responsible for these effects.

Similarly to something like dyslexia, poverty-linked learning disabilities to do not manifest themselves as an obvious disability, but rather a reduction the capacity of working memory. This reduction in working memory has implications in language abilities, higher executive functions, and the establishment of long-term memories. Over time, they have a smaller hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.

All this research is indicating that poverty can cause true learning disabilities, which would need to be addressed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Treatment of poverty (or the results of poverty) has profound social implications that could be the key to true upward social mobility. Steps are already in place through advanced child care programs and early education such as head start, and steps continue to be made in the research fields as researchers try to find new ways that could potentially challenge children who might otherwise not be challenged. It won’t be an overnight change, that’s for sure. The issue of poverty and its resultant effects is one that effects issues beyond those of education. Even the acknowledgement of poverty-linked learning disabilities is a huge step in the right direction. Thanks to neuroscience research, and given enough time, eventually we can start to make a sizable dent in the issue.

Tom Meeus

Further Reading:

The Economist: Poverty, Stress, and Learning

The Neuroscience of Poverty: Implications on Learning

University of Virginia Talk on Poverty: Neuroscience, Poor Children, and Learning Disabilities

Staff Page for Gary Evans, which includes titles of articles and work

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