Cover Story

More than one in five American children now live in poverty, the highest rate in two decades, and one that surpasses that of most other industrialized nations, according to a June report from the nonprofit Foundation for Child Development. Since 1975, the organization has tracked children’s overall quality of life with 28 well-being indicators, including infant mortality, preschool enrollment and children’s health insurance coverage.

The foundation predicts that the number of children living in poverty will rise to 15.6 million this year, an increase of more than 3 million children in four years. As many as half a million children could become homeless this year, up from 330,000 in 2007.

Perhaps most alarming is that even though the economy is likely to recover in the next few years, a generation of disadvantaged children may not. Today’s poorer children could be haunted by the devastating effects of the recession for years to come, as they face an increased risk of engaging in violent crime and illegal drug use, and of experiencing chronic health problems such as obesity.

“Research shows that children who slip into poverty, even for a short time, suffer long-term setbacks even when their families regain their economic footing,” says psychologist Ruby Takanishi, PhD, the foundation’s president.

These setbacks are especially true for children under 10, she adds. In addition to negative health outcomes — such as a higher susceptibility to asthma, anemia and other health problems — research also shows that children raised in poverty are more likely to experience negative educational and cognitive outcomes, often as a result of less mental stimulation and increased stress in their living situations. Some research even shows that the brains of poor children may be unable to process information in the same way as the brains of kids in higher-income families.

With the economic downturn forcing more families into poverty, psychologists are using their expertise in child development and cognition to develop evidence-based early-childhood interventions to help improve the prospects for low-income children. They’re also advocating for more resources for these children, including better educational and social support, says Martha Farah, PhD, director of Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Our ultimate goal is to understand the complex web of social, psychological and physiological influences that act upon children in low-socioeconomic families and to use that understanding to help them achieve their true potential,” Farah says.

Poverty and the brain

In a classic 1995 study published in the book “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children” (Brookes Publishing, 1995), University of Kansas psychologists Betty Hart, PhD, and Todd Risley, PhD, found that the average vocabulary of 3-year-old children from “professional” families was more than twice as large as that of 3-year-olds on welfare. Since then, a steady stream of research by psychologists and other scientists has highlighted the gulf between poor and well-off children’s performance on almost every measure of cognitive development, including working memory, impulse regulation and language skills. (See “Further reading, resources” for more on how poverty affects the brain.)

Last year, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, presented even more definitive findings on developmental differences between low- and high-income kids: When presented with novel stimuli, EEG readings of 9- and 10-year-olds from poorer homes showed less brain activity in the prefrontal cortex than the brains of children from more well-off families (Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Vol. 21, No. 6).

“These kids have no neural damage, no prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol,” says cognitive psychologist Mark Kishiyama, PhD, one of the study’s authors, who now works at the VA hospital in Martinez, Calif. “Yet the prefrontal cortex is not functioning as efficiently as it should be. This difference may manifest itself in problem-solving and school performance.”

Research led by Carleton University psychologist Amadeo D’Angiulli, PhD, provides further evidence of poorer children’s deficits in a key ability harbored in the brain’s prefrontal cortex — selective attention. In a 2008 study in Neuropsychology (Vol. 22, No. 3), D’Angiulli monitored the brain activity of 28 children from grades six to nine while they listened to a random series of four tones. Researchers asked the children to press a button every time they heard two of those tones. The results of the study showed that the brains of the children from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds used more energy when listening to the “other tones” than those from higher-income homes.

A 2009 study in Developmental Science (Vol. 12, No. 4), conducted by Helen Neville, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Oregon, replicates D’Angiulli’s findings. In the study, 32 children listened to two stories simultaneously, one in each ear, and were asked to filter out one. All of the children remembered the story, but the children from disadvantaged homes had more trouble shutting out the distracting stimuli of the other story. Their brains, researchers say, have to work harder to perform the same task, a difficulty that could make it tougher for them to focus on teacher instructions or class assignments.

What’s to blame for these disparities? Many researchers suspect it’s the stressful home environments and lack of parental education in many low-income homes. “There are, not surprisingly, big differences in the amount of cognitive and linguistic stimulation that children receive in the home,” Farah says.

For example, only 36 percent of low-income parents read to their kindergarten-age children every day, compared with 62 percent of upper-income parents, according to a 2002 study by researchers at the nonprofit Educational Testing Service. And in a study co-authored by Farah this year, published in NeuroImage (Vol. 49, No. 1), researchers found a direct correlation between hippocampal volume — which is related to memory ability — and the amount of parental nurturance a young child receives; for example, how often a parent holds a child close.

Regardless of the cause, if these cognitive and social performance lags are left unaddressed, they will persist throughout a child’s development, says Linda Mayes, MD, a professor of child psychiatry, pediatrics and psychology at the Yale Child Study Center. Her team, which includes Yale child psychologists Michael Crowley, PhD, and James C. McPartland, PhD, is five years into a six-year National Institute of Child Health and Human Development grant to study how economic adversity affects emerging executive control functions in 360 young children in New Haven, Conn.

“It appears that the issue for children from poorer environments is not only a slower start, but rather a slower progression in skill acquisition, so that they stay behind their peers,” Mayes says.

Promising interventions

The good news is that a brain that is vulnerable to the adverse environmental effects of poverty is equally susceptible to the positive effects of rich, balanced learning environments and caring relationships, many psychologists say. While there’s clearly no one solution to offset the grave challenges faced by disadvantaged children, evidence-based educational interventions can help poor children achieve cognitive and academic success, research suggests.

One of the most promising programs is the Tools of the Mind curriculum, developed by Metropolitan State College at Denver educational psychologists Deborah Leong, PhD, and Elena Bodrova, PhD. The yearlong program, based on the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, helps children build their ability to control their behavior and resist impulses — skills psychologists say are critical for success in school and life. The program’s 40 core activities focus on improving executive function through tasks such as “buddy reading,” in which students pair up and take turns telling and listening to stories from a picture book. To help the children fight the urge to talk while the other student is telling a story, teachers pass out paper mouths and ears, and remind students that only mouths talk — ears don’t.

“With that concrete reminder in front of them, they’re able to exercise self-control and listen,” says Adele Diamond, PhD, a professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, who has been testing the program with low-income preschoolers in the Northeastern United States. In her 2007 study published in Science (Vol. 318, No. 5,855), Diamond found that Tools students consistently scored higher on tests that require executive function than students enrolled in the school district’s long-running curriculum addressing the same academic content. Tools of the Mind is now being used to teach 18,000 prekindergarten and kindergarten students in 12 states around the country.

The Tools program is different from most early education programs, Diamond says, because it encourages children to use executive functioning, while other programs often assume young children can’t use those skills. Or, she says, educators in other programs may expect the children to exercise self-control, but don’t support them in doing so, leading to failure and criticism. “Instead of getting yelled at for being a poor listener, here the child develops pride in being a good listener,” Diamond says.

The Tools program also emphasizes the importance of imaginative, dramatic play, but requires the children to develop a plan for what character they would like to act out — say, an astronaut going to the moon — and holds them to it.

Neville, at the University of Oregon, is also testing an early-child intervention that trains children and their parents about the importance of impulse management and sustained concentration. “If you have control of your selective attention, you can do anything,” she says. “You can learn soccer, you can learn to play the cello, you can learn to crochet, you can learn math — it’s domain-general.”

In the program, Parents and Children Making Connections–Highlighting Attention, parents and their preschoolers attend eight weekly, two-hour evening or weekend attention-training classes. The kids learn to be more aware of their bodies, attention and emotions, as well as how to focus on one thing at a time. In one task, for example, they practice figure-tracing, which requires a moderate amount of concentration, while other students in the room play with balloons, in an effort to challenge the concentration of the figure-tracers. Parents learn to use positive language with their children and remain patient. They also learn strategies to help their children develop their attention control — by pointing out small details on a walk, playing board games and reading books that require them to focus for long periods of time.

In an as-yet-unpublished study, Neville and her team found that children who completed the training improved their IQ, message comprehension and social skills. Parents reported reduced stress and more positive interactions in response to children’s crying and temper tantrums.

Overall, Neville says she predicts that programs that include extensive parent training may result in larger gains for children than programs that primarily focus on children. The intervention’s initial success also points to the importance of the home environment and the parent-child relationship to children’s cognitive development — links that often go unrecognized, she says.

Speaking out for kids

But to ensure that low-income children have access to these interventions and others, psychologists must be among those raising awareness of these children’s plight, as well as the research that shows there are solutions, Takanishi says.

“Investment during the first decade of life is crucial for the country’s well-being, as well as for individual potential,” she says. “In the United States, education is the only possibility for escaping from poverty. Thus, the recession’s impact on declining availability of prekindergarten programs is very damaging for children in poverty.”

Last year, Neville and her team developed a DVD for parents, teachers and policymakers, available at www.changingbrains.org, that explores brain development in children and provides simple techniques caregivers can use to help children reach their full potential.

Takanishi recommends that psychologists contribute newspaper op-eds highlighting research on the effects of poverty. Psychologists might also consider promoting dual-generation programs that focus on increasing literacy among low-income parents — and particularly immigrants — as a way to boost economic status and improve outcomes for children.

“Help other people think more broadly about how to address the issue of children in poverty,” Takanishi says. “It’s that kind of feeding of ideas and working with other sectors in society that will really help us move toward social change.”


Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.

Further reading, resources

  • National Center for Children in Poverty

  • Foundation for Child Development

  • Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity

  • APA Office of Socioeconomic Status

  • Hackman, D.A., & Farah, M.J. (2009). Socioeconomic status and the developing brain. Trends in Cognitive Science, 13, 65–73.

  • Jensen, E. (2009). Teaching With Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do about It. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

  • Lipina, S.J., & Colombo, J.A. (2009). Poverty and Brain Development During Childhood: An Approach From Cognitive Psychology and Neuroscience. Washington, DC: APA.

  • Raizada, R.D., & Kishiyama, M.M. (2010). Effects of socioeconomic status on brain development, and how cognitive neuroscience may contribute to leveling the playing field. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 5, 1–18.