Effects of PovertyOf all the social issues faced by a developing country, poverty often feels especially overwhelming. Of the many factors working against the poor, the effects of poverty on the brain development of children is probably the most daunting yet.

Researchers have long suspected a correlation between a child’s behavior and cognitive abilities and their socio-economic status. This correlation becomes even more apparent among people living in extreme poverty. In a 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience, a team led by neuroscientists Kimberly Noble from Columbia University in New York City and Elizabeth Sowell from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, California, imaged the brains of 1,099 children, adolescents and young adults in several U.S. cities. Their findings revealed that children from the lowest income bracket of less than $25,000 had up to six percent less surface area than children from families making more than $150,000. Within the poorest families themselves, income inequalities of a few thousand dollars were associated with major differences in brain structure and cognitive skills.

Within countries that live on less than a dollar a day, researchers have found other developmental problems such as stunted growth and cognitive issues. In an unprecedented study conducted in 1960, a team of researchers began giving out nutritional supplements to young children in rural Guatemala. The study was aimed at collecting data to test the theory that providing enough supplements during a child’s formative years would help in reducing stunted growth. This theory was proved in the early 2000s, when the researchers returned to check on the children who had received the supplements in the first three years of their life. They found that not only did the children grow one to two centimeters more than the control group; they even scored higher in cognitive tests. This experiment proved the effects of poverty on the brain development of children.

In 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a study into the heights and weights of children between birth and age five in Brazil, Ghana, India, Norway, Oman and the United States. The results showed that healthy children, regardless of their home countries, follow a very similar growth trajectory. Based on these results, the WHO established benchmarks for atypical growth. In countries like Bangladesh, India, Guatemala and Nigeria, over 40 percent of children meet the definition of stunted growth. In light of the growing awareness and consensus around effects of stunting, the WHO included the reduction in the number of children under five with stunted growth by 40 percent as one of its six global nutritional targets for 2025.

Similar studies were conducted in Brazil, Peru, Jamaica, the Philippines, Kenya and Zimbabwe, all with the same conclusion. However, pediatric cognitive development is a complex multidimensional problem and not all stunted growth, which affects an estimated 160 million children worldwide, is connected to malnutrition. Malnutrition is one side of this multifaceted problem; poor sanitation, stressful home environments, exposure to industrial chemicals, lack of access to good education and income disparities are other possible factors.

It would not be an overstatement to say that all research points to an urgent need to address the problem of world poverty. Factors such as lack of education, poor hygiene, lack of pre-post-natal care, nutritional deficiency, exposure to chemicals and stressful childhood are some of the paralyzing issues faced by those in extreme poverty. The daunting effects of poverty on the brain development of children have already been proven by researchers and new research and studies are further fortifying what is already known. In essence, even as officials start to take action in providing adequate nutrition, research cannot be clearer in building the case for the urgent need to eliminate world poverty.

Jagriti Misra

Photo: Flickr

How Poverty Affects Learning
Education’s role in improving the lives of the global poor has been well documented. However, researchers have been exploring the reverse — how poverty affects learning and a child’s education.

The Ontario Child Health Study concluded in its research that there is a “direct link between lack of income and chronic health problems, psychiatric disorders and social and academic functions.”

Additional research provided evidence that poverty decreases a child’s school readiness through six factors: the incidence of poverty, the depth of poverty, the duration of poverty, the timing of poverty, the concentration of poverty and crime in a student’s community and the impact of poverty on social networks.

Children from families with lower incomes score significantly lower on vocabulary and communication skills assessments, as well as on their knowledge of numbers and ability to concentrate. Furthermore, their counterparts in higher-income households outperform them in copying and symbol use, and in cooperative play with other children. Students with lower income are more likely to leave school without graduating.

Experts refer to the relationship between socioeconomic status and academic performance as the “socioeconomic gradient.”

According to author Eric Jensen, although “children raised in poverty rarely choose to behave differently,” poverty affects learning because they face challenges their affluent counterparts never see. “Their brains have adapted to suboptimal conditions in ways that undermine good school performance,” Jensen writes.

A child’s formation of new brain cells will slow down and the neural circuitry will create emotional dysfunctions if a child’s primary needs are not met at an early age.

Typically, children from low-income families suffer from parental inconsistency, frequent childcare changes, lack of adult supervision and lack of role models. Thus, the child does not receive the stimulation or learns the social skills necessary to maximize their academic performance.

In order to reverse how poverty affects learning, researchers suggest that schools focus on support services that aid in a child’s cognitive and social skill development.

The High/Scope Educational Research Foundation concluded in a study, that children who received proper intervention services were more likely to graduate secondary school, have higher employment and income rates and have lower crime rates by the time they reached 40.

Schools with targeted efforts to aid in a child’s academic development, such as counseling and after-school programs, can both lessen the effect of poverty on a student’s learning and use education to fight poverty to improve lives.

Ashley Leon

Photo: Flickr


Children can be underestimated. They are born with the ability to absorb the world around them, and their experiences shape them in unique ways. The effects of early childhood development can have a significant impact on their success when it is time for school and future careers.

By age three, children’s brains are 82 percent of their adult size. It is vital to exercise the brain in its earliest years in order to reach developmental milestones later. Everyday activities like talking, reading and singing strengthen young children’s minds.

Trillions of neural synapses, or brain-cell connections, form in the first few years of a baby’s life. Connections will be lost indefinitely if a child is not stimulated with interaction and early experiences.

Playing, speaking and singing to babies prepares them to have a larger vocabulary, succeed in school and even increases their chance of graduating high school.

“The evidence is vast: exposing children before the age of five to stimulating environments strengthens their language development, social and emotional health, problem solving abilities, memory function, use of logic, analytical skills and ability to cope with new situations – leading to significantly better performance later in school,” said Alice Albright, Chief Executive Officer of Global Partnership for Education, in a Huffpost Education blog.

Albright points out that countries around the world have recently embraced the evidence and began to invest in their early childhood development programs.

Although early childhood development is important purely for the well-being of children, research has shown profound economic benefits as well. According to the Huffpost blog, for every dollar countries spend on pre-school programs, there is a $7 to $8 of economic, health and social progress.

Successful initiatives begin well before pre-school, with pre-natal maternal health, proper nutrition for breastfeeding mothers and adult caregiving skills.

Many cultures around the world benefit from classes that train the community to provide nurturing and age-appropriate activities in pre-school. Particularly low-income and disadvantaged communities often need extra efforts to create an engaging environment that will strengthen the cognitive development of children under two.

Quality early childhood care feeds a child’s ability to reach their full potential and contribute to their society.

Some obstacles developing countries encounter in establishing Early childhood care and education (ECCE) programs are a lack of funding, limited country capacity and low social demand. Organizations like Global Partnership for Education combat these barriers by providing technical and financial support, providing grants to finance the programs and supporting capacity development and knowledge sharing by pointing to the evidence.

Even though children do not talk back initially, they will learn and understand faster if they are engaged and spoken to. It is vital to educate populations around the world on the impact of early childhood care on development because it is not always prioritized simply for lack of knowledge. Quality ECCE can transform the resilience of communities and reap economic benefits.

Emily Ednoff

Photo: Flickr