Dec 2, 2010 by Sherrelle Walker, M.A.
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effect of the economy on students

As we've recently gone through the election process, a discussion of our nation's challenged economy might appear to be a tired topic. While adult generations look toward a strong recovery in the coming years, young children may potentially experience the negative consequences of these times for the rest of their lives.

Today, research has demonstrated a clear correlation between socio-economic status (SES) and cognitive ability. In a recent article by Amy Novoteny, The recession's toll on children, the author makes a clear point that while our nation as a whole will surely recover from this downturn, the current generation of disadvantaged children may not. She says children of lower SES experience "negative education and cognitive outcomes as a result of less mental stimulation and increased stress in their living situations." (An interesting note, the same lab that uncovered the phenomenon cited by Novoteny used Fast ForWord on both typically developing children and children with language delay; they observed behavioral improvements as well as physiological evidence for the basis for these improvements. See Stevens,C., Fanning, J., Coch, D., Sanders, L., Neville, H., 2008. This video blog postalso discusses Stevens' research.)

As finances put stresses on home lives and force parents to spend more time worrying about work, these same parents are spending less time and energy on their children, playing with them less and reading to them more infrequently. These children's cognitive development is suffering as a result.

Novoteny's ideas are echoed by researchers Raizada and Kishiyama who quote findings that "children from low SES backgrounds perform below children from higher SES backgrounds on tests of intelligence and academic achievement." Additional supporting research showed that these children are "more likely to fail courses, be placed in special education, and drop out of high school compared to high SES children." (Raizada and Kishiyama, 2010)

Interestingly, the data demonstrating these conclusions have historically been based on behavioral studies. The path of research pursuing the neural component-the actual physiological effects upon the neuroplastic brain-is a relatively new one. An example of one such innovative study was performed recently at Berkeley where researchers studied the developmental differences between low- and high-income children through studying the differences in their EEG recordings. The study showed that the recordings of "nine- and ten-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) According to cognitive psychologist and study co-author Mark Kishiyama, "These kids have no neural damage, no prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol... Yet the prefrontal cortex is not functioning as efficiently as it should be. This difference may manifest itself in problem-solving and school performance."

Neural studies have helped us develop effective interventions for those with learning disabilities related to the brain's neurology, such as dyslexia and stroke. This shines great hope on the potential that research will be able to draw on existing interventions, as well as develop new and innovative techniques, to help level the playing field for these young students who have developed learning difficulties as a result of SES.

Part of my excitement around this subject stems from the fact that when it comes to interventions, psychologists say that the while the brain is vulnerable to the negative influences of poverty, it is likewise able to benefit from positive stimuli and nurturing relationships. Just as these students face the possibilities of negative results, they also have all the requisite abilities-with the right interventions-to turn them into successful outcomes. Those interventions might take any number of forms; Fast ForWordrepresents one of those interventions that is proven to work. Still, the best early intervention is available in each and every home. Nothing can compare to the positive impact of parents spending more time regularly reading with their children.

To learn more about the impact of a down economy on cognitive development in young children, read Novoteny's article, The recession's toll on children, published this past September by the American Psychological Association.

For a deeper look into previous research as well as a survey of potential interventions for low SES children, read Raizada and Kishiyama's 2010 article, Effects of socioeconomic status on brain development, and how cognitive neuroscience may contribute to leveling the playing field.