The Science of Learning Blog

September 18, 2019

4 Little-Known Facts about Poverty and the Brain (And What Educators Can Do about Them)

BY Amy Takabori

A little girl wearing too-small sandals and no coat on a freezing January morning. A boy sick from eating nothing but potato chips and Kool-Aid. An eight-year-old raising himself and sleeping at night with 3 younger siblings.

These are children of vulnerable populations that Linda Ann H. McCall recalls teaching at a Title 1 school, or federally assisted low-income school, in urban America. In her 2018 article in National Youth-At-Risk Journal, McCall recounts what teachers across the country witness every day: the challenges that students from low-socioeconomic (SES) families bring with them to school.

Dr. McCall reflects, “I was reminded over and over of Abraham Maslow’s classic Hierarchy of Needs when I asked myself ‘how could I expect a child to focus on the concepts of long division and sentence structure, for example, if he or she was being abused and/or feeling hungry, afraid, and/or unloved?’ (p. 41-42).

What worked?

What worked in Dr. McCall’s classroom, and what many other educators at Title 1 schools are increasingly implementing, is brain-based teaching and learning. Dr. McCall argues that brain-based learning is especially important for teaching children impacted by poverty.

What do Title 1 educators need to know about the impact of poverty on the brain? More importantly, how should school leaders apply brain-based learning to teaching? Keep reading to learn 4 little-known facts about poverty and the brain.

What is brain-based learning?

All learning happens in the brain, so isn’t all learning “brain-based learning”? In a way, yes. But “brain-based learning” means the application of brain science to teaching—what happens when neuroscience meets education.

As Great Schools Partnership defines brain-based learning, the practice builds on “scientific research about how the brain learns, including… how students learn differently as they age, grow, and mature.”

Brain-based learning is crucial for children from low-SES households. The latest scientific research shows that students impacted by poverty are cognitively and developmentally behind their more affluent peers. That means students at Title 1 schools need extra brain training to catch up to their grade levels.

From the expansive neuroscience literature on poverty and the brain, we’re highlighting 4 facts that educators should know and 3 brain-based learning strategies to try in schools. 

4 little-known facts about poverty and the brain

1. 60% cognition gap exists by kindergarten

By kindergarten, children from low-SES homes will already have 60% lower cognitive scores than their higher-SES classmates. This is “inequality at the starting gate.” 

When children of poverty are behind before the race starts, they need to develop their cognitive skills quickly and efficiently. Brain-based learning specifically targets memory, attention, auditory processing, and sequencing. Traditional pedagogy assumes these cognitive skills will come naturally. 

2. Language is most impacted by income

Income disparity impacts language, including complexity of speech, vocabulary, and phonological awareness, more than any other cognitive area, according to Noble et al. (2005)

The second most impacted cognitive system found was executive function: working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. 

Since language and executive function are hit hardest, educators at Title 1 schools should develop intervention plans that explicitly and intensively bolster these cognitive areas. 

3. Brain underdevelopment explains 20% of income achievement gap

According to a 2015 article in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers found that poor brain development in the frontal and temporal lobes explain up to one-fifth of test score differences between poor and middle-class children.

We know that educators can’t change parents’ incomes or students’ access to consistent meals and adequate health care. What educators can do, and do best, is change the brain.

Brain-based teaching is as much a philosophy as it is a science. It’s the belief that learning is a process of rewiring the brain—not a process of information dumping. And it’s the conviction that all students can change their brains, no matter their starting point.

4. Cognitive skills are part of SEL

Even though “cognitive” didn’t make the cut for the acronym of social-emotional learning, cognitive skills are the crucial third part of SEL. 

A RAND report identified three components of social and emotional learning :
1.    Cognitive skills
2.    Emotional competencies
3.    Social and interpersonal skills 

To foster SEL, Title 1 educators should encourage brain-based learning that meaningfully accounts for cognitive skill development. After all, cognitive learning is inseparable from SEL.

What can educators do?

Let’s review. Brain-based learning for students of poverty should develop cognitive skills

  • quickly and efficiently,
  • explicitly and intensively, and
  • by rewiring the brain
  • inseparably with SEL.

Here are 3 specific steps that educators can take that meet these criteria:

1. Teach students how their brains learn.

Judy Willis has taught 5th and 7th graders how their brains learn. In an article for TeachThought, Dr. Willis observed, “If we want to empower students, we must show them how they can control their own cognitive and emotional health and their own learning. Teaching students how the brain operates is a huge step.” Explicitly teaching about the brain can boost SEL in the classroom.

It turns out that such young students can grasp the fundamentals of neuroplasticity! One 7th grader reflected, “If I use my prefrontal cortex to mentally manipulate what I learn, my dendrites and synapses grow, and I will own that learning for a long, long time. I won’t have to learn fractions all over again each year.”

2. Use technology designed for cognitive strength-training.

Scientific Learning pioneered brain-based learning technology with its Fast ForWord products. Neuroscientists developed this program to target cognitive areas of the brain that happen to be underdeveloped in children experiencing poverty.

The target cognitive areas are also crucial for developing reading skills. So, Fast ForWord is a reading and language solution that quickly, efficiently, explicitly, and intensively rewires the brain. It helps struggling readers catch up to their grade level. (Read more about Title 1 schools that have seen significant gains with Fast ForWord.)

3. Involve students in choosing curricular unit themes.

Remember Dr. McCall? She cites an excellent example of this collaborative, inclusive approach to brain-based teaching:

My children decided the unit theme and made many decisions regarding which activities and projects they wished to do. Because of this, motivation was high…. This was accomplished by determining my children’s interests and talents via sharing, journal writing, “All About Me” projects, autobiographies, conferencing, interviews, teacher observation, interest inventories, “Index to Ideas” (brainstorming with families on index cards), voting, and dialogue with children and their parents. For example, some of the themes chosen by my students were Sports, Rap, The Rain Forest, Transistors, The Olympics, Famous African-Americans, and Native Americans

This approach will motivate learning, lower student anxiety, and foster cognitive development inseparably with SEL.

There is so much more we could share about neuroscience research, brain-based learning and teaching, and tips and strategies. Hopefully this is a good start! Let us know how it goes in your classroom, and share your own tips and strategies in the comments below!

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