Association of Child Poverty, Brain Development, and Academic Achievement


Importance  Children living in poverty generally perform poorly in school, with markedly lower standardized test scores and lower educational attainment. The longer children live in poverty, the greater their academic deficits. These patterns persist to adulthood, contributing to lifetime-reduced occupational attainment.

Poverty can affect the health of children in many ways, but, in particular, poverty affects their mental development. A new study published in “JAMA Pediatrics” found that poverty has a negative effect on the development of children’s brain architecture.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that children from low-income families had irregular brain development. They achieved 20 per cent lower scores on standardised tests, which study authors mainly attributed to developmental lags in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain.

In an accompanying editorial, Joan L. Luby from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis notes that these results confirm those of previous studies. She and her colleagues had identified changes in the brain’s architecture of young children growing up in poverty that can lead to lifelong problems with depression, learning difficulties, and limitations in coping with stress.

But Luby emphasises that this condition is not unavoidable. Her research showed that parents who are nurturing can offset some of the negative poverty-related effects on brain anatomy of their offspring. This suggests that teaching nurturing skills to parents, particularly those who live below the poverty line, may provide lifelong benefits for their children, emphasised the researcher.

Conclusions and Relevance  The influence of poverty on children’s learning and achievement is mediated by structural brain development. To avoid long-term costs of impaired academic functioning, households below 150% of the federal poverty level should be targeted for additional resources aimed at remediating early childhood environments.

N. L. Hair, PhD; J.L. Hanson, PhD; B. L. Wolfe, PhD; S. D. Pollak, PhD; JAMA Pediatr. Published online July 20, 2015. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.1475