July 19, 2016
When a child is living in poverty, it can mean inadequate nutrition, homelessness, and even exposure to violence. It can also mean an irreversible impact on brain development. Last year, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that the brains of children from the lowest income bracket – less than $25,000 – had up to 6 percent less surface area than children from families making more than $150,000. Children living in poverty can actually have smaller brains. This has real life implications for our children, our education system, and ultimately for our economy.
One of the most profound effects of poverty on the developing brain is hunger. Food-insecure children are two-thirds more likely to experience developmental risks in language acquisition, fine and gross motor control, social behavior, emotional control, and preschool readiness. Hunger is also often associated with children’s behavior problems, such as temper tantrums, fighting, sadness, depression, anxiety, and loneliness.
These realities underscore the importance of programs that address the effects of poverty. This includes programs that focus on supportive parenting, increased awareness among parents and childcare providers about the importance of good nutrition, and access to healthy food. In some high-quality childcare settings across North Carolina, children are learning about the benefits of healthy eating and growing their own gardens. These high-quality early education programs also provide stimulating environments that engage children in books and active play. Additionally, there are interventions that start even earlier. Intensive nurse visitation programs for low-income mothers – whether the mothers are pregnant with their first child or already have a newborn – have shown to lower levels of abuse and neglect and to improve children’s outcomes well into adolescent years.
But there is still more to do when it comes to protecting these young minds. We need to invest in communities, especially in areas of high economic distress. We need to create spaces where families, faith communities, and neighborhood groups can come together and create not only vegetable gardens, but also green spaces for healthy outdoor activity. We need increased support for high-quality early education, ensuring that our children are spending significant amounts of time in engaging, stimulating environments. And we need to take a whole-child approach that is inclusive of their homes, their communities, and their schools.
While we could easily say the problem is too big to tackle, I maintain that it’s too serious to ignore. Our young children’s brains are developing rapidly during the first five years of life. The experiences they have during that time not only affect their ability to achieve school success, but also have a lasting impact on their future health and well-being. If we have healthy children, we will have healthy, thriving communities. If we have healthy communities, we will have a healthy, prosperous state.