Poverty & Brain Development
December 7, 2008 6:33 AM   Subscribe

"We know kids growing up in resource-poor environments have more trouble with the kinds of behavioral control that the prefrontal cortex is involved in regulating," Boyce said. "But the fact that we see functional differences in prefrontal cortex response in lower socioeconomic status kids is definitive."
posted by theroadahead (76 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
So, great, as long as the republic stands, kids like me will be diagnosed, marginalized, and put to work doing simple, repetitive tasks in a disciplinary environment. But when the revolution comes, none of your testing is going to save you.
posted by mrmojoflying at 6:47 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


So you have to be rich to be smart. But you don't have to be smart to be rich.
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:47 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Admires pullouts. Thinks about the Ig Nobel's. Makes no comment worth anything. Wanders off.
posted by tellurian at 6:54 AM on December 7, 2008


"It's not a life sentence," Knight emphasized. "We think that with proper intervention and training, you could get improvement in both behavioral and physiological indices."

I smell a stimulus package! Let's get all those struggling behavioral therapists and neuroscientists back to work.
posted by nosila at 7:14 AM on December 7, 2008


Check out the Perry PreSchool Project done in Ypsilanti, Michigan, which studied the impact of a quality preschool program on the lives of individuals. They followed the participants for 40 years.
posted by HuronBob at 7:26 AM on December 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


So, great, as long as the republic stands, kids like me will be diagnosed, marginalized, and put to work doing simple, repetitive tasks in a disciplinary environment.

well, we certainly won't be asking you to interpret news articles

But when the revolution comes

the smarter people will win - they always do
posted by pyramid termite at 7:29 AM on December 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


The brain grows by use. It's sad, but not surprising, that children growing up in an environment devoid of stimulation are not developing as they should.

Now what are we going to do about it?
posted by chihiro at 7:35 AM on December 7, 2008


BoingBoing was talking about how video games make it all better.
posted by mathowie at 7:40 AM on December 7, 2008


So, great, as long as the republic stands, kids like me will be diagnosed, marginalized, and put to work doing simple, repetitive tasks in a disciplinary environment. But when the revolution comes, none of your testing is going to save you.

The article actually says something quite different: this research provides further proof that differences in formal measures of intelligence and educational performance are due to environmental deficiencies, not inherent inferiority. And in doing so, it suggests that such discrepancies can be overcome with the right kind of targeted health and social programs that provide poor kinds with better nutrition and early intervention/education a la Head Start.

It's not an excuse to consign the poor to servility based on their supposed inherent inferiority. Quite the opposite. It makes American poverty all the more scandalous, and shows that initiatives to social justice and equal opportunity can make a tremendous difference in the life possibilities of young children from low-income families.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 7:41 AM on December 7, 2008 [16 favorites]


I worked as a teacher in Anacostia, in Southeast DC, and I can tell you that many of those kids really did have a different base ability level; it wasn't that they were stupid, it's just that they didn't make connections and really struggled with any sort of independent thought. I taught English to seventh and eighth graders, and many of them just really struggled to learn.

When we talked about parts of speech (which they did not know, despite some of them being as old as sixteen), we would go over the definition, examples, and little mnemonics to remember which was which (if you turn the "v" in verbs over, it looks like a pair of running legs, so verbs are action words, stuff like that -- I was very proud of myself for coming up with it). I gave them a quick quiz immediately after, in which they had to list three verbs, three nouns, three adjectives and three adverbs; most of them COULD NOT do it.

Whenever there was a word they didn't know, they'd IMMEDIATELY look it up in the dictionary. At first this really impressed me, but then I realized that they weren't actually learning the definitions, they were just parroting them back. The kids didn't understand context clues, breaking words down into component parts, nothing like that. They honestly just lacked even basic analytical skills.

Clearly there was other stuff going on there; with all due respect to my previous colleagues, some of their teachers in the past had been, frankly, terrible (before school started, I asked the history teacher what they would be working on in the hope that we could collaborate; read short stories about the period in history they were studying, stuff like that. She told me "I ain't teaching them shit". Exact quote. It stuck with me). School was not a priority for these students (or their parents). The administration was UNBELIEVABLY bad, and discipline was non-existent (more than happy to share stories about this). As a first-year teacher with virtually no training (I did a program much like Teach for America, though not quite the same) I had classes of thirty-five pupils. There were lots of fairly serious issues, many of which did not have anything to do with the cognitive abilities of the children, but at a basic level many of them just had a huge amount of trouble learning or understanding anything. They could parrot back information, but they couldn't apply it.

This is NOT to say that all poor kids are dumb; clearly that isn't true. For the most part I really liked the kids in my classes (there were about three exceptions, but that will happen in pretty much any class). They behaved badly because no one had taught them otherwise, but they were generally good kids, it was just clear from working with them that many of them struggled with any of the higher levels of Bloom's taxonomy; most of them (but not all) could get to knowledge, but they were unable to comprehend what they'd learned, must less apply it or analyze it, and it made teaching them any sort of higher skills hugely challenging.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:53 AM on December 7, 2008 [30 favorites]


So, OSHA can now go in and sue any employer who provides a working environment that fails to maintain proper stimulation to the prefrontal cortex? Schools will be under very close scrutiny. Thou shalt stimulate thy students, and thy employee as ye surely stimulate thine own children.

Of course, we will find the finer points of positive stimulation. Gee wiz, we have to treat each other with some respect, to keep those prefrontal cortexi spinning away properly. Social Singularity.

(my prefrontal cortex was stimulated by the article and comments, in a pollyannish kind of way)
testing
posted by Goofyy at 8:06 AM on December 7, 2008


Libertarians and conservatives tend to argue for equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome.

So clearly we should support funding and resources to this underprivileged children in order to provide a level playing field.

right?
posted by leotrotsky at 8:10 AM on December 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


Maybe the poor kids just found the triangles rather boring? A triangle certainly doesn't compare to a knife fight, or eight brothers and sisters, or burglary. And the middle-class kids from big lonely bourgeious homes with absent parents and empty walls might have been stimulated all to heck.
posted by dydecker at 8:12 AM on December 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


My child went to a preschool in a poor neighborhood. She was around three. Her teacher told me that some of her classmates had entered the center without having ever held a book in their hands before. Considering the millions of words my daughter had heard and had read to her by that crucial stage in brain development, it is simply common sense that she is able to handle a lot more complicated intellectual tasks than can many of her classmates.

You don't have to be rich to talk to your kids a lot, and it is difficult for us to have a discussion about why low-income families talk less to their kids than do us in the (often not-to-rich) educate class without sounding elitist.
posted by kozad at 8:14 AM on December 7, 2008


Additionally, there is the importance of cultural values--what kids pick up as clues from their homes. A wonderful example of this is the great book The Color of Water. But of course for many of the poor, the cultural heritage, the lack of concern for learning, is what gets handed on. We know that education is the secular religion in America, the gateway to better jobs and opportunities, but still we underfund education in many of our states and fairly consistently in our cities. Those in cities and underfunded states put their kids into private schools, religious or secular.
posted by Postroad at 8:19 AM on December 7, 2008


What if it has nothing to do with books and museums, and is an inherited epigenetic response to the stress of generations of poverty, racism, and absence of opportunity? Maybe they'll discover a vaccine.
posted by Hildegarde at 8:33 AM on December 7, 2008


But when the revolution comes

the smarter people will win - they always do
posted by pyramid termite at 10:29 AM on December 7 [+] [!]


Not according to, you know, history. Usually generals end up taking over. (Not that the generals weren't smart - but they were smart and armed.) See the other link on the front page, about the lack of success among smart people.

------------------------------------------------------------

I find this study fascinating, because it does upset a lot of ideas about educational equality (that just paying more for schools will even the playing ground).

But I'm also a bit confused about one thing. Now, this is totally anecdotal, but I grew up in a working/less-than-working class neighbourhood, and I don't remember people talking less to me. Poor people can be very talkative - I couldn't get a word in edgewise with my father sometimes.

I understand why poverty means that people would have fewer trips to museums and travel to different places, and I understand why parental educational equality might mean fewer books (it's not money if you have a good library, but you need parents are comfortable with reading) -- but how is it that socioeconomic status effects talking? I would have though talking is a great leveller - we can all afford it. Poor people in the pre-modern world had a rich verbal culture, even as they made marks for their names (really cool marks - not just an X sometimes, but personal designs).
posted by jb at 8:33 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


(still can't get a word in edgewise with my dad - and he still has no money)
posted by jb at 8:35 AM on December 7, 2008


I taught music at a poor urban school and I'll never forget some of the children that were there. Every year, there were lots of kids who came in at age 5 and didn't have any idea about colors or letters. Not just didn't know them, had no clue what they were. We also had a few who didn't even know their name. Seriously. They had been spoken to so infrequently or called a plethora of nicknames that they did not know their own name. These children always struggled or else didn't try at all. It was very sad.
posted by pearlybob at 8:37 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


But I'm also a bit confused about one thing. Now, this is totally anecdotal, but I grew up in a working/less-than-working class neighbourhood, and I don't remember people talking less to me. Poor people can be very talkative - I couldn't get a word in edgewise with my father sometimes.

I know a lot of talkative people, poor or not, that just talk about a lot of nonsense. I think the "quality" of language is just as important as quantity of words, here.
posted by sixcolors at 8:44 AM on December 7, 2008


if they're hearing less words, does that mean that they're watching less tv?
posted by msconduct at 8:47 AM on December 7, 2008


This is extraordinarily troubling. Really, it kills me. What to do about it, I just don't know. But I will say this: hats off to all the teachers out there on the front lines.
posted by MarshallPoe at 8:50 AM on December 7, 2008


previous studies have shown that children from poor families hear 30 million fewer words by the time they are four than do kids from middle-class families.

jb: after a bit of digging, it turns out that this quote is misleading. It is based on this study, which compared not middle-class kids but children of professors.
posted by dydecker at 8:52 AM on December 7, 2008


kosad- This American Life did a piece on the Harlem Children's Zone in the episode Thinking Big. They are addressing this on the ground right now. I just wrote them a check. Thanks for jogging my memory.
posted by pointilist at 8:52 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Hey!
posted by cortex at 8:53 AM on December 7, 2008


It's the size of the vocabulary, too. If you hear the same 100 words over and over again, it's not going to broaden your horizons much, I would presume.

I grew up under the poverty line, but my father came from a middle-class family and my mother from an upper-class one. (The war was hard on people, circumstances change and all that.) In spite of being relatively poor, we were raised with the expectations and values generally belonging to higher classes of people; we were enrolled in (free) french immersion along with the middle class kids, my mother read to us every night, we frequented libraries, have well-cared-for teeth, etc. When my dad lost his job, we went on a 8 week camping trip.

I think this is probably less about your actual income and more on the subculture to which you and your family belong. Is it offensive to talk about the subcultures created within communities under endemic poverty, racism, and absence of opportunity? I suspect you have to raise up the whole community, not just throwing generic education at the kids and expect miracles.
posted by Hildegarde at 8:56 AM on December 7, 2008 [8 favorites]


The connection between pre-natal and early childhood nutrition (below seven or so) and general cognitive ability, physical robustness and the correlation between those things and general success later in life is very, very well understood. The short version is that part of being poor is poor nutrition, and poor nutrition when you're growing up is really bad for you for the rest of your life.
posted by mhoye at 8:57 AM on December 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


leotrotsky:

Libertarians and conservatives tend to argue for equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome.

So clearly we should support funding and resources to this underprivileged children in order to provide a level playing field.

right?


Oh, most assuredly! Likewise, so that short children are not made to suffer the indignities and impediments to social and professional success associated with that condition, we ought also support an intensive program of stretching and compacting for those who stray from the median height for their respective age and sex. However, the question remains: At what age do we set their permanent height? Maybe sixteen for girls, eighteen for boys? Sure, some might not have yet reached the end of their natural growth cycle and require some remedial compacting but shouldn't most be done by then and thus give us the optimum return on our leveling dollars?
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 8:57 AM on December 7, 2008


Anxiety decreases effective working memory capacity, and it is far more prevalent among people with lower SES. You can't make connections between two things if you can't hold both of them in your head at once.

I don't think this is all about a stimulation-poor environment. That's not the only story here.
posted by Jpfed at 9:02 AM on December 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


ferdinand, that's a disingenuous use of analogy. Being short doesn't consign children to life in an underclass. Being ineducable can.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:06 AM on December 7, 2008


ferdinand, that's a disingenuous use of analogy.

The original comment was a disingenuous distortion of the libertarian/conservative notion of "equality of opportunity." Are you likewise offended by it?
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 9:13 AM on December 7, 2008


The original comment was a disingenuous distortion of the libertarian/conservative notion of "equality of opportunity."

Given your reply, I'd say it was a dead-on accurate portrayal of the libertarian/conservative notion of "equality of opportunity."
posted by dirigibleman at 9:25 AM on December 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


Here's a link to the UC Berkeley press release on the same subject, which has a little bit more information and some pretty pictures. It also points out that the article has been accepted for publication, but not yet published, which explains why I couldn't find it by searching the journal.

Can anyone shed light on how statistically significant this study might be? My first reaction to hearing that there were only 26 cases in the study is, "That's not nearly enough to generalize," but I don't know jack about neuroscience, so maybe I'm wrong.
posted by epj at 9:32 AM on December 7, 2008


I was just going to bring up The Harlem Children's Zone, too.

The other morning in my search for state aided insurance, I spent three hours waiting in the same agency that serves ADC and food stamps, with a wide variety of young mothers and children. What struck me was the lack of eye contact that many mother's were giving their kids. It was a two to three hour wait so kids start acting up - threats were made in their general direction, some thwacking was done, but no meaningful eye contact.

I was trying to think of a way I could let them know how important it is to have kids know the LOOK in their mother's eye, starting prelanguage, that can carry on right to adulthood. I can give my kids a look that can get their teenage mouths to STFU and defer to the maternal imperative. But even more than that there was a disconnect - moms talked on their cell phones, the kids were a burden.
I think I may have felt somewhat the same at 17 with mouths to feed and no direction or modelling of a different behavior. And it's natural to get defensive when told everything about your life is wrong. There's a way to do it and Jeffrey Canada at the Harlem Children's Project has nailed it.
I used to volunteer in a program that worked with mothers that were in danger of losing custody of their children and needed to learn parenting skills. My background is financial, so I taught basic life skills - How to open a bank account, avoiding revolving credit schemes andpayday loan scams, budgeting and planning. I was amazed at the work the social workers did with the parents, teaching things that to me seemed natural - lstening to your child, making sure the child has a place to sleep and an adequate diet, discipline without whooping...
The parents involved were there because it was a last ditch effort to keep their kids. When I got to know these (mostly) women, many were the products of abuse and neglect. The cycle needs to stop somewhere.
posted by readery at 9:34 AM on December 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


I used to represent lots of kids in juvenile court delinquency proceedings. Dealing with a lot of these kids left me wondering what these horribly neglectful environments did to them. I have always suspected that there was a cognitive impairment that resulted from their environments --- you get the sense by talking to many of these kids, that they're not "all there" --- so I am not surprised by these findings.
posted by jayder at 9:36 AM on December 7, 2008


Not according to, you know, history. Usually generals end up taking over. (Not that the generals weren't smart - but they were smart and armed.)

hitler, stalin, lenin, mussolini were not generals - and the word i used was smarter - not smartest
posted by pyramid termite at 10:02 AM on December 7, 2008



This is not new and there's lots of other research on this, most notably the studies that found that poor children typically hear far fewer words directed towards them in the home and more of the words directed towards them are "discouragements" rather than "encouragements."

Poor kids have a vocabulary of 525 words when they start preschool-- and middle class tend to have 1100.

Given how early input shapes brain development, it is really critical to start helping at birth, not kindergarten. The brain undergoes 90% of its growth in the first five years of life.

Paul Tough has a new book about this, looking at Harlem Children's Zone. There are similar projects planned in Baltimore, and my co-author the child psychiatrist is advising on one in Philadelphia. His article in the NYTM that seems to have inspired the book is here.

But what the study mentioned here leaves out is the enormous trauma and stress experienced by kids raised in poor neighborhoods in the U.S. This is not about poverty per se-- it's poverty amongst violence amongst affluence. Check out this story in the San Francisco Chronicle-- about 1/3 of the children in these neighborhoods have diagnosable PTSD (and many more have trauma symptoms that don't meet full criteria for disorder because diagnosis was designed for adults, not kids).

And trauma profoundly affects cortical control over lower brain regions because it is adaptive to react first, then think when you are in life-threatening situations..
posted by Maias at 10:08 AM on December 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


The article actually says something quite different: this research provides further proof that differences in formal measures of intelligence and educational performance are due to environmental deficiencies, not inherent inferiority

You know, I read the article and the press release, and I don't think either makes that claim as strongly as you do. Care to explain how this study shows that the gap is 100% nurture?
posted by Kwantsar at 10:10 AM on December 7, 2008


Thanks for that link, HuronBob - nice statistics to break down exactly why I've chosen a career in *Early* Childhood Education.

I worked in a preschool where most of the children were from working class or poor families and man, it was rough. Most of the kids really did *want* to learn, but they weren't ever encouraged to develop the skills necessary for it at home. Our center was badly understaffed, and of the staff that was there, the main qualification was that you could pass a background check. Most teachers were good at crowd control, which was necessary as many MANY children had behavior problems (some of which were severe, and there was nothing we could do about. I got hit every single day and bitten about once a week.), but didn't have the skills to do basic "teaching" activities like reading aloud in English. (We weren't a bi-lingual center and didn't have any resource materials in Spanish.) When we could get a few free moments in to do some kind of actual activity instead of just preventing the kids from killing each other, the activities tended to be... well, kinda lame.

Still, I watched some kids learn their letters and saw a few four year olds write their full first names for the first time and I was so proud, I nearly cried. I couldn't stay in that environment for more than a year, it was just too emotionally and mentally draining to be in a battle zone every single day with no resources to actually DO anything.

I work with kids in a more one-on-one capacity now, though it looks like I'll go back to teaching - or getting a Master's in ECE - when my current nanny gig is over. I would say that the main resource that rich kids have over poor kids is ATTENTION. The parents who earn more money generally have more time to spend with their children, or are able to hire nannies (such as myself) to do so. More adult attention with kids = more stimulation = greater vocabularies = readiness for school = etc.

Preschool programs are EXCELLENT for getting kids ready to learn, but more than anything else, parental attention is what's going to enhance a child's natural intelligence. If you're working two jobs just to pay the bills, chances are you're not going to have a lot of extra time to read Curious George. So many parents struggle to raise bright kids, and *good* preschool programs really really REALLY help to fill in the gaps where the parents may not have the resources to get the job done.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:15 AM on December 7, 2008 [4 favorites]


So I came in to make a morlock joke, but I read the article first and now I'd just feel bad.
posted by Caduceus at 10:26 AM on December 7, 2008


Ah, Jello, thanks for your presience.

Seriously, though. Billions a month in Iraq, and schools REGULARLY face budget shortfalls, crappy facilities, second-rate teachers (myself excluded, of course), blah blah blah. Do you really think anyone in power (real power--Wall Street and the military/industrial complex--the moneyed elite) is going to do anything about this?
posted by John of Michigan at 10:48 AM on December 7, 2008


Can anyone shed light on how statistically significant this study might be? My first reaction to hearing that there were only 26 cases in the study is, "That's not nearly enough to generalize," but I don't know jack about neuroscience, so maybe I'm wrong.

I'm not a neuroscientist, but it's one of those areas where I try and read a lot of articles, and I've known a couple of neuroscience students, and I can tell you that the equipment they need and the experiments they do are of such a nature that large studies are very difficult to accomplish. A study that breaks into triple digits is a major study in neuroscience. Most studies tend to involve between ten and one hundred people, and trend toward the lower end of that scale.
posted by Caduceus at 10:51 AM on December 7, 2008


More than once I've seen a wealthy mom or dad with kid in tow, where the parent is completely focusing on the Blackberry or talking on the phone, and the kid, trying to get his existence at least recognized by his parent, is just going nuts. It seems that some of these highly success-oriented dual-income parents don't have much time (or even interest) in their kids, at least compared to their friends and careers.

I wonder if these kids will end up with similar problems. Or many as grapefruitmoon says, the nanny or expensive preschool fills in a few of the missing gaps. What I've seen of the child's behavior, I have my doubts.
posted by eye of newt at 11:24 AM on December 7, 2008


many maybe
posted by eye of newt at 11:26 AM on December 7, 2008


What's a "resource poor environment"?

I'd really like to see these same studies performed on hunter-gatherer populations like the Hazda Bushmen, the Yanomamo of the Amazon, New Guinea tribeseople.

They certainly don't suffer from poverty of stimulus; they know the flora and fauna (and other often hostile tribes) that surround them because they must, to survive.

Is their diet better or worse than that of American in poverty? It's certainly smaller in calories, but probably healthier.

Is their frontal cortex behavior control better? Hard to say: stalking an animal requires foresight and planning; on the other hand, these cultures have rates of murder and rape far far higher than in Western countries. Lack of control or different values?


I tend not to believe that large numbers of humans can be "maladjusted" for many generations, so I have to wonder if what the researchers are seeing in these kids isn't a maladaptation but an adaptation to their environment.

We certainly see this in other animals, which "choose" genders and songs and plummage and strategies based on their natal or early childhood experiences. It would be foolish to assume that humans don't do it as well.

When books and behavioral restraint don't get you far, it's sensible, it's necessary, to adopt other strategies, and I tend to think that 2 million (or 6 million) years of evolution (and a big brain) have given humans an ability to modify strategies not only in evolutionary time but in their own lifetimes, perhaps as simply as by "fitting" several "templates" to one's early childhood environment, and them picking the strategy that is the best fit.

Certainly, in poverty, and when life expectancy is short, learning to act fast and act tough, to steal or strongarm or cheat to make sure you've got enough to eat today is a better strategy than keeping your nose clean for college, if you're never going to get to college.
posted by orthogonality at 11:29 AM on December 7, 2008


eye of newt: Money doesn't buy good behavior or intelligence, unfortunately. While my experience is that kids of higher-income parents have more opportunities and a better background for learning, I have to say that the absolute WORST kids in terms of just beyond the pale bad behavior I've ever seen were quite, quite wealthy.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:29 AM on December 7, 2008


I grew up poor, very poor, until my mom died when I was 12 years old and my grandmother took me in. I might have turned into one of these kids, but I became a thief, and that might have saved me. What did I steal? Books, comic books, magazines, almost entirely all reading material to feed the insatiable appetite I had for knowledge. Oh, there were libraries too, and I used them, but they always restricted me on what was 'age appropriate' and Curious George and Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys only go so far.

So years down the line, I could read just about anything and understand it. I could score out the wazoo on IQ tests and ACT tests and the like. But when I'd actually have to enunciate some of my learned vocabulary, to *speak* them, there were many words I knew how to spell and what they meant, but not how to pronounce them, because I'd never actually heard anyone speak those words. Even to this day, I'll say some word incorrectly for that reason, and my significant other (who is a highly educated former school counselor) will laugh at me. I laugh too; some are pretty funny.

So it may not be that those living impoverished childhoods hear so many fewer words in total, but rather they may very well not hear a whole lot of *different* words, because those around them may simply not have much of a vocabulary. That produces kids like me, who acquired a ginormous percentage of their knowledge through books, because that's all they had access to.
posted by jamstigator at 12:23 PM on December 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


Rather rude analogy, ferdinand.

I'm curious - is there some reason you believe that the poor in America do have "equality of opportunity"?

For example, far less money is spent per student in school - a poor person is far more likely to go to jail, even only comparing cases involving public defenders - industry is far more likely to dump illegal toxics in poor areas, knowing the inhabitants have no leverage to complain.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:25 PM on December 7, 2008


"I tend not to believe that large numbers of humans can be "maladjusted" for many generations, so I have to wonder if what the researchers are seeing in these kids isn't a maladaptation but an adaptation to their environment. "

Balderdash. Humans can be "maladjusted" almost indefinitely if the environment is wrong. For example, there have been areas populated by morons for generations - until trade brought iodized salt.

I don't deny that there are some positive aspects, like faster reflexes and better ability to take in high-speed streams of data, but mostly outweighed by the negatives - shorter attention span, constant low-level anxiety, detachment from the natural world, excessive focus on consumerism and crassness, and a flattening out of levels - everything becomes data, nothing is more important than anything else.

These environments are bad for you. The Morlock reference above isn't so far from the truth.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:34 PM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


lupus_yonderboy:

Rather rude analogy, ferdinand.

I'm curious - is there some reason you believe that the poor in America do have "equality of opportunity"?


To accurately answer the question, I would first have to know how you define "equality of opportunity."
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 1:34 PM on December 7, 2008


To accurately answer the question, I would first have to know how you define "equality of opportunity."

You're the one complaining about it being misused, not me!
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:12 PM on December 7, 2008


Thanks for the information on neuroscience studies, Caduceus. I'm still a little skeptical that thirteen children from low-income homes can possibly be representative of the entire population, but perhaps that's just social science research bias. It would be great if this study gets enough attention that it's replicated with a larger sample. The issue is important, and from the anecdotal evidence in this thread alone, the conclusions seem valid.
posted by epj at 2:51 PM on December 7, 2008


Orthogonality, hunter-gatherer kids would probably be *superior*-- at least if you are measuring social skills. They are not in a resource-poor environment by this definition--they are not typically (and certainly weren't for most of history) in an environment of poverty amidst wealth.

It is inequality that is bad for kids-- if you are poor when everyone else is poor, it's not so bad. There's lots of research on status effects on health and status is relative and the people on the bottom rungs do worse. If you compare societies with low inequality to high inequality, the ones with low inequality like Scandinavian countries tend to do better than those with high like the U.S. even though the U.S. is wealthier by the "mean".

Hunter gatherer kids grow up in the environment for which evolution prepared our brains and that includes way more social interaction than most Western kids, rich or poor get. We evolved in an environment where there were usually 4-5 adults for every one child. We think a nursery school is good with 4-5 *kids* to one adult.

In hunter-gatherer groups, if Mom is overwhelmed, she can turn kid over to auntie, cousin, sibling, uncle, Dad, grandma-- here, she's lucky if there's a relative or even a friend nearby at all and she tends to spend most days alone with kid, even if she's not single. Obviously, there are problems like infant mortality and warfare etc. that we have less of. But we are not preparing our brains for empathy and connection when we sit kids in front of computers all day and strand Moms at home in isolation.

Newt, most studies compare the middle class (not the extremely wealthy like you describe) to the poor. Here's an example I saw recently. On the train, I saw a poor mother with a child. The child was looking at the ads. I'd seen middle class moms in same situation-- when kid reads a letter, Mom is like, wow, you said A. Can you see another A? The poor Mom is like, shut up, stop pestering me. Now, obviously, that's one anecdote and you can overgeneralize. And the poor mother probably spent all day being beaten down by being treated like a nonperson at work or the welfare office or by partner etc. She doesn't have the energy to encourage little precious' every step towards reading. However, the data shows that her reaction is common in her class and the middle class pattern is more common in the middle class.

And that interaction multiplied by 100 every day leaves poor kids *without* equality of opportunity because their brains are not prepared for reading in the way that the middle class ones are. The extremely rich often grow up, oddly, in environments similar to the poor because they don't get the consistent focused nurturing that the middle class do because the rich are often shuttled from nanny to nanny to nanny (this disrupts attachment), don't get that much parental attention and focus, etc. And the poor have same problems but for different reasons and with far fewer opportunities for amelioration.

Again, these are generalizations. An intellectual poor mom who is less stressed and who knows the importance of doing the things the middle class moms take for granted will give her children most of the advantages that the middle class has by doing things like reading to child, encouraging reading whenever it happens, etc. However, if a mom doesn't know about this stuff and her culture doesn't emphasize it or she's just too stressed to give any more, that child is simply not on a level playing field when he gets to kindergarten and he won't be given the tutoring, etc. that can help the rich kid who is neglected catch up.
posted by Maias at 3:00 PM on December 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


epj, there are many studies like this, some with larger samples. if this was based on this alone, i would dismiss it too. but it's part of a body of literature with pretty congruent findings. i'm writing about one right now so i can't link it until the piece is published.
posted by Maias at 3:01 PM on December 7, 2008


Here's an example I saw recently. On the train, I saw a poor mother with a child. The child was looking at the ads. I'd seen middle class moms in same situation-- when kid reads a letter, Mom is like, wow, you said A. Can you see another A? The poor Mom is like, shut up, stop pestering me.

I see this a lot, and I think the same thing. I fuss at myself for noticing and judging and being all privileged, but I do. It seems to happen every time I go to Wal-Mart. (look it's unavoidable sometimes)
posted by Countess Elena at 3:23 PM on December 7, 2008


We evolved in an environment where there were usually 4-5 adults for every one child.

Waaaaait a second. No we didn't. We evolved in an environment where women had many more children than they have now in Western society. How can there possibly be 4-5 adults for every one child when women are having 5 or 8 kids? How can there possibly be 4-5 adults for every one child without a massively shrinking population where the fertility rate is like 0.4 where 2.1 is replacement level?

The math just doesn't make any sense. The ratio of kids to adults is WAY higher in more primitive societies, not way lower.
posted by Justinian at 3:35 PM on December 7, 2008


when I'd actually have to enunciate some of my learned vocabulary, to *speak* them, there were many words I knew how to spell and what they meant, but not how to pronounce them, because I'd never actually heard anyone speak those words.

I used to do this, too, when I was very young. I had someone notice this and actually tell me that this was a mark of pride since it was a sign that I was a very big reader, given that my reading vocabulary had outpaced that which I had learned through day to day speech.

Libertarians/conservatives don't actually believe in things like "equality of opportunity." They believe that opportunity is a form of property, and that giving opportunity to people who don't have it is a form of handout. Taken even further, some might regard (consciously or unconsciously) the reduction of the comparative advantage that comes from being from a privileged background to be a form of theft-- ie, they seem to believe that if everyone has good academic opportunities, then no one does, because they're no longer worth anything since they aren't scarce.

Meanwhile, the stories from Mrs. Pterodactyl and pearlybob are simply stunning and presents a picture of almost intractable problems.
posted by deanc at 3:36 PM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Justinian, that's the case in agricultural societies, not forager (hunter/gatherer) societies. In agricultural societies, there's more food for more kids, and more hands are needed at harvest. In forager societies, which move seasonally, resources are scarcer and small children don't travel well.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:39 PM on December 7, 2008


I fuss at myself for noticing and judging and being all privileged, but I do.

We need to stop fussing at ourselves over this. We believe things-- we believe that it is an important moral and cultural value to encourage learning in children and stimulate their curiosity and intellects. Since we believe these things it is perfectly okay to make judgments based on whether people live up to those values. I don't think we should feel guilty about believing that certain value systems are important and being agitated when we see those values being stomped on.

We know that education is the secular religion in America

Very much so. Even in the sense that everyone talks about how important it is and how everyone should believe it in, but no one goes to church except on holidays, everyone complains about their pastor, and if your child decided to go into the clergy -- or even take all of the teachings really, really seriously -- the family would get really agitated.
posted by deanc at 3:45 PM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Justinian, that's the case in agricultural societies, not forager (hunter/gatherer) societies. In agricultural societies, there's more food for more kids, and more hands are needed at harvest. In forager societies, which move seasonally, resources are scarcer and small children don't travel well.

I'll accept that the average children per woman in a forager society is less than that in an agricultural society. But it quite literally can't be 4-5 adults per child. It just mathematically can't. The society would go extinct in three generations. The lowest it could reasonably be is something like 1 adult per 2 children, and even that strikes me as extremely unlikely without effective birth control. Even 1 adult per child is below replacement level for the population!
posted by Justinian at 3:59 PM on December 7, 2008


To not pile on inner-city ethnic minorities, neglect can occur in other ethnic and family situations: e.g., in order of magnitude, Catholic families who have four or five children under age six, the "full quiver" fundamentalist families, the notorious Duggars.

In an incident which I witnessed, a red-haired, white father shepherded four small children (the eldest girl about five, twin boys who looked three or four, a two-year-old) at the local post office. There was a long line and the kids were understandably restless.

"Get on the floor. Stay there."
They sat, and he finished the transaction.

When I saw this, I hoped there was not another kid on the way. Perhaps the parents of such families read to their kids all together, but parental attention is going to be spread rather thin.
posted by bad grammar at 4:01 PM on December 7, 2008


On further thought, I suppose it all depends on how old you consider "child" and "adult". In the societies we're talking about, 12-13 year olds are not children in the sense we mean.

4-5 adults per child still strikes me as unreasonable even if we confine "child" to mean infants and toddlers, though.
posted by Justinian at 4:02 PM on December 7, 2008


Here's an example I saw recently. On the train, I saw a poor mother with a child. The child was looking at the ads. I'd seen middle class moms in same situation-- when kid reads a letter, Mom is like, wow, you said A. Can you see another A? The poor Mom is like, shut up, stop pestering me. Now, obviously, that's one anecdote and you can overgeneralize. And the poor mother probably spent all day being beaten down by being treated like a nonperson at work or the welfare office or by partner etc. She doesn't have the energy to encourage little precious' every step towards reading.

Yes, this is exactly the distinction I've seen working with kids between middle/upper class families and working class/poor families. It's not so much that the working class families don't care so much as they just don't have *time* to devote a lot of energy into Little Schmoopy's intellectual development. I certainly have seen more poor parents (compared to higher class parents) brush off their kids' achievements with a "that's nice, now let's go." No matter how busy a wealthy mom is, she'll put down her BlackBerry and practically crown her precious bundle for recognizing a new word because, yes, as mentioned, religion is the new education.

The real distinguishing factor in kids who are ready for kindergarten vs. kids who aren't is how much *time* has been spent with them on basic literacy and math (knowing what numbers ARE, basically) skills. And in this case, time really IS money. The more money you have, the more time you can afford to spend with your child - or you can afford to pay someone else to do it for you. The less money you have, the more time gets spent ensuring basic safety and learning anything is just a bonus.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:11 PM on December 7, 2008


bad grammar: In large families, the older children help keep pressure on the younger ones.
posted by Electrius at 4:17 PM on December 7, 2008


Why do I suspect that the main takeaway from this study will be that the poor are damaged, so don't even bother? Because while this study solidly proves that these poor children have the equivalent of brain damage, it only hopefully suggests that this neurological condition is not a "life sentence". They should have held the study back, and released it in tandem with another study conclusively proving that the effect was reversible -- if they could produce such a study. If not, well, I guess the poor are damaged, so why bother?
posted by Faze at 4:54 PM on December 7, 2008


Faze, that's exactly what I worry about, too. And I felt that the wording of the press release and some of the coverage was going to feed into that.

There's this myth that "damage" = permanent and "biological" = genetic and unfixable that is completely wrong but that is commonly believed.

The thing that's sad about early deprivation is that it is eminently fixable (except for some nutritional stuff that is relatively rare in US like iodine deficiency) but the problem is that making up for missed early stuff takes tons of repetition and typically adults and society don't have the patience to do the repetition needed. Especially when it is repetition of loving interactions-- we start to think this is "babying" and "spoiling" and start in with the "tough love" and end up doing completely counterproductive stuff.

but it's even true with academic stuff... patient repetition that would bore the crap out of kids who got what they needed early is exactly what's needed for those who missed it during "critical periods" of development. and it needs to be done lovingly and not condescendingly and in a way that most people just can't do.

So, given this, it's best to avoid early deprivation and let kids get repetition when it's age appropriate and not "weird' and when not so many repetitions are needed because the brain is looking for that particular input.
posted by Maias at 6:55 PM on December 7, 2008


I'd really like to see these same studies performed on hunter-gatherer populations like the Hazda Bushmen, the Yanomamo of the Amazon, New Guinea tribeseople.

Do you know anything about those societies? I don't know those ones in particular, but most tribal groups are very socially tight knit, and the children are very well integrated into the group and know their place within the clan very securely, as well as sometimes being bonded with animals. They know exactly who they are (a member of the tribe) and how they are meant to behave. They often have notable rituals at particular times in their lives (like tooth extractions and puberty rituals, especially for boys, which are sometimes quite elaborate - pseudo-wars, being initiated into the soldiers/hunters of the group).

So even if they don't know more words or whatever, they usually have a definitive identity in a way that these children don't. Contemporary society places less value on pre-ordained roles and rituals, but when it works, gives you more tools to craft your own identity. We generally provide a few aspects of "who you are" like your name, gender, ethnic heritage, nationality (more and more of the basics are widely culturally accepted to be pliable, but when you're young it's a place to start) and leave the larger picture ("what do you want to be when you grow up?") to you. But you have to know how to work within the structure of our society to approach a question like that.

Poor kids grow up in chaos, without any instructions, unable to navigate the complex environment they're thrown into. It isn't comparable to the regular, continuous, harmonious, if not independent, life of the tribal member.
posted by mdn at 8:08 PM on December 7, 2008


If you've got nothing to lose, impeccable impulse control is not exactly the winning strategy.

Just sayin'.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:29 PM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Postroad - Bullshit. I have been teaching poor, minority, inner-city kids for three and a half years now. In that time I have never met one parent who did not think learning was important, who did not value education, who did not want the best for their child. I hear this line a lot from people who don't know anything about it, and it offends me terribly.

But there is a difference between wanting your child to succeed academically and knowing how to give them the skills they will need to do so, especially if no one ever taught you those skills.

Orthogonality - there is something to what you are saying. I learned from the counselor at my school that children who experience high levels of stress and trauma (which applies to many poor children) tend to be "hypervigilant" - that is, they pay attention to everything around them and are easily distracted by small disturbances. This makes it difficult to focus on a math assignment in a classroom full of other children but is a good adaptive strategy for protecting oneself from physical danger.

Along those lines, I think it is really important not to think of children from disadvantaged backgrounds as being less able to learn or less intelligent. Although they often read and do math "below grade level," most of my students are brilliant in their own way, and part of my job as a teacher is finding that brilliance and figuring out how to apply it to learning tasks in school.

For example, some of my kids are wonderful actors and performers. Maybe this is because they come from a background that values humor and performance more than my rather uptight white middle class protestant upbringing did. But the benefit for me as a teacher is that if I can use performance in learning activities, many of my kids who might struggle at a more traditionally-oriented activity will begin to blossom. We have made movies, held mock trials and debates, and performed skits many times in my class, and it always brings in the "class clowns."

And then, once you have helped those kids feel successful in one activity, they are much more likely to try their best at another type of activity, like writing or reading, that they were turned off to before. By creating a conneciton between something they are good at and something they struggle with, you set them up for success in more challenging activities.
posted by mai at 8:59 PM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


I routinely (at my/our community center) interact kids from the nearby low income housing projects. As much as I would like to disbelieve this study, I think it is true. We have a reading and art program and many of the children don't seem to be at a good mental level. A good example to share: during a paper folding activity some of the kids had serious problems with spacial reasoning, and the kids were 11-14yo. I notice other things as well, but they are subtle behavioral things that don't lend themselves well to a list of examples.

I think it may have a lot to do with diet. In the United States, poor kids eat shit. I think that the home situation could have a little to do with it, and to invoke any notion of a culture of poverty would be ignorant in this case. After all, they all watch TV and listen to music and they have friends they interact with even if their parents are assholes (this happens). Some of the impoverished parents I've worked with are actually quite good parents and try to give their kid lots of learning experiences; some of these parent's kids are still dumbasses.

In any case, it is a great sadness.

Interesting, though, that many of these kids are adept in other ways. Many of the 11-13yos are able to engage me in conversation at a surprising level. Despite their lack of knowledge and "mental development" problems, I feel like they are interacting like adults in the way that they follow conversation and cognize what is said; they listen and consider what each person's statement reveals about the speakers.

In fact, some of the kids are really clever too. An optimistic example: During our Halloween party one young girl (twelvish) wore black pants and a blue shirt. We were making costumes and we asked if she wanted to make one and what, she said no because she was already wearing her costume. The look on her face made me think that she thought we were the ones with brain development problems.

She says: "I'm a boy!"
posted by fuq at 10:33 PM on December 7, 2008


Waaaaait a second. No we didn't. We evolved in an environment where women had many more children than they have now in Western society. How can there possibly be 4-5 adults for every one child when women are having 5 or 8 kids? How can there possibly be 4-5 adults for every one child without a massively shrinking population where the fertility rate is like 0.4 where 2.1 is replacement level?

In the United States, children 0-14 are currrently 20% of the population (CIA factbook). That's 4 people over 15 for every child 14 and under - and the fertility rate in the US is 2.something. Basically, you forget that we spend 4/5 of our lives being 15 and over (years 15-75)

Women in pre-modern societies (hunter-gatherer or agrarian) had more pregnancies than women do now, but they did not have that many more living children - only about 2-4 per family. The ratio per female in society might be lower (would only be about 2 if the population is stagnant), because not all females marry and have children. If the population were growing rapidly through fertility (not migration), as it is in the developing world, than children would form a larger percentage of the population. But for most of history, human populations have been stagnant or growing slowly, and the child/adult ratio elsewhere would have been about the same, since live-expectancy after childhood was not as bad as people tend to think it is.
posted by jb at 7:23 AM on December 8, 2008


I can't imagine that the results of this study come as much of a shock to anyone who's worked with kids and their parents in true poverty environments. I used to work on a research study that covered very similar ground (partly discussed here and here) and spent about six hours in the homes of children doing assessments, testing, and observation of parent/child interaction. I guarantee you that poverty decreases both the quantity and quality of parent/child interaction. That's not to say that all poor moms don't talk to their kids. Every once in a while you meet a mom and just want to give her a huge hug for doing such a good job in her circumstances. But I'll never forget the time I went to one place, sat down with my clipboard and asked a mother to play with her child for fifteen minutes while I took notes and the only interaction she had with her child was to grunt at him. For fifteen minutes, not a single word, just grunts. You think that doesn't impact a child's development?

No only do we need universal Pre-K, it needs to start before the age of 4. 2 or 3 would be better, in my opinion. Think of it as free day care.
posted by threeturtles at 9:01 AM on December 8, 2008


threeturtles: A lot of studies indicate that two is too young for children to be socialized in large groups, and even for some kids, three is pushing it for being in a group setting with other kids. Preschool/daycare absolutely can NOT take the place of parental involvement, but it can *help* fill in the gaps. Universal Pre-K isn't the answer, and for some kids would be worse than nothing. I've seen what happens with kids who are forced into group settings before they can mentally handle it, and while sometimes it's a necessary evil (parents have no other options for childcare), on the whole if they can't handle it at two or three, they should WAIT until they're four rather than pushing it and having to deal with a slew of behavioral issues. Not only is your child not learning anything while she's biting her "friends," but they're not really getting much out of it and the teacher's time is taken up dealing with disciplinary issues so there's way less time for finger paint.

Kids need adult attention to gain literacy/math skills to get ready for school. Whether or not they're capable of ALSO being in the company of other kids while getting these skills is, for kids under four, a whole 'nother can of worms.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 2:54 PM on December 8, 2008


A lot of studies indicate that two is too young for children to be socialized in large groups, and even for some kids, three is pushing it for being in a group setting with other kids.

Bullocks. Cite the studies then see Alma Gottlieb's "The Afterlife is Where We Come From" (or some of the growing field of infant anthropology) to learn that what you said is not the case in many, many circumstances.
posted by fuq at 4:45 PM on December 8, 2008


grapefruitmoon:
I think some of the problems that kids have in pre-k around behavior issues happen because increasingly, pre-k programs aren't developmentally appropriate for some kids. They are very academically focused and not focused enough on the kind of learning that comes through play. This is an inevitable result of the push for earlier and earlier literacy to get kids ready for standardized tests. I believe that pre-k should teach literacy and math skills, but it should teach them through, not instead of, play that also helps them learn to get along well with others and use their imaginations.
posted by mai at 4:48 PM on December 8, 2008


mai: They are very academically focused and not focused enough on the kind of learning that comes through play. This is an inevitable result of the push for earlier and earlier literacy to get kids ready for standardized tests. I believe that pre-k should teach literacy and math skills, but it should teach them through, not instead of, play that also helps them learn to get along well with others and use their imaginations.

If you read my above comment, I worked in an inner-city center with under-qualified staff. If anything academic EVER happened, it was a miracle. Our jobs were entirely crowd-control related. Free play was not only encouraged, it was sort of the only option. We had to scramble to get kids ready for the standardized tests that *we* were required to give, and I will admit that most kids weren't ready to TAKE the test, let alone pass it. I wish I could share your experience that teachers are too focused on learning in ECE settings, and that's where the behavior problems happen, but my experience has been exactly the opposite: too much time curbing problem (read: unsafe) behaviors, not enough time for story time/blocks time/etc.

I've never been in a center where behavior was out of line because there was too *much* academic focus for young children. I've had some experience with academic-focused centers, but even then the focus was on learning through play.

fuq: I work in Early Childhood Education and while, yes, the subject is up for debate, by and large twos and early threes aren't necessarily ready for a full day program with 18 other children. Two year olds are still in parallel play mode, which works well in small groups, but heaven help you if you can find a preschool program with *small groups.* Half-day programs work wonderfully for very young children, but it's been my experience - and that of many other professionals as well - that kids under four are for the most part not ready for a full day program of preschool. Three is really the lower limit and why many accredited preschools don't offer programs for children under three.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:03 PM on December 8, 2008


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