A growing body of research shows that the human brain is affected by environment in many ways and has begun to characterize the relationship between poverty and cognitive development. Jamie Hanson at the University of Wisconsin, Madison used MRIs to measure the amount of gray matter in the brains of children (Hanson, 2013). What the researchers found was more gray matter by volume in the brains of children from higher SES, and less in those from lower SES. Thus, higher SES is correlated with more neuronal connections and more efficient connections. Similar results have been shown by other scientists, including Joan Luby at Washington University in St. Louis, whose research documented significant differences in MRI scans of the hippocampus, a brain structure involved in short-term memory storage and retrieval and in the consolidation of long-term memory. In this study, differences were also noted in the frontal lobes, which play an important role in executive functions such as planning, impulse control and control of attention, and in the parietal lobes which play an important role in sensory integration, aspects of visual attention and may be especially important for connectivity among brain regions.
While the evidence has been building that poverty affects the brain’s physical structure and development, the evidence has also been accumulating that poverty affects how the brain actually performs the functions associated with these brain areas. One of the earliest studies illuminating the gap in capacity for low-SES children was Hart and Risely’s ground-breaking research on early family life and its effect on children’s IQ (Hart & Risely, 1995). This research showed the profound effect or early childhood experiences on school readiness, including children’s cognitive skills.
While the language disparity is widely known, the differences between children of different SES are not simply a function of how many words they have heard by age 3 and the extent of their vocabulary. More recently, research has shown a strong correlation between the degree of disadvantage and the magnitude of cognitive disparity. Moreover, these findings shed light on additional specific areas of cognition that are deficient which extend far beyond language acquisition (Noble, Norman & Farrah, 2005; Noble, McCandliss & Farrah, 2007).
Cognitive Skills and Their Relationship to Educational Performance
Cognitive System: Occipitotemporal/visual cognition system
Cognitive Skills: The ability to perceive patterns and to visualize.
- Visual-spatial organization (e.g., organization of physical and mental workspace)
- Understanding non-verbal feedback in a social situation
- Understanding math and science concepts
- Visualization of information that has been read or heard
Cognitive System: Parietal/spatial cognition system
Cognitive Skills: The ability to perceive and mentally manipulate spatial relationships, including the ability to sequence.
- Mathematics (especially geometry) and following a set of procedures
- Visual problem-solving and estimation
- Physical coordination, acuity
Cognitive System: Medial temporal/memory system
Cognitive Skills: The ability to form new memories and to assemble information from distributed storage sites that represent a whole memory.
- These skills are necessary for any learning to take place, including being able to remember multiple pieces of relevant information and to create relationships among similar concepts and ideas.
Cognitive System: Left perisylvian/ language system
Cognitive Skills: The ability to learn and understand words, to distinguish sounds that distinguish similar sounding words.
- Vocabulary development
- Phonological awareness (the ability to perceive sounds that distinguish similarr-sounding words
- Grammar, pronunciation
- Communication, expression
Cognitive System: Prefrontal executive function system
Cognitive Skills: The ability to control the focus of one’s attention.
- Deferring gratification
- Creating plans
- Making decisions
Cognitive System: Anterior cingulated/cognitive control system
Cognitive Skills: The ability to override competing attentional or behavioral responses.
- Choosing between alternataives in decision-making
- Ignoring distractions and staying focused in the classroom
- Being able to behave differently in differen situations (e.g., home vs. school)
Cognitive System: Lateral prefrontal/working memory system
Cognitive Skills: The ability to retain and manipulate information over a short time span.
- Working memory is essential for complex reasoning and problem solving, among other learning functions
Impact of Poverty in BrainWare Learning Research
In our own research, we routinely see the impact of economics on cognitive development:
- A group of at-risk 4th and 5th grade boys at an Indianapolis Public School took the Woodcock-Johnson Cognitive Battery. On average, the boys had a chronological age of 11, but tested at an intellectual age of 8. This essentially meant that their teachers were trying to teach 4th grade material to 1st grade brains.
- The cognitive skills known as executive functions may be the greatest area of impact. From our collected data on students from different low-SES schools and mid-SES schools, we found significantly more low-SES students considered “at-risk” for Attention and/or Working Memory. We commonly see a gap in other skills, such as Verbal and Abstract Reasoning, but to a lesser degree than executive functions.
While larger proportions of students from low SES have challenges with executive functions, it is still the case that each student has a unique cognitive profile an understanding how to personalize instruction and supports is important. Today, the assessment used in the studies that yielded the data on Executive Functions deficits, a nationally normed cognitive assessment called Mindprint, can be used in schools to identify students who need cognitive skill building in order to catch up academically, as well as to personalize learning strategies for groups of students with common cognitive gaps.
Deficits in cognitive capacity do not disappear immediately when children are exposed to good teaching and good curriculum. In fact, such deficits are important barriers to being able to learn and often constitute limitations to the amount and pace of learning. Before students with deficits can learn, they must develop the capacity to learn.
BrainWare SAFARI has been used with students from low-SES areas for many years, in schools around the U.S., to strengthen their cognitive skills as the foundation for learning.
In the Indianapolis Public School mentioned above, the students used BrainWare SAFARI 2-3 hours a week for 12 weeks. In that 12 weeks, their cognitive capacity increased by an average of 6 years, not only catching up on their intellectual age, but surpassing it for most students.
Both cognitive and academic gains were demonstrated at Glenwood Academy in Glenwood, IL, where students are from economically disadvantaged families. Improvements on cognitive testing ranged from an average 1.5 Grade Equivalents (GE) for 2nd grade students to 3.0 GE for 8th grade students, following 8 weeks of cognitive training. The improvements in cognitive functioning resulted in academic gains ranging from an average of 0.5 Grade Equivalents in the 2nd grade to 2.9 GE in the 8th grade.
While the Indianapolis and Glenwood Academy studies looked largely at students at-risk and behind academically, a study in South Carolina looked at the impact of cognitive training across the spectrum of ability among school with low-SES students. In one elementary school, no students had qualified for a gifted program at the school. After 17 weeks, with 30-minute sessions 2-3 times per week, 5 students qualified based on CogAT scores in the 93rd percentile or higher, and 2 students qualified for the gifted program for CogAT scores in the 98th percentile. In all, 60 out of 64 students improved their results, with the average composite score increasing by 11 points and improvement across all subtests.
Data was gathered for a number of schools in the district in subsequent years providing an opportunity to look at the impact across the spectrum of abilities.
Improvement in cognitive skills cannot only improve academic performance, it can improve behavior, too. Many disruptive behaviors seen (not paying attention, acting out, etc.) can be a reaction to the frustration of how difficult learning is for students with less well-developed cognitive skills.
A mounting body of evidence suggests that the development of cognitive skills is what stands in the way of closing the gap for students who are economically disadvantaged.