Naja Tunney’s home is filled with books. Sometimes she will pull them from a bookshelf to read during meals. At bedtime, Naja, 5, reads to her 2-year-old sister, Hannah.
“We have books anywhere you sit in the living room,” said their mother, Cheryl Tunney, who curls up with her girls on an oversized green chair to read stories.
Naja and Hannah are beneficiaries of Reach Out and Read, an early intervention literacy program that collaborates with medical care providers to provide free books during check-ups.
“I learn things that my brain will always know,” Naja said during an appointment at Group Health Cooperative’s Capitol Clinic in Madison.
Naja’s and Hannah’s brains are in critical phases of development, and they are being stimulated by a home environment that prioritizes education.
But children who do not have this same experience early in life — especially those growing up in poverty — could experience delayed brain development that significantly harms their educational progress, according to recent research by psychology professor Seth Pollak and economist Barbara Wolfe at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Their study is part of a growing body of socioeconomic brain research documenting what Joan Luby, a child psychiatry professor at Washington University in St. Louis, calls “poverty’s most insidious damage.” Such research is prompting legislators on both sides of the aisle in Wisconsin to explore what more needs to be done to help children succeed.
Altered brain structure
Along with graduate students Nicole Hair and Jamie Hanson, Pollak and Wolfe found that poverty can cause structural changes in areas of the brain associated with school readiness skills.
These parts of the brain are susceptible to circumstances often present in poor households, including stress, unstable housing, nutritional deficiencies, low academic stimulation, and irregular access to health care.
The study examined brain development of 389 mostly white young people ages 4 to 22. To isolate the effects of poverty from other factors, Pollak included mostly children of educated mothers: 85 percent reported at least some college-level education and 22 percent had some graduate-level education. The fathers had similar educational backgrounds.
Results indicated that as much as 20 percent of the gap in test scores of low-income children is explained by developmental lags in critical areas of the brain responsible for learning.
“This is suggesting that there is something about a child’s early environment that is affecting the way their neural systems are working that undermine their ability to extract information and succeed in school,” said Pollak, who is also the director of UW-Madison’s Child Emotion Lab.
Pollak found that children from families making below 150 percent of the federal poverty level — which for a family of four is $36,450 — experienced diminished brain development and learning. The most serious effects were among children living below the federal poverty level, which is $24,300 for a family of four.
An estimated 28 percent of Wisconsin’s children live below 150 percent of the federal poverty level.
In 2013, in a related study, a team led by Wolfe and Pollak examined how family poverty can affect the rate of brain growth among young children.
They found that infants from lower-income families started life with a similar amount of gray matter to infants whose families were not poor. But by their toddler years, poor children had less total gray matter, they found. The effects of poverty on brain size were strongest among the most impoverished children, with no difference between lower-middle-class and affluent children.
Other research has shown a connection between early childhood trauma and “toxic stress” on the ability of children to learn.
Gaps big in Wisconsin
Wisconsin has the largest disparity in the country between the performance of black and white students and the rate at which they graduate. The state also has the highest suspension rates for black high school students in the nation, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s Children Left Behind series reported in December.
And Wisconsin has the second-largest poverty gap in the United States between blacks and whites, a disparity that has grown faster than the national average, according to a December report from the UW-Madison Applied Population Lab.
Stress adds to school woes
Pollak theorized one reason for the achievement gap could be the “pervading sense of stress” that can accompany poverty.
So-called adverse childhood experiences can rewire a child’s brain in a way that makes it harder to learn, Dr. Bruce Perry told a group of Wisconsin juvenile court and child welfare officials meeting in Wisconsin Dells last fall.
Perry, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, said if the stress is “moderate” and “controllable,” children can develop mechanisms for responding to future, unexpected stresses. But stress caused by factors such as violence or neglect can create a state of alarm that makes children more reactive, often described as the “fight, flight or freeze” response.
When presented with new material in school, for example, such children may have a hard time activating the thinking part of the brain, he said.
“If you are a child who is dis-regulated … you are so overwhelmed that you shut down your cortex completely and your cortex is unable to actually process information,” Perry said.
“And in order to master the same content, you are required to have 10 times the repetition, which is not going to be provided in the typical classroom environment, and you’re going to fall further behind.”
Investing early brings results
Pollak and Wolfe’s findings suggest that efforts aimed at closing Wisconsin’s long-standing racial and economic achievement gaps should start much earlier than school age and be directed at raising income levels of poor children.
“It’s not like we need to get everybody up to affluence,” Pollak said, “we just need to have kids not living in scarcity.”
University of Chicago economist James Heckman found it is cheaper to pay for high-quality preschool than later interventions such as hiring teachers to create low student-to-teacher ratios, government-funded job training, or rehabilitation programs for ex-convicts.
“Investing in disadvantaged young children is a rare public policy initiative that promotes fairness and social justice and at the same time promotes productivity in the economy and in society at large,” Heckman wrote. He found that every $1 invested returned about $7 to $12 back to society.
That philosophy appears to be gaining traction in Wisconsin. State Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, and Rep. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, kicked off the bipartisan Legislative Children’s Caucus in April. Lassa said the goal is to advocate for evidence-based public policies that will benefit the state’s children.
Lassa and Ballweg agree that Pollak’s research provides proof that poverty harms children and alleviating it could provide long-term benefits.
“These children are our future workforce, they’re our future leaders,” Lassa said. “We need to be making sure that they get the best start possible.”
Cap Times reporter Abigail Becker wrote this story while working as an intern at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Bridgit Bowden and center managing editor Dee J. Hall contributed to this report. The nonprofit center at www.WisconsinWatch.org collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.