The stresses associated with living in poverty led to impaired learning ability in children, according to a theory based on several years of studies matching stress hormone levels of impoverished children to behavioral and school readiness tests results.
Clancy Blair, PhD, professor of applied psychology at New York University, described the results from those studies in the September/October issue of Scientific American Mind.
The theory suggests that high levels of stress hormones influence the developing circuitry of children’s brains, affecting cognitive functions such as planning, attention, and impulse and emotional control. However, discovering ways to reduce stress at home and at school may improve children’s health and help them become more successful academically.
In one study, Blair and colleagues tested 170 children aged 4 years who were attending a Head Start program. The researchers took saliva samples from the children to measure cortisol levels — an indication of the level of stress children experienced during the test. Executive function was also assessed. The researchers found that children showing normal cortisol responses had higher levels of executive function. These children were also rated by their teachers as having greater self-control in the classroom. Children who had abnormal cortisol responses exhibited lower levels of executive function and were reported by their teachers as having poor self-regulation.
Blair and colleagues set out to identify which aspects of poverty caused the most stress in children’s lives. For 7 years, the researchers followed approximately 1,200 children and their families. After analyzing video recordings of mothers interacting with their children during play, the researchers found that children whose mothers engaged in scaffolding, or allowing their children to accomplish small tasks, had lower cortisol levels and were more attentive. Children whose mothers were more authoritative and completed the task for their children had higher cortisol levels.
In another study, the researchers found that parents of children living in poverty were less likely to engage in scaffolding.
“Research indicates that stress from a variety of sources — including crowded and chaotic home and classroom environments, for example, or problems with family or peers — impedes learning,” Blair said in a press release. “The potential good news is knowing that stress is a malevolent force means that finding ways to thwart it could boost children’s learning capacity.”
Blair and colleagues are currently testing a new program that instructs parents how to engage in scaffolding. The curriculum gives children attending preschool and kindergarten more control over their learning experiences. Next year, the researchers will compare the children’s cortisol levels and executive functioning.
“Although this work is in its early stages, we are encouraged by the possibility that informed changes to environments can boost children’s self-control and academic competence, giving many of our youth a far greater chance of succeeding in life,” Blair wrote.