The startling effects of poverty on academic achievement

The startling effects of poverty on academic achievement

By Caryn Carver|

A couple of years ago, I read about a new study that demonstrated the connection between living in poverty and making bad decisions. The results weren’t shocking, but they were still eye opening.

People who happen to live in poverty don’t have the mental bandwidth to plan for the future or make healthy choices. This is NOT because they are dumb, or stupid, or in any way less inherently intelligent than people who do not happen to live in poverty.

People who live in poverty are often juggling many competing short term stressors.  While they’re juggling two jobs, or trying to pay the bills on time, or making sure there’s enough food to eat, their ability to make decisions that can help lift them out of poverty decreases. Scientifically speaking, living in poverty can impose a mental burden similar to losing 13 IQ points while that stress exists.

Sadly, this mental burden tends to perpetuate the cycle of poverty, and children often get caught in the cycle.

Considering that poverty has the ability to affect the mental capacity of an adult, it makes sense that poverty can wreak havoc on the developing brain of a child. Most importantly, poverty can destroy a kid’s chance to come out on top in school.

Here’s how:

Early in life, unreliable emotional interactions can lead to diminished social skills.   

effects of poverty on academic achievement1.jpgImage: Flickr: AJ.Mat

Young children need consistent human contact for optimal brain development. According to the book Teaching with Poverty in Mind, strong relationships help stabilize a child’s behavior and provide the core guidance needed to build lifelong social skills. Unfortunately, parents living in poverty don’t always have the time to have consistent emotional interactions with their children. Without these interactions, children can have a harder time regulating their emotions and forming healthy relationships with teachers or peers.

Fewer enrichment activities can inhibit cognitive, social, and emotional abilities.  

effects of poverty on academic achievement2.jpgImage: Flickr: GlobalPartnership for Education

Growing children need to participate in activities that can boost their brainpower. Limited access to books, computers, toys, friends, music programs, and sports can cause children to enter school a step behind their peers.

Acute and chronic stress weakens the brain.

poverty-on-academic-achievement.jpgImage: Flickr: Praphol Chattharakul

Children who live in poverty are constantly exposed to stressful situations. An unhealthy amount of stress can actually weaken cells in certain parts of the brain and prevent new brain cells from growing. This can impair attention and concentration, reduce creativity and memory, diminish social skills, and decrease motivation and determination.

Malnutrition, environmental hazards, and insufficient health care cause poor health.

poverty-on-academic-achievement-b2.jpgImage: Flickr: DFID – UK Department for International Development

Poor overall health increases school absences and limits a child’s ability to move ahead in class. And illness isn’t the only thing that results from poor health. Hunger and lack of sleep cause a range of mental issues, including sluggishness and poor conduct.


The positive news is that brains are designed to change.

Placing kids in healthy, positive environments can redirect them toward academic success.

Great teachers, mentors, schools, and after-school programs can help kids fight the negative effects of poverty. However, large class sizes and limited resources make it hard for teachers and schools to provide kids with all the help they need.

Schools need more support, and, most of all, poverty needs to go away-forever.

You can help support education. Write an email and encourage the Prime Minister of Norway to invest in global education in TAKE ACTION NOW.

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