Stresses of Poverty May Impair Learning Ability in Young Children

NIH funded research suggests stress hormones inhibit brain function, stifle achievement

The stresses of poverty — such as crowded conditions, financial worry, and lack of adequate childcare — lead to impaired learning ability in children from impoverished backgrounds, according to a theory by a researcher funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The theory is based on several years of studies matching stress hormone levels to behavioral and school readiness test results in young children from impoverished backgrounds. Further, the theory holds, finding ways to reduce stress in the home and school environment could improve children’s well-being and allow them to be more successful academically. High levels of stress hormones influence the developing circuitry of children’s brains, inhibiting such higher cognitive functions such as planning, impulse and emotional control, and attention. Known collectively as executive functions, these mental abilities are important for academic success. The body of research is described in the September/October issue of Scientific American Mind.

–National Institutes of Health

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