Brains, Poverty, and Educators

04/30/2015 03:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015

Complex scientific studies are often misleadingly cited to bolster long-held political beliefs, and a recent study measuring the brains of children and adolescents is the latest.

The study, which appeared in Nature Neuroscience, found a relationship between family income and brain size as measured by magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs). Children from what the authors called the "most disadvantaged" families were found to have brains with a smaller surface area than children from families with higher incomes.

The reflexive rhetoric of political scientist Charles Murray and others claim that it supports their view that there's not much you can do to educate poor kids.

But that's not what the science says.

Brain science, of course, is very complex and in some ways still in its infancy. The study in Nature Neuroscience looked at the surface area of 1,099 children from the ages of 3 to 20 and found that the relationship between income and brain size was not consistent across the income scale -- that is, small differences in income among low-income families were associated with differences in surface area, while similar differences in income at the higher end of the income scale did not result in such differences. The areas of the brain affected at the low end of the income scale are those associated with language, reading, and executive functioning. The researchers also found some support for the notion that brain size partially accounts for the relationship between socioeconomic factors and certain cognitive abilities, particularly cognitive control and working memory.

So what should educators make of this new brain research?

Well, the main thing is that none of this means that kids who live in poverty have shriveled up brains incapable of being taught.

The study's authors say, "Our results should in no way imply that a child's socioeconomic circumstances lead to an immutable trajectory of cognitive or brain development."

Another brain scientist put it this way: "The brain is resilient and capable of adaptive plasticity."

All of this is to say that we actually don't have a complete understanding of the relationship between socioeconomic factors like income and parental education, brain size and cognition or intelligence.

But of course this study lines up with a few other lines of work that have been established in brain science. For example, we know that malnutrition during a valuable period of brain development leads to a reduction in brain cells, myelin production, and number of synapses in animals. There is also pretty good evidence that long-term, chronic stress produces structural as well as functional changes in the brain.

And it doesn't take a brain surgeon to know that both malnutrition and long-term chronic stress are experienced more often by children living in extreme poverty than by those who aren't -- which is why many scientists argue for policies to reduce family poverty as a way to improve cognitive outcomes.

To see whether that will actually help, a follow-up study is being done by two of the brain study's authors to supplement the family incomes of some of the children living in poverty by $333 a month and some by $20 a month to see if it impacts the cognitive development of the children, according to the Washington Post. We'll have the results in about five years.

In the meantime, Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist who has taken on the task of translating cognitive science to educators, offered this thought in an American Educator article on how to think about educating students living in poverty:

The difficult balance is to recognize the challenges each individual child faces, but not use them as a reason to lower expectations for achievement or appropriate behavior. High expectations need not be an additional source of stress -- students thrive when high expectations are coupled with high levels of support.

Many low-SES (socio-economic status) kids are not getting the cognitive challenge they need from their homes and neighborhoods, but neither are they getting the support they need. To compensate, teachers should offer in the classroom what these children are missing at home. Much of this is what we've called human capital -- academic knowledge and skills -- which is the teacher's bread and butter. It's also well to remember that some of this knowledge, though important for long-term success, is not academic knowledge. It's knowledge of how to interact with peers and adults, how to interact with large institutions like a school or a government agency, how to interact with authority figures, how to schedule one's time, strategies to regulate one's emotions, and so on. Some of this information is taught implicitly, by example, but much of it can be taught explicitly.

In other words, all kids can learn. It's up to educators to figure out how to teach.