The terrifying connection between school, societal failings, and our children’s brains
As a teacher, my goal is to inspire the charges I teach, to convince them that with hard work and dedication the world is theirs for the conquering. However, the more time I spend in “the system,” the more it becomes unsettlingly clear that educational success is not just a matter of motivation and persistence; it is biology at work. And some of the nation’s most pressing issues such as poverty and trauma are creating physiological conditions that make academic success almost impossible for the children impacted. The findings are disheartening for those who wish to see American remain a world-power and even more nightmarish for those whose immediate future lies in the balance.
The Children’s Defense Fund reported data on child poverty collected by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2018. The results are heartbreaking. In 2017, almost 13 million children in America lived in a state of poverty. Of this staggering total, most tragic is that “nearly one in 5 infants, toddlers, and preschoolers between the ages of 0 and 5 were poor at the time of the greatest brain development.”
This fact seems almost prophetic, marking these children for long-term handicaps that make their future journey through the educational system exceedingly bleak. The system is already ripe with struggle for even the most well-fed, stable, and well-adjusted children. After all, school is a microcosm of society, filled with a plethora of social and emotional demands. Add this to the increasingly high academic standards of a nation struggling to compete in a technologically and intellectually driven world, and children from impoverished backgrounds almost seem doomed for failure.
In Ben Cosman’s article in The Atlantic entitled “The High School Graduation Rate is Great, Unless You’re Poor,” he cites statistics from a GradNation report that show that even though the graduation rate is increasing in the nation as a whole, low-income students’ graduation rates still remain far below their more affluent classmates.
What is the reason for this dilemma?
Of course, financial concerns play a part, as many poor students leave school early to work jobs that will help support their family. But what about the ones who drop-out for other reasons more closely related to academics and other school-related issues?
The reason could be the harmful connection between a lifetime of poverty and their brains.
The Guardian’s article entitled “The Neuroscience of Inequality: Does Poverty Show Up in Children’s Brains” explains cognitive neuroscientist Martha Farah’s study designed to understand this saddening correlation. She studied almost 300 MRI’s of children from poorer, less educated families and concluded that these children’s brains had “thinner subregions of the pre-frontal cortex — a part of the brain strongly associated with executive functioning.”
Rainbow Rehabilitation Centers, who serve clients with brain and spinal cord injuries, explain the importance of the brain’s executive functions. Some of these functions are as follows:
- planning, goal setting, prioritizing and persisting
- seeking out information and coming up with ideas
- impulse control and managing distractions
- problem-solving and strategic thinking
It isn’t hard to imagine how decreased ability in these areas would impact one’s academic success, much less success in life as a whole. So reducing poverty seems to be more than a moral imperative for caring individuals; it is a national imperative for those concerned about the future and well-being of this country as a whole.
The number of children in America who suffer from situations of physical abuse or who are innocent witnesses to domestic violence in the home is harrowing. SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, reports that “the national average of child abuse and neglect victims in 2015 was 683,000, or 9.2 victims per 1,000 children” and that “each year, the number of youth requiring hospital treatment for physical assault injuries would fill every seat in nine stadiums.”
Maris Cohut’s article in Medical News Today entitled “How Childhood Trauma Affects the Brain” details the influence of a childhood of abuse or neglect on the brain’s development and functioning. One particular impact is lowered amounts of white matter in various areas of the brain.
White matter is defined as tissue in the brain made up of nerve fibers called axons. These fibers, covered in a fat called myelin, increase the rate of signals between cells, allowing the brain to both receive and transmit messages.
Cohut’s article chronicles the research findings of Dr. Pierre-Eric Lutz and his team of researchers from the McGill Group for Suicide Studies at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and McGill University in Montreal Canada.
In addition to corroborating the above findings mentioned, these researchers also noted that some of the axons of childhood abuse victims were “unusually thickened” and speculated that these deviations could be responsible for the loss of connectivity to regions of the brain critical to the regulation of emotion and cognitive functioning.
So, how do these findings directly relate to academics?
The Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, a collaboration of Massachusetts Advocates for Children and Harvard Law School, explain in their article entitled “Helping Traumatized Children Learn.” They discuss that all of the basic requisites for such school success, which they label as things such as “organization, comprehension, memory, the ability to produce work, engagement in learning and trust” and the self-regulation of “attention, emotions, and behavior,” are affected by childhood trauma.
They conclude that, in addition to the brain’s impaired functioning, the lasting fear from traumatic events can hinder student-to-student and student-to-teacher school relationships, all of which can impact a child’s success in the classroom as well as his or her motivation to continue along towards graduation. In a paper published by the National Dropout Prevention Center in 2017, it states that “data [shows] that children who have experienced trauma drop out of school at a significantly higher rate than those who have not experienced trauma.”
Once again, we encounter an issue that, if not dealt with, could lead not only to lessened educational achievement but also to nationwide consequences.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse relays that about five percent of pregnant women use one or more addictive substances. Addictive substances can include deadly drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine as well as lower-level drugs such as marijuana, tobacco, and alcohol. Consuming these drugs while pregnant impacts the fetus in a number of ways that lead to learning deficiencies and developmental delays that can have a massive effect on a child’s academic and educational success.
The Teratology Society, a society devoted to understanding and preventing birth defects and delays as well as further educating society on their causes, published Dr. Charles V. Vorhees and Dr. Michael Williams’ article “Can Prenatal Exposures Affect Brain Development and Behavior?” This article explores the ramifications of drug use on the fetus and brain development.
It states, for instance, that alcohol changes the brain’s structure and can cause “intellectual impairment, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, emotional instability, and anti-social behavior.”
In Dr. M. Pilar Trelles’s article in Psych Central entitled “Brain Development Effects: Prenatal Exposure to Drugs and Alcohol,” he comments on the effects of marijuana use by pregnant mothers on their children. These facts are especially important as the drug itself is currently experiencing an all-time acceptance high in our country.
The article states that the drug has the ability to cross the placenta and affect children long term, showing “impaired verbal, abstract, visual, and quantitative reasoning skills” at age three and “diminished verbal ability and memory” by age four.
And the effects don’t stop there.
The article also reports that, by the school-age years, children’s executive functioning declines along with a lessened ability to control impulses and maintain attention. A tendency towards hyperactivity also manifests.
Of all the research that I have done, the most heartbreaking possibilities were noted in Rolling Stone’ s article by Ellen Hopkins titled “Childhood’s End: What Life is Like for Crack Babies.” The article chronicles one loving mother who adopted two crack babies and reveals her overwhelming struggles to overcome the damage done to her children in-utero by the drug.
In the article, the mother reports numerous doctors and child-care workers heart-rending advice. She states “I always hear the same thing: ‘It’s the drugs.’ ‘We can’t do anything now.’ ‘We feel so sorry for you.There is no cure. ‘Find a sitter and take some time for yourself. ”
It also introduces UCLA pediatric researcher Judy Howard and her controversial but chilling findings on babies whose mothers smoked crack.
Howard relays her belief that cocaine “attacks the pleasure pathways in the brain of a developing fetus,” thus making them emotionless, almost like robots or imitations on human beings.
Drug Abuse.com, An American Addiction Centers Resource, also reports the effects of cocaine use in utero in an article by Laura Villa. They list the following as effects of children whose mothers who use the drug: “Impaired adolescent functioning, impaired perceptual reasoning, behavior problems, symptoms of oppositional defiant disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, impaired memory and executive function, and problems with language development.”
Again, how can children carrying these cognitive and emotional burdens excel, much less even survive, in our public schools? As a teacher, I refuse to give up on any child, but the problems seem overwhelming and almost insurmountable. And that is how I feel as a teacher, so I can’t imagine how these poor children feel.
Every good teacher and parent knows the truth that “it takes a village to raise a child.” No, we cannot change the world and its destructive situations and habits alone but nor can we simply ignore the problems of said situations. We must work to lessen these societal impacts; they are unraveling the futures of our greatest gifts:our children. If we don’t, not only will they suffer, we all will. And the future will not be a place to look ahead to in hope, but a place to look ahead to in terror and fear. Let’s break the cycle.