Poverty impacts children’s learning abilities, speaker explains

What is the impact of poverty on a child?

That was one of the questions posed by guest speaker Heather Higgins, of the Upside Down Organization, who spoke Friday at a workshop, entitled, “Beyond Poverty: Brain-Inspired Ways to Understand and Respond to Poverty,” at Titusville Middle School.

Higgins spoke about how poverty causes stress, especially in children.

She said the workshop helps adults understand a child’s brain.

“Poverty is an increasing problem, and communities need to know how it impacts children,” Higgins said. “Poverty can impact the brain and a child’s ability to learn in school.”

She explained to the audience how cortisol, the stress chemical, increases when children encounter stress.

“Poverty is a stressor,” Higgins said. “When we have stress, the cortisol level goes up, and children are affected.”

She said some stressors associated with poverty include housing, employment, and transportation.

Higgins said the morning workshop is held to increase the awareness of poverty’s impact on families and, in addition, the session gives the audience the tools to help families and children.

The afternoon session focused on the seven power tools adults can use to increase a child’s ability to produce new brain cells (neurogenesis).

Higgins said neurogenesis — the ability to produce new brain cells — starts at birth and continues until death (as long as senior citizens keep active by reading, learning new skills, and exercising).

“The good news for children is that neurogenesis happens naturally, but stress impacts this and children have to work harder to build new brain cells,” she said.

The power tools that can help a child build new brain cells are: 

Vigorous physical play (exercise) at least 60 minutes a day, seven days a week.

Meaningful new learning — expose a child to new opportunities and use books during down time, on the school bus or during car rides.

Enriched experiences and environments

Manage stress levels — proper amount of sleep is essential; teach stress management skills.

Positive nutrition — great brain foods include milk, blueberries, salmon, vegetables, bananas, whole grains, orange juice with zinc, brown rice, and garlic, among others.

Social support

Higgins gave an example of what happens when a 3-year-old child’s brain experiences traumatic stress — their brain is 35 percent smaller than a 3-year-old’s who is experiencing little stress and no poverty or neglect.

She said if the child with traumatic stress enters a normal household, they can catch up with their peers and go back to healthy brain development.

“Severe poverty can lead to stress and that can lead to traumatic stress on the brain,” Higgins said. “You may see children who have depression, anxiety, PTSD (post traumatic stress). You might see anger and aggression, and in adolescents, you might see addiction.

“With addiction, you need treatment, you need rehabilitation, you need a replacement (for that addiction) — sports, music, drama.”

The event was sponsored by the Titusville Regional Literacy Council.

Poverty: it’s worse than you think

According to Census figures, nearly one in five children in the U.S. lived in poverty in 2014, with a much higher proportion of poverty among African-American and Hispanic children.

Other statistics on poverty:

Children are more likely than adults to be poor and suffer more from the deprivation of poverty, according to the Children’s Defense Fund.

Poverty is the largest predictor of child abuse and neglect (Center for Law and Social Policy).

Children in poverty are more likely to suffer from mental health problems than other children; and children living in poverty are those who experience deprivation of the material, spiritual and emotional resources needed to survive, develop, and thrive, leaving them unable to enjoy their rights, achieve their full potential, or participate as full and equal members of society. (National Center for Children in Poverty).

Hill can be reached by email at mhill@titusvilleherald.com.

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