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February 15, 2008

Poverty and the Brain: When It's Right to be Wrong

Shonkoff Scientists like to be right. In a weird way, though, they also like to be wrong. What I'm talking about is the desire that most researchers have of seeing their field advance by leaps and bounds--so that their ideas of tomorrow make their ideas of today seem at least partly, if not fundamentally, wrong in hindsight.

Researchers at the meeting provided a glimpse of that attitude this morning at a press conference on recent scientific findings on how poverty affects brain development. Although social scientists, psychologists, and educators have known for decades that children who grow up in poorer homes often have difficulties with learning and educational achievement later in life, only in recent years have the causal mechanisms started to become clear. Researchers are now finding out how the higher levels of stress that arise in poorer families can adversely affect the brain development of children.

The notion that poverty has an adverse effect on child development may seem intuitive now, but it was a radical departure from prevailing wisdom in the 60s, when intelligence was by and large thought to be a pure function of genetics. Convinced by researchers that the environment a child grew up in was also important, the government launched an early childhood intervention program called Head Start. The program provides low income children with good nutrition, health care and dental services, along with short-term counseling to parents on how to help their kids learn better. Results have shown that these efforts can make a difference, but that much work remains to be done.

Now, researchers say new findings from child development and neuroscience studies are helping the design of intervention programs that are more sophisticated than the ones developed in the early years of Head Start. Some aim to teach parents not just that they should read to their children but how they should read to their children--for instance, making the activity more interactive by linking the content of the reading to the child's day-to-day experiences. An example would be pausing in the middle of a story about dairy cows going on strike to talk about milk.

Because of how the field has developed, researchers view the early days of Head Start with some amusement. "Today, we can look back at the pioneers of the program and say, 'Can you believe they thought that they could eliminate the achievement gap between high income and low income kids by giving their families a few weeks of services?'," Jack Shonkoff, director of Harvard's Center on the Developing Child, said this morning.

Shonkoff wants researchers in the future to look back on the new array of interventions with similar amusement. Not because the interventions of today are not good, he told Science, but because researchers by then will hopefully have developed more focused interventions based on a better understanding of the impact of environment on children's learning and behavior. To Shonkoff, that would be evidence that the field was making progress. "We would hope that 20-30 years from now, people can say, 'Can you believe that in 2008, researchers thought they could break the intergenerational cycle of poverty and poor academic accomplishment simply by teaching parents to read more effectively to their children?'"

--Yudhijit Bhattacharjee