Why Poor Children Are Not Holistically Ready for School?

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Poor children who feel stressed in their lives is a very common cause of the early achievement gap. This phenomenon occurs mostly among children from low-income households. These children are found to start their school years behind classmates who are more advantageous.

This finding stemmed from a new study conducted by scientists at the Pennsylvania State University, New York University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This study is also published in the journal Child Development.

A certain cluster of cognitive processes referred to as the executive functions are thought to be important for regulating one’s behavior, managing novel and potentially confusing information, adjusting to school and making academic advances during the early school years. The executive functions of a person start during the early years and develop rapidly especially in early childhood. This certain function is compromised and affected by stressful situations. Researchers of the study ascertained whether or not executive functions in early childhood are affected by stress in these children’s lives.

The researchers looked at almost 1,300 young children who came from low income homes, mostly. They also examined the aspects of the children’s early environment between seven to twenty-four months. Aspects included were demographic characteristics, household environment (safety and peace levels), quality of parenting (i.e. mothers sensitivity to kids issues, detachment and intrusiveness when interacting with other kids). They also determined other indicators of stress such as the levels of cortisol, a hormone related to stress in the children. They also administered a series of tests which are related to the person’s executive functions when the children turned three years old.

The researchers found out that children from lower income households received less positive parenting and also exhibited higher levels of cortisol during their first two years, as compared to children in slightly well-off families. Cortisol was also found to be higher among African American children than among white children. Lower levels of executive function are linked to higher levels of cortisol.

“In sum, early stresses in the lives of children living in poverty affect how these children develop executive functions that are important for school readiness,” noted Clancy Blair, professor of applied psychology at New York University, who led the study.

According to the New York University Child Study Center, “the impact of a stressor depends on a child’s personality, maturity, and style of coping. It is not always obvious, however, when children are feeling overtaxed. Children often have difficulty describing exactly how they feel. Instead of saying “I feel overwhelmed” they might say “my stomach hurts.” When some children are stressed they cry, become aggressive, talk back or become irritable. Others may behave well but become nervous, fearful, or panicky.”

“Stress can affect children’s physical health as well. Asthma, hay fever, migraine headache and gastrointestinal illnesses like colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and peptic ulcer can be exacerbated by stressful situations.”

The study was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.




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