Research Shows that Poor People Often Have Excessive Stress which is Harmful to Childrens' Development and Can be Treated

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PBS Newshour Weekend had an excellent report on stress among poor families. This has been studied by Jack Shonkoff, a pediatrician at the Harvard Center on the Developing Child. Although he says that not all poor families experience the same intense level of stress that he has found in some families, it is something that is associated with poverty. He calls it, "Toxic Stress Syndrome." This chronic level of stress interferes with proper brain develoment in children and causes cognitive dysfunction in memory and learning. The conditons found in many low-income neighborhoods of crime and other social problems adds to the stress.

The report then turned to Child First, a program in Connecticut which provides an in-home therapist to poor families with children. The services are provided at no cost to the families. It is estimated that the services cost $7800 for a family of four, and the program has a waiting list of 300 children. The therapists from Child First work with the parents to help them learn to better cope with stress and to improve their parenting skills. Many of these parents grew up in poor households and were subject to abuse or neglect. One woman overheard her oldest child imitating the mother, and she realized that her daughter talked about punishing the children. The program tries to teach parents not to resort exclusively to punishement but to try and use more positive approaches to get the kids to behave appropriately. When there is more than one child in the home, the therapist may use exercises to teach the children not to fight amongst themselves so much and to communicate better. A research study that was conducted on Child First families measured several factors before and after the services were provided. There was a drop in language problems among children, and there was a reduction in aggression. Parents had a lowering of depression after therapy had been completed.

Another approach that many states use to improve outcomes in child development is preschool. As far as I know, there is no research on the combined effects with family therapy along with preschool participation, versus just one of these efforts alone. Studies on pre-kindergaten classes may take many years to complete in order to compare the educational achievement and eventual employment of those children who participated in preschool with those who did not.

There are psychological conditions which in my opinion cannot be easily overcome, even with therapy, or pre-K, or attendance at a school specializing in special education. Not every story can have a completely "normal" or positive outcome.

The Center for the Developing Child has a report called, "The Science of Early Childhood Development" which raises the question of preschool or parental education and family support programs. It points out that the greatest benefits to childhood development programs would come from services provided to the most at-risk children, and that increased funding would be needed to broaden the coverage of the programs.

The whole idea of protecting the proper brain development of children from low-income families seems like an indisputable, win-win situation. In reading the Harvard report I just referred to, two things comes to mind. First, I am not sure that the state of the art in understanding cognitive functioning and brain development, and future mental health or behavior, is completely as settled as suggested in the report. There are just so many variables and exceptions to the rule to be completely certain of what would result if positive actions are taken. Second, the report emphasizes the importance of allowing for the development of people who will grow up to be contributing, responsible members of society. The idea of a contribution to society on the part of a Harvard physician and other academics who serve on the committee that is behind the center and the report may not be the same view as someone from a poor family may have. The necessity of going to college a opposed to taking a pretty good-paying job right out of high school started around 1971. There have been some interesting discussions on this site about some deterioration in higher education as a place for progressive thought or as an exchange of differing ideas. Conservatives emphasis professional or vocational education as opposed to the liberal arts. I think the authors of the report assume that young people will be able to go into any field or pursue any job or career that they desire, as long as they have the proper neurological development, unharmed by undue stress. Changes in both the economy and the culture suggest to me that the future may not be as wide open as it was in the past.

Robindell's picture
Robindell
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Jul. 31, 2007 4:01 pm

Comments

Excellent post Robindell. Wonder how well information plays in the real fantasyland of this country: One Percentland. Ahhh, but their kids only get stressed out by the time they're ready for the super exclusive kindergartens their parents have deemed they need to attend in order to be "competitive" with the rest of the kiddos in this world. Something all that money seems to be doing to the people who think like this. If we asked their kids what they'd like, I'm willing to bet a trip to a local Dairy Queen with a bunch of other kids having fun just being kids ... any day over having to endure "qualifying tests" so they can keep their parents just so proud they could b-b-b-BURRRRRSSSST, all over.

And who gets to clean up the mess; oh year, Jose, whose pay they worked hard to freeze at 8 bucks an hour. Imagine what raising Jose's might do to his work ethic. The next thing you know he'll want is to be as hardworking and compensated as we are. The nerve of some people. ... what, my did d idn't get in, oh the humanity, how will he later get into Groton, Harvard .... pity poor us!"

Such a stressful situation.

Steven.PBarrett
Joined:
Nov. 1, 2010 10:01 am

The consistency and degree of stress experienced by many poor children (and their parents) is both qualitatively and quantitatively different from the pressure to achieve experienced by middle class kids. That seems to be in part what Dr. Shonkoff and the report I cited are suggesting. Middle class kids typically have a level of support and compensatory advantages not available to many low-income kids.

I'm surprised that no one has latched on to the interesting political or ideological contradiction that is raised by this approach. On the one hand, providing a service to low-income families is a progressive idea, because it could be easily described as being a social program. But the purpose of the program at least in part is to change the behavior of the parents and children, in the name of reducing family stress and conflict and in protecting the developing brains of young children from the ill-effects of excessive stress. That suggests that poor people are at least partly at fault for not raising their kids properly. The report uses the phrase, "parent education," referring to parenting skills. That is a more conservative type of approach, of behaviorial improvement or modification. There is a medical component to this area of child development and social class. Another study done I believe at Northwestern found that children from poor families have a kind of neural background noise which was measured by some kind of electronic instrument which middle class children did not have. The researcher said that it is believed that this neural noise makes it more difficult for the work-class children to concentrate when in school than in the case of the middle class children. Conservatives do not necessarily want to acknowledge that being low-income can have an adverse impact on development and learning. They tend to blame teachers, but sometimes may also blame parents. The parents may sense that their background and poor neighborhood surroundings may be somewhat of a disadvantage, but they may not make the connection with brain development and performance in school. If these teachers taught students in a comprehensive way about socioeconomic inequality, I think that might result in some eventual policy changes and upgrades.

Robindell's picture
Robindell
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Jul. 31, 2007 4:01 pm

An additional development which I learned of from PBS is a book by a physician at the University of Chicago about how poor or working class parents differ from middle class parents in the number of words heard by their children, and how this is strongly believed by researchers to affect brain development. The book is 30 Million Words by Dr. Dana Suskind, a pediatric cochlear implant surgeon. Her mother, a social worker, is her co-author on the book. Dr. Suskind also started the 30 Million Words Initiative at the U. of C. to help working class parents to speak differently to their children. The doctor is also involved with further research into this area, which she mentioned briefly in an interview on a local PBS station. The research on parental communication and brain develoment goes back 30 years.

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Robindell
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Jul. 31, 2007 4:01 pm

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