How Poverty Can Affect Executive Functions in Children

Executive functioning skills are the essential capacities that help kids make better decisions, learn from their mistakes, and set goals. However, these skills often aren’t as fully developed in children who grow up in poverty rather than in middle-class homes. Increasing evidence suggests that poverty can have a significant impact on brain development. Poverty takes into account financial resources, opportunities for education, and simple issues such as nutrition and exposure to language and culture. How it affects executive functions is related to the prominence of the prefrontal cortex, the most modern part of the brain, in the development of executive functioning skills. When kids’ brains don’t develop as efficiently as they would in the middle-class environment, kids in poverty fall behind their peers, not only in the physical maturation of the brain but also in the executive functioning skills they’re able to display.

Poverty also impacts a child’s opportunities for educational enrichment. Kids who grow up in poverty often attend schools that are not as well funded; have less family support for education; and may not have the opportunity for activities such as music lessons, going to the library, or traveling. While these opportunities are unlikely to change in the near future, technology offers some new methods for enriching the brains of kids who are growing up in poverty – if they are used with this goal in mind. Unfortunately, all too often kids from impoverished homes interact with technology by excessive exposure to television. Kids whose parents need to work or who receive less supervision are also likely to play more inappropriate video games.

Technology can be the great equalizer (or at least approximate this) for enriching one’s educational environment. While there remains a technology gap between poor and wealthy families (e.g., fewer tablets, slower Internet speed, older computers), many kids growing up below the poverty line have their own smartphones, access to the Internet (at a minimum at their school or local library), and knowledge about using technology. We can encourage the use of technology to help kids learn about current events; visit museums online; develop coding and computer skills; become experts in topics such as healthy diets, exercise, and brain fitness; and become acquainted with art, music, and literature. We might not be able to eliminate economic poverty, but it seems that with just a modest amount of effort, educators and childcare professionals could help kids enhance their executive functioning skills and assist impoverished families to make better use of educational technologies to enrich the lives of their children.

Here are a few ways educators and other childcare professionals could promote technology to enrich the lives and brains of kids growing up in poverty:

Advocate for more access to technologies. Encourage schools to have one-to-one computers so all kids have their own computers.

Actively teach kids how to use their technology to see the entire world. Introduce them to sites such as Google earth or  National Geographic to help them explore their environment.

Explore art from around the world. Visit the Louvre, the National Gallery of Art, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Learn about nature, dinosaurs, animals, and human history by visiting the Smithsonian or Time Maps.

Find great teachers online for free at the Khan Academy or iTunesU.

I suggest that parents, educators, and childcare professionals familiarize themselves with some of these incredible tools first. Be careful you don’t spend hours staring at your screens because there is so much to learn and so many ways to expand your brain and horizons. For kids who don’t have the luxury of going to these places or an adult to teach them about what to learn, technology, along with a caring adult, can go a long way in building kids’ brains and improving their executive functioning skills.


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