Poverty on the brain: Five strategies to counter the impact of disadvantage in the classroom

Written by: Sean Harris | Published:
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What does disadvantage do to our cognitive functions and what can we do about this as teachers? Poverty researcher and teacher Sean Harris examines emerging research findings on poverty, the implications for the classroom, and five strategies we might adopt in response

Research continues to indicate that disadvantage is growing. The most disadvantaged are hit hardest by the on-going Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on learning (Adfam, 2020; Bambra et al, 2021; Marmot, 2021; Montacute & Cullinane, 2021).

There have been many and varied responses throughout the pandemic to tackle the emerging social issues presented by poverty in our school communities. However, the complex effects of disadvantage in our classrooms go beyond access to opportunity and food banks.

In recent years, growing numbers of researchers have sought to understand the ways in which poverty has an impact on the cognitive and neurological functions of children.

Further work is needed in this area, but the results on the “brain matter” question are clear – poverty is not just a social issue for us in schools, it is also a biomedical issue.

Poverty and neurology: What do the researchers say?

Some studies have evidenced that children living in poverty have less grey matter in their hippocampus (Blair & Raver, 2016; Nobel et al, 2015). This can weaken memory functions and neurological processing.

The studies also found this applied to frontal and temporal lobes, which when combined has an impact on children’s ability to problem-solve, make decisions, and manage impulse control.

Hanson et al (2013) studied the socio-economic status of test subjects, charting brain development scans from children aged 13 months and subsequent scans approximately twice a year until the children were four-years-old.

Children living in households experiencing poverty or near to poverty benchmarks were found to have lower average total grey matter volumes. In some cases, this was linked to memory retrieval and processing too.

Links between disadvantage, reading and early language development have also been made. Raizada et al (2008) used functional MRI to demonstrate that young children showed less cortex development in areas linked to reading and language requisition.

It is important to note that research is still emerging on this topic. Current studies appear to share a consensus that the influences of poverty on brain development come from an accumulation of factors and the length of exposure to these social environments (Jensen 2009; McLaughlin et al 2014; Wagmiller, 2015).

Hackman and Farah (2009) present a free and accessible overview of some of the key research around poverty and neurology. This is a useful starting point for educators wanting to understand more about the complexities and the implications for classroom practice.

Implications for educators

Teachers need to first identify and understand the barriers to learning for the children in their classroom. Marc Rowland (2021) examines the need for whole-school systems and cultures to be built around the diagnosis and response to the disadvantage agenda. He warns that: “Making assumptions about the needs of pupils risks a ‘supermarket sweep’ approach to addressing disadvantage.”

Evidence of need must be based on forensic assessment, and this is more than a classroom examination of a pupil. I have covered this in greater depth in previous articles for Headteacher Update, not least my recent discussion on “Doorstep Disadvantage” (Harris, 2021).

See also recent episodes of the Headteacher Update Podcast focused on Pupil Premium approaches (Headteacher Update, 2021), and myself and others including the Child Poverty Action Group discussing the consequences of poverty in the classroom on our sister magazine SecEd's fortnightly podcast (SecEd, 2021).

Given the complexities of neurological development in children and considering the range of the research that is available and emerging, it is difficult to draw clear conclusions about implications for learning in classrooms.

However, some of the core principles of the science of learning and what constitutes effective learning carry weight in response to the impact of poverty on the brain. Here are five of these principles…

1, Make retrieval routine

As teachers, we can strengthen memory recall and processing. Roediger and Karpicke (2006) show that regular, low-stakes quizzing is a powerful process for improving memory mechanics in classrooms. See also a recent examination of retrieval practice and related approaches in SecEd (Still, 2021).

While the temptation to focus on creative and engaging starter activities is a strong one, the research shows that building in regular opportunity for testing and recapping will boost the “brain power” of your pupils. It may support you and your pupils to craft each lesson around this principle.

2, Deal with distractions

Some of the studies I have cited highlight stress factors in noisy and turbulent environments as a factor linked to limited brain development. While there are opportunities to embrace noisy and active learning moments, there is an argument for completing tasks quietly and in distraction-free classrooms.

Wood et al (2011) note how attempting to engage in two non-related tasks at once can have a detrimental impact on learning.

If you want an interesting example of this then look at the work of Simons and Chabris and their research into inattentional blindness (1999). I often forget this, tasking my students with independent work and then proceeding to talk and fill the silence when they are trying to focus!

As teachers, it is a helpful reminder to identify and limit those areas of our classroom that may be noisy or distract from the learning that we want to take place. Consider removing or reducing that busy display, limit background noise, and embrace the silence when you can.

3, Consolidate the concepts

Given that poverty can affect memory functions, it follows that we have to work harder as teachers to make complex topics “sticky” for our students.

Students are unlikely to understand, remember or recall new concepts that they have limited experience of. Evidence tells us that pupils should encounter new concepts and content on at least two to three occasions before they can really begin to learn them (Karpicke, 2009).

Our lesson-planning should consider regular opportunities to over-expose children to the concepts that we need them to understand within a given programme of study or curriculum area. Furthermore, these concepts need to be revisited in future curriculum units and, where possible, should be cited in other areas of the school curriculum too.

For example, schools might choose to reflect the themes of social justice in an assembly, and then provide children with opportunities to serve others through a local community project. Meanwhile, the RE teacher uses images of this in their lesson to demonstrate what it means to reflect service or compassion to others.

4, Find time for feedback

If memory and processing are affected by disadvantage, then students are less likely to understand the gaps in their knowledge or how to improve aspects of their work.

Marking and feedback can consume a significant amount of our time and energy as teachers. But the research indicates that feedback can help to improve student performance in our classroom if implemented effectively. For more see the recent guidance report from the Education Endowment Foundation (Colin & Quigley, 2021).

The research report emphasises that there is not one clear mechanism for when or how feedback should be provided. However, feedback should focus on moving learning forward and should target specific gaps in knowledge and understanding.

Feedback that focuses on a student’s personal characteristics or feedback that is too vague is less likely to improve learning. It may also take up large quantities of time for the teacher.

It is important then that teachers have a clear framework for providing feedback in their team and in their individual classroom. Teachers should also consider forming a regular and established rhythm for providing students with feedback. This will help students to understand what is expected and be in the regular habit of responding to timely feedback that moves them forward.

Again, the SecEd Podcast has tackled effective feedback practice in its recent episode on feedback, marking and assessment (SecEd, 2021).

5, Champion the child

There are exceptions, but children living in disadvantaged contexts are likely to have limited access to opportunities that enrich cognitive processes and routines (Bambra et al, 2021; Blair & Raver, 2016).

Kumanyika and Grier’s (2006) research showed that children from low-income backgrounds were less likely to have adequate access to age-relevant reading materials at home, visit the library less often, and have had more exposures to screens.

With this in mind, there is a need for us to identify which children need to be championed in our classrooms and given richer exposure to opportunities and items than their more affluent peers. Some possible approaches might include ensuring that every low-income child is:

  • Given priority access to books of their choice in the school library.
  • Given additional opportunities to build in time for reading for pleasure.
  • Regularly prioritised on your “call home” list. Pass on praise and acclaim for something that they have achieved in the classroom, no matter how small it seems.
  • Given priority access and financial support to get involved in extra-curricular opportunities within or outside of the school day.
  • Given homework opportunities and out-of-learning tasks that do not rely heavily on additional screen-time or digital access.

Subject to change

Brain development is, by definition, subject to change. Given that teachers are in the business of learning, it stands to reason that we have a role in shaping the brains of the children that we teach – no matter how disadvantaged their circumstances are.

  • Sean Harris is a doctoral researcher investigating poverty in schools and a teacher at Bede Academy in Northumberland. Sean is also a coach, teacher-educator and writes regularly for Headteachr Update. Find his previous articles via http://bit.ly/htu-harris and you can hear more from him on this topic at the forthcoming 14th National Pupil Premium Conference organised by Headteacher Update and taking place on March 18 in Birmingham. Visit www.pupilpremiumconference.com

Further information & references

  • Adfam: Families in lockdown: The effects of the Covid-19 lockdown on the family and friends of someone with an alcohol, drug or gambling problem, 2020: https://bit.ly/2WLPbbO
  • Bambra, Lynch & Smith: The Unequal Pandemic: Covid-19 and health inequalities, Policy Press, 2021.
  • Blair & Raver: Poverty, stress and brain development: New directions for prevention and intervention, Academic Paediatrics, 2016.
  • Colin & Quigley: Teacher feedback to improve pupil learning, Education Endowment Foundation, June 2021: https://bit.ly/3cEk9rl
  • Hackman & Farah: Socioeconomic status and the developing brain. Trends in Cognitive Science, January 2009: https://bit.ly/3FMvT6X
  • Hanson et al: Family poverty affects the rate of human infant brain growth, PLoS ONE 8, December 2013.
  • Harris: Doorstep disadvantage: Beyond the Pupil Premium, Headteacher Update, May 2021: https://bit.ly/3oLD34Q
  • Headteacher Update Podcast: Effective Pupil Premium Practice, September 2021: https://bit.ly/3AMr8J3
  • Jensen: Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What being poor does to kids’ brains and what schools can do about it, ASCD, 2009.
  • Karpicke: Metacognitive Control and Strategy Selection: Deciding to practice retrieval during learning; American Psychological Association, 2009: https://bit.ly/37Ovguo
  • Kumanyika & Grier: Targeting interventions for ethnic minority and low-income populations, The Future of Children, Spring 2006: https://bit.ly/3qNEOB3
  • Marmot et al: Build Back Fairer: Covid-19, Marmot Review, The Health Foundation, 2021.
  • McLaughlin, Sheridan & Lambert: Childhood adversity and neural development: Deprivation and threat as distinct dimensions of early experience, Neuroscience and Biobehavorial Reviews (47), 2014.
  • Montacute & Cullinane: Learning in lockdown: Research brief, The Sutton Trust, 2021.
  • Noble, Houston & Brito: Family income, parental education and brain structure in children and adolescents, Nature Neuroscience (18), 2015: https://go.nature.com/3nKTO0K
  • Raizada, Richards, Meltzoff & Kuhl: Socioeconomic status predicts hemispheric specialisation of the left inferior frontal gyrus in young children, Neuroimage (40,3), 2008.
  • Roediger & Karpicke: Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention, Psychological Science (17,3), March 2006: https://bit.ly/3fGC425
  • Rowland: Addressing educational disadvantage in schools and colleges: The Essex Way, Unity Research School & Essex County Council, 2021: https://bit.ly/3AlHHMz
  • SecEd Podcast: Tackling the consequences of poverty, June 2021: https://bit.ly/3cUETeH
  • SecEd Podcast: Effective marking and feedback, June 2021: https://bit.ly/2TkgMQ8
  • Simons & Chabris: Gorillas in our midst: Sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events, Perception (28), 1999: https://bit.ly/2LmGr6L
  • Still, 2021: Why and how we should be using retrieval practice and space learning, SecEd, December 2021: https://bit.ly/3I6uGtI
  • Wagmiller: The temporal dynamics of childhood economic deprivation and children’s achievement, Child Development Perspectives (9), 2015.
  • Wood et al: Examining the impact of off task multi asking with technology on real-time classroom learning, Computers & Education (58), 2011: https://bit.ly/3seWlkh

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