As Dr. David Keller made clear at a recent conference on child poverty in Washington, D.C. called “Inequality Begins at Birth” (...), there is new biological evidence that a high-stress environment for very young children does not simply affect cultural and psychological conditions that predispose the poor to failure; it can also affect the architecture of the brain, changing the actual neurological functioning and quantity of brain matter.
In other words, pre-K is not enough. What is concerning, moreover, is that these findings have been known for some time but are not getting adequate attention. In fact, the original documentation was published back in 2000 in a vanguard article by Harvard’s Center on the Development of the Child, and corroborating studies have multiplied since then.
Indeed, two studies completed in 2013 relate neural deterioration directly to poverty. A group of researchers from six universities measured the brain activity of adults who had been poor at age nine and found that the areas that control emotions were physically underdeveloped. A Washington University study found that poor children who are nurtured adequately, thus avoiding constant stress, usually have normally developed brain tissue, while those with less nurturing have less white and grey matter and smaller control centers, such as the hippocampus.
What’s been discovered is that human beings have a chemical reaction to stress that at first protects them from damage. But the defense is limited. Should a young child, whose brain is still forming, be bombarded by constant stress—from violence at home, lack of food, parental drug abuse, and, not least, chronic lack of attention or nurturing—the overloaded mechanism fails and the brain is adversely affected.
Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, who runs Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, has produced numerous articles with colleagues describing the result of studies on animals and, increasingly, on children. Under #stress, the body produces two hormones that are protective, adrenaline and cortisol. But when stress becomes excessive—what the field now describes as “toxic stress”—the excessive hormonal activity damages neural connections, undermines immune responses, and changes the parts of the brain that directly affect memory, learning, and emotional control.