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Health Blog: A Closer Look at Brain Development in Low-Income Children

Featuring Dr. Beth Shaw, MHS Executive Director of Student Support Services

Redirecting brain development through evidence-based interventions

For more than century, Milton Hershey School has been nurturing students by providing a top-notch education, well-rounded social and emotional learning curriculum, and comprehensive health services.

While many low-income children grow up in challenging environments that impact their physical health, brain development, and psychological well-being, a nurturing environment can change the way they think over time.

Dr. Beth Shaw, MHS Executive Director of Student Support Services, has decades of experience working with underprivileged children. Based on her knowledge and research on child psychology and brain development, she shared her expertise on the types of health services and interventions needed to redirect brain development and improve children’s outcomes.

Nature Vs. Nurture

Studies have shown that genetics play a definite role in a child’s growth mindset, but research also has shown that the environment is a significant element as well. If a child from poverty experiences trauma or negative experiences early on in their development, it will shape their thought patterns, physical health, and natural instincts.

“Our genetics predispose us for certain ways we’re going to function across life,” said Dr. Shaw. “But it’s really the nurture piece [that shapes us.]”

When it comes to IQ, genetics predispose children to a range of functioning. However, IQ can become a bit more malleable and fluid through social and academic enrichment. Genetics also impact body type, but a child’s interactions with their environment dictate a large amount of the body’s actual development.

A safe environment and caregivers who support healthy behavior can help children develop physically, socially, emotionally and academically.

Redirecting Brain Development for Children and Teenagers

For centuries, educators and researchers have focused on what children do behaviorally, emotionally, physiologically and even psychologically. Thanks to new research on neuro-development, educators now have the necessary evidence to perform more targeted interventions to help low-income children learn effectively.

After all, the brain is malleable and grows quickly. By age 4, a child’s brain is 90% of the size it will be when they’re an adult. While brain size is critical to development, neuro-networks and pathways also play a key role.

“When our neuro-pathways are developed, they are reinforced through both positive and negative experiences in life,” said Dr. Shaw. “For a child who has a history of trauma but is still very young, it’s possible to redirect the brain’s ability to adapt and change in functioning based on new experiences.”

Many teenagers who grew up in impoverished areas may have faced similar negative experiences. Unfortunately, they may not have had the same opportunity to develop those neuro-pathways, giving their brains more time to adapt to the negative environment.

“It may be more of a hurdle for teenagers to change the way they think and act, but the good new is, their brains still have plasticity,” Dr. Shaw explained. “They evolve differently in their brain functioning.”

To provide children and teenagers with new, positive experiences, educators must work to build structure and a nurturing atmosphere – elements that are critical to developing neuro-pathways in their brains.

Promoting the Growth Mindset

As children and teenagers learn to adapt their way of thinking, they will begin to understand the growth mindset. To grow and transform their thought patterns, children need repeated experiences in the same areas such as cognitive development and social skills.

“You can change behaviors and brain functioning, but it takes a concerted effort to do so,” said Dr. Shaw. “It involves a lot of repetitive experiences.”

Often times, children from poverty grow up with the repetitive experience of never being guaranteed food or shelter. Their brain has been developed to focus on day-to-day survival, even after they move to a safe environment.

“It takes time to create a new way of thinking about their environment, but it’s absolutely possible,” Dr. Shaw explained. “It takes a fair amount of maturity that many adults don’t even possess once they’re fully grown.”

To help children develop this type of maturity and growth mindset, role modeling is key. Caregivers and educators who are respectful and create safe environments for children are providing the necessities for brain development. They also can provide consistency in structure and can openly engage with children about the choices they’re making. This helps foster the growth mindset and encourages more positive behavior.

Evidence-Based Interventions

At Milton Hershey School and educational environments everywhere, it’s important for educators and caregivers to understand how poverty impacts children’s brain development-and what they can do to help overcome it.

If an educator, healthcare employee or caregiver can understand a student’s background and gain a better understanding of why they exhibit certain behaviors, they can lean where the trauma occurred across the developmental stages.

“It’s important to look at a specific child’s developmental history and actually target interventions to their current functioning, whether they need to adapt their social skills, speech patterns or other areas,” said Dr. Shaw. “Research has shown that evidence-based interventions are particularly effective for children.”

Interventions and environments need to be repetitive, stable and trustworthy. Building honest relationships and expectations with students is crucial, and it requires patience.

Over time, children from poverty learn what it’s like to thrive in a predictable environment even though they may have grown up with unpredictability. And ultimately, after altering a child’s brain development, resilience and persistence are the keys to success.

“Life after Milton Hershey School may be a wide open world for students, but they have to rely on the skills they’ve gained here and the resiliency to overcome challenges,” Dr. Shaw said. “It’s a lesson they take with them throughout their lives.”

Learn more about the serious health effects children from poverty face in our whitepaper, “How Schools Can Help Break the Cycle of Poverty: A Whole Child Approach.”

Milton Hershey School does not discriminate in admissions or other programs and services on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, ancestry, sex, religious creed or disability. Read important MHS policies on equal opportunity and diversity, equal employment opportunity, and more.