Jumpstarting Learning for Children in Poverty

Brain Based learning

Contrary to popular belief, DNA is not a child’s destiny. IQ is not fixed. Cognitive skills can change. This is critically important in K-12 schools because of the poverty gap — the difference between a child’s chronological age and developmental age.

In a healthy environment, a child’s developmental age will match his or her chronological age. In a high-risk environment, research shows that while a child’s chronological age is 5 years old, his or her developmental age is closer to 3 years old. This has a huge impact on school readiness and performance.

Today, 51 percent of all students in U.S. public schools are poor. Our public education system is designed to help students achieve a year of academic growth in a school year. For economically disadvantaged children, that’s a problem.

This problem, of course, is not new. In 1995, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley published their groundbreaking research study that uncovered the widely cited 30-million word gap between children from low-income homes and their more economically advantaged peers. Not only does that gap still exist today, it’s becoming more prevalent as the poverty rate climbs.

The bottom line is that if children from poverty are not achieving more than one year of academic growth in a school year, they’re failing — and we as educators are failing them.

Poverty, however, doesn’t have to be an overwhelming obstacle to a child’s success. Schools and teachers can make a difference, but there’s no time to waste if we want to ensure that every child graduates, joins the workforce, and contributes to our economy in a productive way.

Building cognitive capacity

There’s a persistent misconception in our education system that struggling students lack effort. The reality is that many simply need to build their cognitive capacity. Without this, students have no chance of catching up.

Cognitive capacity is a core skill. It’s not about a child “trying harder.” It’s about getting a child’s brain to work more effectively and efficiently.

Cognitive capacity is the sum of our concurrent mental actions that learn, process, understand, judge, recall, evaluate, calculate, reason, solve problems, reflect, and make decisions. Greater cognitive capacity is correlated with enhanced student learning and achievement. And the good news is that cognitive capacity can be taught.

Addressing brain differences

Students do not arrive at school “preassembled” by their DNA. Instead, they are “glued together” by life experiences. By the time they reach school age, the brains of children born into lower socioeconomic status (SES) households are different from those raised in higher SES households. These differences include the areas of the brain responsible for working memory, impulse regulation, visuospatial skills, language, and cognitive control.

Changing the brain

Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, means that the brain can change throughout an individual’s life. This means that a child can be influenced by good teaching and good instructional programs. This also means that good schools can, in fact, raise a child’s IQ.

This is important because unless students from poverty make at least one to one-and-a-half years of academic progress for each school year, they may drop out. So, to be effective, teachers must be more than “average” for students from poverty.

Teachers matter

As Eric A. Hanushek demonstrated in “The Economics of School Quality,” published in 2005 in the German Economic Review, improving teacher quality can yield sizable gains in student performance: “If a student had a good teacher as opposed to an average teacher for five years in a row, the increased learning would be sufficient to close entirely the average gap between a typical low-income student and a higher-income student (i.e. one not on free or reduced lunch).”

Thus, teachers matter more than poverty — and the most successful teachers are those that teach cognitive capacity.

Working memory predicts learning success

Research by other experts demonstrates that cognitive skill-building can yield impressive effect sizes as well. For example, working memory training or auditory language strategies can yield gains equal to 1.5 to 2.5 years of progress in a single school year.

Working memory is, in fact, the number one predictor of a child’s learning success. It’s a greater predictor than a child’s reading or math scores, or their motivation or a positive attitude. So, unless teachers and schools have a reliable way of building working memory, students will continue to struggle. Why? Working memory is the driver of cognition. It is required for every higher-order thinking process.

Research shows us that students in poverty have weaker working memory. But it is teachable. This is where technology can help.

Building working memory

To build working memory, we must engage the rules of neuroplasticity. To change the brain, skills must be presented to the student, with increasing challenge and complexity. Students’ brains also need error-correction. Then, once they get something right, they need practice to make it stick. Sounds kind of like a video game, right? The best formats for building working memory are, in fact, game-like.

Neuroscience-based programs such as the Fast ForWord program, which is supported by more than 250 research studies, can help by building a child’s memory, attention and processing speed — cognitive skills need for better reading and learning. Rather than simply providing accommodations, it addresses the root cause of students’ difficulty — the underlying issues that keep struggling students from making progress in school.

Solving problems systemically

Solving problems systemically in our schools means anticipating and addressing issues with children living in poverty, since they now represent more than half of the students in our public education system.

Implementing proven programs to help children develop cognitive capacity — which is necessary for learning in all subjects and grade levels — is essential to move forward and it must be done quickly. Our children’s future and our nation’s future are at stake.


Eric Jensen is a former teacher with a real love of learning. He grew up in San Diego and attended public schools. While his academic background is in English and human development, he has a real love of educational neuroscience. For over 20 years, he has been connecting the research with practical classroom applications.

1 Comment

  1. Great article! There are many factors that build up to a successful education of students who live in low SES. Two factors that resonate with me while reading this article were cognitive capacity and working memory. They can both be taught! Teachers need to realize that we cannot control the students’ economic background, but we have the power to provide high quality teaching to “change the brain” of the students. The learning growth of student is possible with the right tools and intentions to push cognitive capacity and working memory along the way. Wow!!

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