The Silver Lining
Much of the content of these Newsletters and the conclusions of a huge volume of research I share with you, concentrate on the disadvantage that children who have suffered through poverty or neglect experience. There is no doubt poverty results in reduced scores on a range of standard tests, but new research suggests that these kids can sometimes outperform their more privileged peers.
Some findings that illustrate the impact of poverty are:
- Children tend to do worse on tests that involve memory processing speed, language, and attention.
- They are 40% more likely to have learning difficulties
- They suffer a gap in their verbal ability because their parents have limited vocabulary
- Factors like hunger, unsafe housing, and parental instability all contribute to “toxic stress” that impairs brain development.
- Abused or neglected children have less 'gray matter' in the areas critical for learning, the hippocampus, and the frontal lobes.
A new line of research has identified a silver lining if you like for these disadvantaged children and the adults they become. Always keep in mind the brain is not only capable of change through epigenetics and its natural plasticity more than anything else, it is adaptive. The chaos that results in the identified cognitive problems is capable of developing the ability to outperform their peers when the environment they found themselves in is chaotic!
In a study by Chiraag Mittal, a professor at Texas A&M University published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2015) had subjects perform a series of tasks in conditions that created a range of diversions, flashing lights, etc. Then they had them perform tasks that needed them to categorize shapes but under conditions that rapidly changed the criteria for that categorization.
Researchers found that people who had predictable childhoods did better working under the conditions that challenged their attention. In the second type of task, that of attention shifting those who had a more unpredictable childhood performed much better.
The explanation that children raised in harsh environments had developed a sense of hyper-vigilance because ignoring potential threats could have detrimental outcomes. They looked at the flashing light because they had to ‘check it out' as a potential source of danger. So in tests that require focused attention, children raised in poverty showed the risk of trusting that their immediate environment would remain safe was too dangerous for them. But they excelled in the task-shifting test because they carefully followed any changing landscape as they were on the lookout for potential danger.
This task switching ‘advantage’ is not the only cognitive enhancement that a difficult childhood can bring. Bruce Ellis in the Perspectives on Psychological Science reviewed a number of studies that found some additional advantages people from harsh or unstable backgrounds enjoyed.
The outcomes were:
- Children from divorced families had better early childhood memories; the elevated emotions associated with the family breakdown assist memory formation.
- Children whose parents were verbally aggressive were better able to recognize emotions; they relied on identifying the mood of their parents to avoid upsetting them.
- People who had suffered trauma seemed especially skilled at identifying similar situations; again this reflects the need to avoid conditions associated with previous traumatic experiences.
These so-called advantages are only an expression of survival mechanisms demonstrated by children who have suffered abuse, neglect or poverty. Hyper-vigilance and avoidance are focal points of children’s attention. To treat these ‘abilities' as being an advantage is misleading - it's only an advantage when the child is in a threatening environment. It's good to remember that in a classroom that is chaotic, these kids will possess the required skills, but for the rest of the class, their learning environment is spoiled.
The optimal learning environment is calm, predictable and accepting so the task for the teacher is to gradually and patiently have these students trust that the classroom environment is safe and so they can relax their hyper-vigilance and risk trying new ways to learn.
When working with kids who have been traumatized, it is wise to remember their behaviour has saved their life. The best we can hope for is they can relax in their classroom. Remember all too often they return to the chaotic environment where these skills are essential so don't take them away.