5 Ways Poverty Impacts Early Brain Development and How You Can Help

January 17, 2019

a mom plays with her young children

Numerous studies show the foundation for lifelong learning is established during the first five years of brain development. Parents, child care providers and other adults providing care to children are instrumental in encouraging minds to grow healthy and strong. In fact, during these early years, more than one million new neural connections form every second. Thanks to new technology, neuroscientists have even been able to capture images that show how a child’s brain “lights up” during positive interactions with responsive caregivers.

5 Ways Poverty Impacts Early Brain Development

Recent trends show that 1 in 5 children in the United States are raised in families with incomes below the federal poverty line. Children in Hispanic and African-American households are even more likely to experience poverty (21 percent and 31 percent, respectively). These rates are particularly staggering when considered alongside the growing gap in school readiness and achievement between children experiencing poverty and their more affluent peers. The following are a few examples of how poverty influences brain development.

  1. Language development – Decreases in vocabulary, syntax and the ability to identify and manipulate word sounds are found among children experiencing poverty as early as 18 months old. These deficits create an array of communication challenges including gaps in reading, writing and other language processing skills.
  2. Working Memory – Early childhood exposure to poverty is linked to memory deficits that follow children into adulthood. Weaknesses in working memory may be evident in children who appear distracted, lose their place or skip important steps when completing tasks.
  3. Decision making – Studies suggest that the stress and trauma associated with poverty affects the part of the brain that influence the ability to accurately assess potential rewards and anticipate risks. Impacts include longer time spent making choices, difficulty correctly interpreting and applying environmental cues to one’s own circumstance and greater negative response to poor outcomes resulting from the decision.
  4. Self-control – Similarly, poverty affects young children’s ability to use effective strategies in situations that require self-regulation. Research attributes this to findings that indicate that the part of the brain responsible for regulating stress and emotional response appear to be smaller in children exposed to poverty.
  5. Mental health – Children in families with low incomes are disproportionately affected by mental health challenges and more likely to have unmet mental health needs. The mental health impact, like many other poverty related challenges, follows children throughout their life span.

As researchers help us better understand the relationship between poverty and brain development, a growing number of studies have explored how quality caregiver-child relationships during early childhood helps protect against many of the negative impacts associated with poverty.

How CCR&Rs are Helping

There are more than 11 million children under age five in child care across the nation, making the early education and child care system a critical touchpoint and safety net for children experiencing poverty. More than 400 Child Care Resource and Referral (CCR&R) agencies provide support to families, professionals, and other community and early learning partners. These CCR&Rs are positioned in nearly every community to help providers ensure children get the best possible start to life. Below are examples of how CCR&Rs are helping with early brain development:

Brain Building Through Vroom

Child Care Aware® of America (CCAoA) recently partnered with a second cohort of CCR&R Vroom Ambassadors to enhance awareness of early brain development. Through Vroom, these partnerships aim  to shift the culture of how parents, caregivers, and communities approach and support the developmental needs of young children. Vroom breaks down the science behind early brain development into simple messages and fun activities that fit right into families’ daily routines. CCR&Rs are able to share 1000+ activities designed to enhance family engagement, math, literacy, problem solving, self-control, and communication skills with providers. Most importantly, a family’s financial circumstances will not prevent them from accessing Vroom because it’s FREE and available via an easy-to-use app via the Apple Store and Google Play.

  • Resource for Families include daily brain building tips delivered via the app or text message, videos, and more. Vroom is also available in multiple languages.

Shining a Light on Early Brain Development

In our Promising Practices spotlight series, CCR&Rs shine a light on programs encouraging early brain development:

  • Talk, Read, Play, a community program that seeks to close the school-readiness gap by improving the quality of caregiver-child interactions through talking, reading, and playing; and
  • Family Engagement and Early Literacy Support Program, an urban, community-based program that combines efforts to enhance early literacy and caregiver-child interactions.

 Stay tuned as we feature more examples in the CCR&R Blog!

We Want to Hear From You! 

  • Submit an Aha Moment! Share how Vroom has added to your experience as a parent, provider/teacher, CCR&R staff, or other early care and education professional.

Submit Your "Ah Ha" Moment

  • Tell Us About Your Promising Practices. Are you leading an evidence-based initiative that enhances brain development and family engagement? Tell us about it!


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Topics: Family & Community Engagement

April Dodge-Ostendorf

Written by April Dodge-Ostendorf

April Dodge-Ostendorf, MSW, is Director of Strategic Initiatives at Child Care Aware® of America. She has over 15 years of professional experience advancing social service systems for children and families at local, state and national levels. April’s current work includes building cross-organizational knowledge and capacity for effective partnership engagement, fund development, and strategic planning.