It's Just Data, Not Destiny
Here is my summary of Teaching with Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen—Chapter 2: How Poverty Affects Behavior and Academic Performance.
- There is no shortage of theories explaining behavior differences among children. The prevailing theory among psychologists and child development specialists is that behavior stems from a combination of genes and environment.
- Genes begin the process: behavioral geneticists commonly claim that DNA accounts for 30–50 percent of our behaviors, an estimate that leaves 50–70 percent explained by environment.
- This tidy division of influencing factors may be somewhat misleading, however. First, the effects of the nine months a child spends in utero are far from negligible.
- Factors such as quality of prenatal care, exposure to toxins, and stress have a strong influence on the developing child in utero.
- In addition, the relatively new field of epigenetics—the study of heritable changes in gene function that occur without a change in primary DNA sequence—blurs the line between nature and nurture.
- Environment affects the receptors on our cells, which send messages to genes, which turn various functional switches on or off. It's like this: like light switches, genes can be turned on or off. When they're switched on, they send signals that can affect the processes or structures in individual cells.
- Genes can be either activated or shut off by a host of other environmental factors, such as stress and nutrition. These switches can either strengthen or impair aggression, immune function, learning, and memory.
Language Acquisition: Speech and Reading
- The quantity, quality, and context of parents' speech matter a great deal. Children's vocabulary competence is influenced by the mother's socio-demographic characteristics, personal characteristics, vocabulary, and knowledge of child development.
- By the time most children start school, they will have been exposed to 5 million words and should know about 13,000 of them.
- By high school, they should know about 60,000 to 100,000 words.
- But that doesn't often happen in low-income homes. Low-income caregivers speak in shorter, more grammatically simple sentences. There is less back-and-forth— fewer questions asked and fewer explanations given.
- A pattern of slow vocabulary growth helps put in place a slower cognitive pattern by the time children turn three years old.
- Parents of low socioeconomic status are also less likely to tailor their conversations to evoke thoughtful and reasoned responses from their children.
- Going hand in hand with language acquisition, reading is one of the most important factors affecting the development of a child's brain.
- Reading skills are not hardwired into the human brain; every subskill of reading, including (but not limited to) phonological awareness, fluency, vocabulary, phonics, and comprehension, must be explicitly taught.
- This teaching requires attention, focus, and motivation from the primary caregiver.
- The growing human brain desperately needs coherent, novel, challenging input, or it will scale back its growth trajectory.
- When a child is neglected, the brain does not grow as much.
- Poor academic performance often leads to diminished expectations, which spread across the board and undermine children's overall self-esteem.
- The effects of poverty are not automatic or fixed.
This information is not new—at least not for me and other early learning advocates. There are many successful initiatives in the United States and around the world taking positive action on the above conclusions. But, on the other hand, the majority of education investment remains focused on short-sighted, ill-informed, band-aid solutions.
Parents need to be better prepared to raise their children. There needs to be a paradigm shift of much greater and sweeping proportions in the early years—in utero to age six. The first two thousand days of a child's life—before any formalized schooling—is the foundation we all must build the rest of our life on.
Papa Green Bean