Paul Tough, a journalist, wrote a book about a special program to help poor black and Hispanic students in school. The experiment in the South Bronx was called the Knowledge Is Power Program, KIFF. These kids were recruited in 1999 and given lots of help. They all got into good high schools and most got into colleges, but only 1/5 of those made it through college in six years. Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character discusses why these kids didn’t do better.
He says doing well in college is largely due to non-cognitive skills such as the ability to be a workhorse and plug away. To help kids develop these skills and a passion for learning requires excellent teachers. The stress of poverty, however, can prevent kids from learning how to focus and concentrate. A lot of the problem comes down to stress interfering with the vulnerable newest part of our brains, the prefrontal cortex. We all need this part to be operating in top form if we are to follow an academic program; we need it for memory, learning, coordination, and problem solving.
Here I am talking about the prefrontal cortex again, as I did last week in another blog when I reported on the damage smoking marijuana early can do to teenagers’ brains. I received some letters saying alcohol is worse. Yes, it’s true alcohol kills many times the number of kids killed by marijuana and all other drugs combined, but that doesn’t mean marijuana doesn’t damage the brains of young teenagers. Both alcohol and marijuana can damage brains that are not fully developed.
Getting back to poverty: I think about my own childhood. My family was middle class. I had loving parents but a sibling situation that caused fairly serious stress. I wonder what role learning the piano played in my academic life. I learned to focus on mastering piano pieces at an early age. Did that help prepare me for college? Had I not had a piano, would I have applied my curiosity to learning something else with the same passion? I’ll never know, although it’s likely. My family life was calm enough for me to be able to concentrate on the piano. Our home was heated and I had plenty of food. We weren’t suffering from poverty. Finishing college—plunging into my studies—was not a problem for me.
But children whose prefrontal cortexes are stressed by highly dysfunctional environments or major abuse have trouble regulating their thoughts and mediating their behavior. They can have unproductive instincts and trouble suppressing them. I lived with stress I could deal with and I didn’t live in an environment where learning wasn’t valued. Early nurturing from parents and excellent teachers can help combat the biochemical effects of stress. When kids suffer from coping with terrible conditions of poverty, their brains can suffer, too.
PS Superbowl Feb 3, workshop in Chicago Feb. 9 on The Enneagram of Death.