Department of Psychiatry
Penn Behavioral Health

PAH Outpatient Behavioral Health Clinic

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Newsletter: January 2011

The Recession and Children

Richard Bollinger, PhD

With the unemployment rate now hovering near 10 percent, researchers are exploring the impact of this “Great Recession” on families and children whose living standards have been reduced to near-poverty levels.  Amy Novotney summarized many of the recent findings in an article published in the September 2010 issue of the Monitor on Psychology, a flagship magazine of the American Psychological Association.  She reported that current research indicates that family economic setbacks are indeed associated with children’s’ slower cognitive development.  In addition, she noted the importance of  interventions designed to help reduce the impact of these setbacks.

In 2010, the total number of children living in poverty will be 15.6 million, an increase of three million children over the last four years.  Ms. Novotney quotes psychologist Ruby Takanishi, PhD, that “Research shows that children who slip into poverty, even for a short time, suffer long-term setbacks even when their families regain their economic footing.” These setbacks can include an increased risk of future engagements in crime and illegal drug use and higher susceptibility to health problems like obesity and asthma.

Setbacks are especially true for children under 10.  Recent research has shown that the brains of children from underprivileged homes have to work harder to perform the same tasks than do the brains of more privileged children.  One task involved filtering out unnecessary noise and information while listening to a story and responding to it.  The prefrontal cortex (the brain region associated with the completion of many cognitive tasks as well as attention and concentration) of underprivileged children used more energy to complete the tasks than for privileged children.  This difficulty may then also generalize to other difficulties, such as listening to teacher instructions or focusing on class assignments.  The researchers speculated that this difficulty may be due to the increased stress at home and a lack of parental education that is often correlated with low-income homes. Increased parental stress decreases the amount of time parents have available to provide cognitive and linguistic stimulation for their children, leading to slower cognitive development. This slower cognitive development not only gives children from poorer environments a delayed start, it also delays skill acquisition, which keeps them behind their peers in the academic setting.

Ms. Novotney notes that psychologists have been actively working on ways to address these cognitive delays and close the achievement gap.  Programs that utilize executive functioning, which is psychology-speak for skills involving planning, rule acquisition, initiating appropriate actions, and inhibiting inappropriate actions, have proven to be successful at improving IQ and academic scores of children.  For instance, Tools of the Mind curriculum, a program developed by educational psychologists at Metropolitan State College at Denver builds a curriculum around 40 activities, each designed to develop behavioral control and resist impulses. Activities include taking turns reading and listening to a reading partner while holding either a mouth (when being the reader) or an ear (when being the listener). This activity helps the child to exercise self-control and to listen.  Research has found that students enrolled in this program consistently scored higher on tests that required executive functioning.

How can a parent help to develop executive skills at home? An effective way is to increase positive parent-child interaction. A 2002 study by the nonprofit Educational Testing Service found that only 36% of low income parents read to their young children every day, compared with 62% of upper-income parents. Increasing parent-child time, although difficult when parents are experiencing increased distress from a poor economy, can be an invaluable tool in helping children to develop the skills necessary for academic and future vocational success.

A link to the Novotney article in the Monitor on Psychology can be found here: