(dailyRx News) When Oliver Twist asked for more porridge, he may have wanted to ask for more help with school work too. He may need it.
That's the theory of a researcher funded by the National Institutes of Health about the link between children's learning difficulties and poverty.
Based on studies he has researched the past several years, Clancy Blair, PhD, of New York University, has written about the likely ways poverty can make learning harder.
It has to do with the stress that comes from living poor, such as crowded homes and the insecurity of not having money.
The studies Dr. Blair investigated compared the stress hormones of children who live in poverty with their test scores.
When a person is under a great deal of stress, they release a hormone called cortisol. The regulation of cortisol helps people adjust to stress.
If they have cortisol at too high or too low of levels over time, it can cause problems with a person's ability to deal with new stress or challenges.
When the children's stress hormone levels are high, it can interrupt the development of their brain circuits.
This can slow down their higher level thinking skills, such as attention control, impulse and emotional control and planning skills. All of these are essential to do well in academics.
In one study, for example, Dr. Blair tested 170 children, aged 4, who attended a preschool for children in poverty.
They measured the cortisol in the children's saliva before, during and after a test, and gave the children a couple of tasks to assess their "executive function."
Executive function is the part of the brain that deals with planning, working memory, attention, problem-solving, multi-tasking and self-control
The children with an expected and appropriate amount of cortisol, which increased and then decreased during and after the test, also tested better with their executive function. Teachers had also rated these children as having good self-control.
The children who had a flat high or flat low level of cortisol without the typical increase and then decrease had lower scores on the executive function tasks. Teachers had also rated these children as having poorer self-control.
When they tested these children again in kindergarten, the children who had better executive function scores also had the highest math scores.
Children with high cortisol levels and lower scores on executive function had more problems in reading, writing and math.
High levels of stress hormones in poor children may help explain why low-income children struggle to be prepared for school, Dr. Blair said.
More of his research, based on tracking 1,200 children growing up in poor areas mostly in the Appalachian mountains and in the Deep South, found that the parenting style of the kids' parents played a part in whether their cortisol levels remain typical.
The same problems might occur in children in other high-stress situations, such as children who experience child abuse, have a learning disability, are parented harshly or whose parents are going through a divorce.
In addition, Dr. Blair said that reducing stress at home and at school might improve these kids' well-being and help them succeed at school.
"The conclusion from this body of work is that working to reduce inappropriate environmental stresses facing young children would not only improve their overall well being, but also improve their ability to learn in school," said James A. Griffin, PhD.
Dr. Griffin works in the Child Development and Behavior Branch at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), which funded this work.
Dr. Blair's research will be published in the September/October issue of the Scientific American Mind.