Beth Babcock is the president and CEO of Crittenton Women’s Union and has studied the effects of poverty on executive functioning. Under Babcock’s direction, Crittenton Women’s Union is currently researching methods of coaching to positively affect impoverished adults. Earlier this month, Chalkey Horenstein spoke with Ms. Babcock, who explained the meaning of executive functioning and the effects poverty has on it.
Chalkey Horenstein: What first got you interested in poverty research?
Beth Babcock: My entire career has been in the leadership of nonprofit programs, whether it’s a community health center or an elderly homeless center. What’s at the issue at all these non-profit organizations is providing access to a good or service for people too poor to buy it in the open market — that’s what nonprofit work is. Poverty is the underlying issue, no matter what they do.
CH: So how is the educational development of a child in poverty different from one in a more well-off setting?
BB: I work very closely with Dr. Jack Shonkoff, M.D., the head of the Harvard Center on the Developing Child. His book — “Neurons to Neighborhoods,” which was published ten years ago — was the first book to talk in a public way about the effects of “toxic stress of poverty” on childhood development. What Jack and his other researchers found is that children who are raised in poverty have their brain development — their actual brain physical development, altered by poverty.
The areas that are most impacted are the areas of the brain that control what we call “executive functioning skills.” They are the skills of impulse control, priority setting, organization, and management of long-term goals. These skills are what teachers refer to as “the readiness skills for learning,” and teachers will tell you that these are very important to begin to teach a child in a classroom. They’re the skills that let a kid stay still in a chair, work well with others in a classroom setting, keep track of their work, and understand how persistence plays out in getting really good at something.
There are actually studies done on young children that show that in early settings, if you have one class (from the same background economically), trained in reading and math, and the other is taught in executive functioning skills, the children with the executive functioning training end up reading better than the kids with the reading training.
CH: So how does this research help your efforts now?
BB: It gives us an idea of how we can help children in poverty learn better. We can introduce this into many different settings, like daycare, summer camp, classes. How we can introduce executive functioning coaching in ways we haven’t up until now. Maybe we haven’t been doing something we could be doing to make children’s outcomes better.
But it’s more exciting for reasons than that. One of the things that’s most interesting about the executive functioning areas of the brain are that these areas of the brain keep growing or have the potential to keep growing the latest of any of the brain areas. You can grow executive functioning wiring in adults all the way into adulthood. Those areas of the brain grow the longest of any area of the brain.
For example: if a child is locked up where no one speaks to them, and they never learn speech — there have been kids who have had this happen, unfortunately — they didn’t develop language. Once you are a teenager, if you have not developed language before the age of sixteen or so, the amount of language you can learn at that point is very limited. You’ll never have a full vocabulary or full speech development. If that part of the brain is not developed by that point — if they do not keep learning more language — they can’t really be built up normally. But executive functioning is not like that; they can be built way into adulthood. This is something very exciting because we can not only help children, but we can help adults in things that have set them back in their career already.
CH: Talk more about the “toxic stress of poverty.” Could you explain that a bit?
BB: To be clear, this isn’t to blame families of poverty; this is merely the reality of what our society has done. The families in poverty are not to be blamed for why this is stressful. Parents in poverty are not worse parents than people who are rich. Parents in poverty have lives that are very stressful, by virtue of not knowing where food is coming from, or where rent is coming from — the lack of ease that people who are wealthier have. This is what causes problems with children. Parts of the brain just shut down in defense to protect against that stress.
What Dr. Shonkoff and his team found is that poverty causes the area that creates the executive functioning skills to not become as developed. The science around it suggests that the environments are so stressful that the brain protects itself from building out — if it did build out, it would be even more stressful than it already is. They see the bumpiness of this life, and they feel it, and the brain does not build up the areas that would take all that in and work around it. That’s just too much stress for a child’s life.
Children who are raised in wealthy homes who also have toxicity in their homes for reasons other than poverty — parents who have domestic violence–can also have these symptoms too. With rich kids, it doesn’t happen as consistently. Being poor is stressful, and it affects the physical health and well-being of a family. There are diseases poor families get more than wealthy families. The body as a biological organism is affected by poverty in both adults and children. The fear, the lack of predictability, and the kind of pressure on time — and managing the world with not enough money — it’s a stressful thing that causes physical changes in adults and children.
CH: How does this affect the children down the road?
BB: What appears to happen to them is that they have a harder time in school, almost from the get-go. They are disadvantaged in the readiness skills to go to school. As they progress in school they continue to be disadvantaged, and as they move ahead they can be disadvantaged for lack of executive functioning skills. It compounds how difficult their world is.
The toxic stress of poverty, along with its effects on executive functioning, is part of why we say in the United States that poverty is “sticky.” What economists mean by “sticky” is that a child who is born into poverty is six times more likely to stay in poverty their entire lives than a child not born into poverty is likely to become impoverished. The reason is partly in the help that families can give their kids — money, etc. — but it also has to do with the way poverty affects and traps people.
CH: In what ways are things being changed to work with this issue?
BB: I think certainly the government is beginning to be more aware of these issues of executive functioning and the toxic stress of poverty, especially with children. There will be more opportunities to design and test and increase the impact of traditional childhood settings. Schools, daycares — we’ll see a movement in all of these environments. We already are seeing this, and I think this will be a big issue as a next decade.
What is not changing is that there is not a lot of research done to intervene and help adults, even despite the fact that their executive functioning can still grow and develop.
CH: So that is where Crittenton is coming in?
BB: My organization is designing programs that are designed to coach executive functioning. The progress reports we are running are showing very good results. The programs we are designing are developing what we call “executive functioning scaffolding.” We teach people how to use executive functioning tools that start as problem-solving and goal-setting tools that overtime become something inside the person. We’re teaching them to use external tools, and with time and coaching they become internal skills. So far, our early results are very good.
CH: What can people read for more information?
BB: Harvard Center on the Developing Child has a really excellent website. There is one paper on this website that does an excellent job, called “Building The Brain Air-Traffic Control System.” The Harvard Center on the Developing Child website has a whole bunch of wonderful articles, but that’s one that’s really good. They also have information on what the government is starting to do on this.
CH: Any final thoughts that you would like Spare Change readers to hear?
BB: Poverty has really changed over the past 10-15 years. It used to be that if you got a job, the chances were good that the job could support you — those days are gone. Recent studies show that 40% of the jobs in Mass won’t support the family.
We’re a knowledge-based economy now — those with knowledge-based skills can support themselves. Poverty is different, and so our approach has to be different; we have to learn how to get new families into this knowledge-based economy.