The Recession’s Impact on Children

Novotney, A. (2010).  The Recession’s Toll on Children.  Monitor on Psychology, 41(8), 43-43-46.

In the most recent issue of Monitor on Psychology, Novotney summarizes research on the outcomes of low-income environments on children’s cognitive development.  She goes on to detail some promising interventions that have recently emerged.  Poverty is a problem in the US. In the United States, more than one in five children is living in poverty, a rate that is higher than most other industrialized nations (June 2010, Foundation for Child Development).  The Foundation for Child Development is predicting that nearly half a million children could become homeless this year.  Although the recession is likely to end, its impact on children may not.  Children who live in poverty during critical developmental years, may suffer consequences long after their families have financially recovered.

Poverty can have long-term cognitive consequences:

  • For children under 10, there is an increased risk for negative health outcomes:
    • susceptibility to asthma
    • susceptibility to anemia
    • obesity
  • negative educational and academic outcomes, often because of less mental stimulation and higher stress levels.
  • the average vocabulary of 3-year old children in families on welfare was less than half the size of the average vocabulary of 3-year old children in “professional” families.
  • Based on a 2009 study published in Developmental Science (vol. 12, issue 4), it appears that the brains of children from economically impoverished environments have to work harder to perform some of the same tasks (such as auditory processing).  Researchers hypothesize that the stressful home environment of economically impoverished families is a major contributing factor.

So what can be done? Just as a child’s brain is susceptible to the negative effects of poverty, so too is it susceptible to the positive effects of appropriate intervention.  At the University of Oregon, a new early-intervention program is being tested that teaches children and parents about the importance of sustaining concentration and managing impulses.  The program, Parents and Children Making Connections–Highlighting Attention, is an eight-week course in which parents and preschoolers practice sustaining attention.

Another new program, Tools of the Mind, developed by Leong and Bodrova of Metropolital State College at Denver, works to increase the executive functioning skills of preschoolers.  The term, executive function, is used to refer to a set of cognitive abilities that guide or control other cognitive systems (e.g., maintaining attention, impulse control, planning, judgment, etc.).  Many people have historically assumed that preschoolers lack the ability to use executive functioning skills, but the Tools curriculum has found that young children can use these skills when provided with concrete structures to help them succeed (e.g., during a listening task, children may hold a pair of ears to remind them that ears only listen, ears don’t talk).

The recession, although likely to end, has posed serious risks to a whole generation of youngsters thrown into poverty.  Parents and providers can help address this by continuing to advocate for early intervention programs.

For more resources, visit:

The National Center for Children in Poverty

Foundation for Child Development

Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity

University of Oregon – Changing Brains

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