BRIEF INVITED PAPER FOR CONFERENCE "ENVIRONMENT OF EDUCATION OF CHILDREN" (PRE-SCHOOL-GRADE 1). MAGNETOGORSK, RUSSIA.
One dynamic area of childhood learning that needs to be discussed in detail is the way in which poverty can lower cognitive skills and interfere with learning ability; I would like to focus a bit on this dynamic.
There has been a tendency in some elements of society, notably right wing conservatives, to almost moralise poverty and the lower levels of cognitive and learning ability in people who grow up in poverty and suffering from malnutrition. While this is particularly true in America, such destructive attitudes exist elsewhere.
Poverty begets poverty. Low income families, those confined to minimum wage incomes and other forms of poverty, tend to remain at poverty levels for some generations. During the dark era of the Eugenics theory, it was posited that families that lived below or near the poverty level were mentally deficient due to some hereditary abnormality. The so-called "prosperity gospel" of some religious sects transferred this eugenics theory into a morality theory. The basic idea was that people lived in poverty because they merited God's disfavour. The theories are reflected in efforts by certain political wings striving to terminate school nutrition programmes that provide for what is often the only nutritious meal that poor children receive each day for the five days a week that they are in school. Even this does nothing to help create a successful learning environment for preschool children who live at or near the poverty level. In some nations, including in North America, this affects millions of children.
Allow me then to examine, not an educational environment, but an anti-education environment that impacts the lives of many millions of children worldwide. Shamefully, this problem affects millions of children in some of the wealthiest nations on earth.
We have seen from sociological research that children who live in poverty generally score lower in educational tests, including I.Q. and learning skill testing. They tend to make up a lower proportion of university graduates and end up in lower wage jobs as adults.
All this has been interpreted by some elements, in society and in the political sphere, as a natural mental deficiency or what in more primitive times was referred to as "bad blood"; the development of neuroscience has shed a vastly different light on the subject. Income levels have profoundly influenced educational outcomes. A major research study on this issue, published in the journal "Paediatrics of Child Health" indicates that "The incidence, depth duration and timing of poverty all influence a child's educational attainment, along with community characteristics and social networks." The study goes on to indicate that interventions into the effects of poverty can alter the mental, intellectual and educational outcomes in these circumstances.
The effects of poverty, lack of proper nutrition in particular, but all the disadvantages of growing up in poverty in general, lead to significant differences in the size, shape and functioning of children's brains. fn2
Nutrition certainly plays a major role in the gross disparity between the advantages of children reared well above the poverty level and those who grow up at or below the poverty line. This reality would hardly be disputed.
The fact that the whole of society, of a nation would be elevated, strengthened and better able to compete world wide in technological, economic and social development is too often hidden under the cloaks of mythologies and ideologies. Some political and philosophical elements in various societies seem unaware that successful education is an investment in that nations future, its strength and its resilience, rather than a form of "charity".
Providing an environment for early childhood learning must surely include all these considerations, but there is another element also. Children who have grown up in poverty should not be pressed to compete in school settings with children who have not. An approach to the preschool and early education of socioeconomically disadvantaged children needs to be developed in the mode of "special education". Such education should certainly include providing nutrition for these children, and means of compensating for the disadvantages they suffer.
Malnutrition and brain development, including the impact of malnutrition of pregnant women on their foetuses, should become a highly significant aspect in any conference and programme development in relation to environments for early childhood education and development.