COLUMBIA—Living in poverty doesn’t just affect a child’s physical quality of life, such as what they eat, what they wear and where they live. It can also have a profound effect on their brain and how they learn, influencing not only how they do in school but their chance for success later in life.
These stark realities were discussed at the annual Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic and United Methodist Bishops’ Dialogue on Oct. 13 at Our Lady of the Hills Church.
Tammy Pawloski, director of the Center for Excellence and professor of early childhood education at Francis Marion University, was the keynote speaker. She used statistics to show how poverty impacts the way students function in a classroom.
The information is crucial to implementing the public education initiative set forth in the LARCUM bishops’ pastoral letter, issued in April, which set out a commitment to support public education in the state.
“It’s a myth that poverty doesn’t matter in the classroom,” Pawloski said. “Some people say ‘teaching is teaching,’ but if you think that, talk to a teacher in a Title 1 school and listen to their struggles.” Title 1 schools have large numbers of students from low-income families.
Pawloski described how the brains of infants and young children are influenced by positive stimuli and factors such as touch, conversation, good nutrition, constant opportunities for learning and social interaction. Kids who come from families with more financial resources, for instance, often hear more words spoken each day and build bigger vocabularies from an early age than low-income children.
Living in poverty often means dealing with constant stress, and Pawloski illustrated how that can influence brain activity. Stress factors include everything from not having enough to eat to not being able to take part in school activities or other programs because of cost. Even something as simple as a teacher scolding a student for not bringing the right school supplies can exacerbate stress.
Intense stress can reduce your measured IQ, she said, adding that it affects physical and mental health, and the ability to pay attention.
She said that being born into or living in poverty does not mean children can’t improve and develop over time. That’s where the church community can step in, she said, to help kids access resources they might not have at home.
That help could take many forms, she said, by donating school supplies and money to help students participate in school activities or books and conversation.
“One thing we all can do is find a way to interact,” she said. “It can be as simple as somebody volunteering to go in and read with kids, help them grow that vocabulary.”
Faith communities can help relieve stress on poor families by helping parents with transportation or medical costs, or finding ways to teach students organizational and communication skills they might not have.
“The problem for many of these kids is not a lack of love, it’s a lack of resources,” she said. “If you change the child’s experience, you change the brain. Environment matters … We have to be the touchstone for kids in poverty.”
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