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Positive Parenting Overcomes the Effects of Poverty on Brain Development

New research shows that positive parenting can overcome the effects of poverty on healthy brain development in adolescents.  In a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Brody and colleagues described a neuroimaging study demonstrating that supportive parenting prevented the reduced growth of certain areas of the brain that occurred as a response to living in poverty.

Positive parenting and brain development

Numerous studies on the association of poverty with poor academic and psychosocial outcomes in childhood have pointed to the critical role of stress on brain development. Physical and social stress that often occurs during childhood in lower socioeconomic environments can influence the growth of the brain. In particular, there is evidence that development of the amygdala and hippocampus, brain regions that support learning, memory, mood and stress reactivity, is suppressed in disadvantaged children.

Brody et al conducted a neuroimaging study on 119 25-year-olds who had participated as adolescents in the Strong African American Families randomized trial (SAAF), a program designed to mitigate the negative effect of life stress on rural African American youths by encouraging positive parenting.  The intention of the study was to correlate the size of specific areas of the hippocampus and amygdala in these individuals, as determined by magnetic resonance imaging, with the number of years between the ages of 11 and 18 that they had lived under the federal poverty line. 

The results showed that, in the control population that had not been enrolled into the SAAF program, more time spent living in poverty was associated with smaller than average volume in areas of the amygdala and hippocampus. The good news was that this suppressive effect of poverty on brain maturation was prevented in those youths whose families had the benefit of the SAAF intervention. The promotion of positive parenting had conferred resilience to the stress of poverty. Importantly, this protective effect was detected at age 25 - it had lasted into adulthood. 

Interestingly, these positive results were achieved in a program serving the families of adolescent children. More than 95% of brain development occurs during the first six years of life, and the brain is particularly susceptible to the stress associated with poverty during this timeframe

Through the Reach Out and Read program, pediatric care providers are able to take advantage of their access to children during these early years. They encourage parents to spend time engaging with their young children through looking at books together starting in infancy,building the parent-child bonds that will alleviate the effects of adverse circumstances in the early years. 

This study encourages us that, through interventions that help parents to bring up their children in a positive, responsive way, it is possible to buffer against the consequences of poverty and low socioeconomic environments.  Leveling the playing field for disadvantaged children in this way can contribute to closing the achievement gap.

Written by Nikki Shearman at 08:32

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