Poor Children Learn To Pay Attention Differently

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This is fascinating, and distressing:

“Kids who come from poor families have a harder time ignoring insignificant environmental information than children who come from higher income families, because they have learned to pay attention to things differently, according to a new study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Amedeo D’Angiulli, of Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and his team used electroencephalography (EEG) to analyze brain patterns evoked by a selective attention task in kids of low income and high income backgrounds.

The researchers discovered that the groups of children displayed differences in theta brain waves in the frontal lobe, a brain area involved in attention. This revealed that the participants used different neural systems for the task, and kids with a lower socioeconomic status allocated extra mental resources to focus on unimportant information.

‘Socioeconomic environment shapes the way our neurocognitive functions develop in childhood and influences the way we process information when we are adults, so that we can be well adapted to a specific type of social environment,” said D’Angiulli.

D’Angiulli and his team enlisted 28 kids between the ages of 12 and 14 from two schools of contrasting socioeconomic status. One school was mostly attended by children who were from high income families, while the other was mostly attended by kids from low income backgrounds.

The children’s brain waves were recorded while the researchers played different sounds into both of their ears, and they were asked to press a button as quickly as possible when they heard a certain sound.

Researchers found no major differences between the two groups in the precision or timing of the participants’ reactions. However, the experts did find differences in the participants’ brain wave patterns. Children of higher socioeconomic status showed much larger theta waves when hearing sounds they paid attention to than sounds they ignored. Children of lower socioeconomic status showed the opposite pattern: theta waves were larger in response to sounds they were supposed to ignore than those they were supposed to pay attention to.

These results indicate that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have to exercise more cognitive control in order to ignore unimportant information than children of higher socioeconomic status. The researchers say this may be because these kids tend to live in environments which are more threatening than the children of higher socioeconomic status, which could lead them monitor a wider range of information and sounds.” (Read more here.)

It’s easy to imagine how growing up in a threatening environment would lead a child to tune in to potentially important signals from his or her environment—and also how this hyper-vigilance could be problematic in a school setting.

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8 Responses to “Poor Children Learn To Pay Attention Differently”

  1. Mike Thayer says:

    Very interesting result. I definitely await the followup studies. Like much in neuroscience, the explanation (their last paragraph) seems to have a bit of the “just-so-stories” flavor. At the very least, though, it seems to be one more piece of evidence that socioeconomic status is a strong determinant of how cognitive processing occurs.

    Which means that until we address inequality in our students’ lives, we will be dealing with inequality of outcomes.

    • anniempaul says:

      You’re right, Mike, we must resist jumping to unwarranted conclusions about the relationship between poverty and academic performance. But it seems clear that inequality and poverty have to be part of the conversation about education.

  2. Neil Moffatt says:

    I just discovered your site. I have been reading many books on education and learning and this reflects what Harriet Sergeant espoused in the enlightening book “Among the hoods”, where the South London hoodies of the title were too hungry and too preoccupied to concentrate in school.

    I made a little article on my education reform web site with a link to this article. The url is my web site now suffixed by /Live/index.php?Id=73

    The largest influence to my understanding has been the seminal ‘How children fail” and “How children learn” by John Holt. Next on my reading list is “Visible Learning” – the result of 15 years study of 800 meta analyses in education research.

  3. anniempaul says:

    I’m glad you mentioned John Holt, Neil–his books were on my parents’ bookshelves when I was growing up and they were quite influential in my thinking as well. Thanks for writing.

  4. Rick Peters says:

    It is difficult to generalize from a small group of 28 Canadian youths to America’s urban poor. However, the negative correlation between poverty and school achievement has been demonstrated over and over for years. While the neuroscience is very interesting, the question of educational import is, “What can be done to change it? ” This is a area for applied psych/neuro/educational research.

  5. In a world were innovation and creativity are becoming ever more in demand is it possible that attention to details may prove to be an advantage and not a disadvantage in the worker of tomorrow?

    We assume that noticing details is bad. That not processing information (efficiency) is preferred, but is that really the case? What if adaptability is predicated on a species ability to take in its environment for survival? Perhaps the silver spoon may be the disadvantage?

    • Thabo Mophiring says:

      I think you raise an interesting point. One of the reasons that having diverse people on a team is a good idea is because their varied backgrounds give them different perspectives. Without romanticizing poverty, we must understand that there can also be cost that comes along higher income, particularly in emotional IQ.

  6. Tiffany says:

    I wonder if the relationship is the same for poor children who live in rural environments where the sounds are more natural and more quiet. It seems like the article is leaning towards urban areas.

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