What if you woke up tomorrow morning with your IQ 13 points lower than it is today? Think what that would mean. You’d still be able to go through your normal, everyday tasks - the ones that don’t take a great deal of thought -- without much problem. In fact, you probably wouldn’t notice the difference until you had some mental stretching to do. If you’re a crossword or sudoku fan, for instance, your daily puzzle would be far more difficult. Those real life tasks and decisions requiring you to draw inferences, synthesize information or go through multiple steps to reach a conclusion would likely set your mind reeling.
And if you walked into school with a 13 point IQ deficit, all your academic classes would be far tougher than they were the day before. As for those subjects you normally struggle with, you’d probably throw up your hands in despair.
This isn’t a theoretical problem I’m raising. It’s a real life situation for people who live in poverty, according to a recent study out of Princeton University. The types of stress associated with poverty can lower people’s IQ by as much as 13 points. They don’t lose brain cells or become permanently damaged intellectually. What happens is, when people are consumed with problems related to poverty, their ability to think about anything unrelated to their economic woes is temporarily impaired. They don’t have enough bandwidth left over to perform the kinds of mental tasks they would be capable of if they weren’t so overwhelmed.
The Princeton study only looks at adults, but as an educator, I can’t help thinking about it in terms of students who have to cope with the stresses of poverty. One of the few things we know for certain in education is that family income affects student achievement. Everywhere in the world, children from low-income families perform worse in school than children from higher income families. The question is, why? This study provides one important part of the answer.
Children living in poverty tend to live in crowded quarters, don’t get enough sleep and worry about where their next meal is coming from. They carry their parents’ economic anxieties around with them as if they were wearing backpacks filled with a hundred pounds of bricks. Most children from middle class homes can’t even imagine the trials lower income children have to cope with on a daily basis. If the Princeton study applies to children as well as adults -- and I believe it does -- poverty-related stress lowers the functional IQ of school children living in poverty.
We’ve all have bad days in school when we couldn’t focus on what the teacher is saying. We’ve all blown homework assignments because we couldn’t concentrate on the task at hand. For children living in poverty, that bad day keeps going on and on. Each year they learn less than they’re capable of learning, and that deficit is piled on top of the deficits from earlier grades until their school achievement is years behind what it would have been if they were functioning at the top of their game.
There’s much more to the educational inequality between children from different economic situations than their ability to concentrate in class, of course. Children from economically advantaged homes are likely to be read to and spoken to more often than children raised in poverty, and they usually have a broad ranges of experiences that give them a huge educational boost. But even if we forget about those advantages, even if children raised in poverty had every educational advantage of children raised in middle class families, their school achievement would likely be significantly lower simply because of the hundred pound backpack of stress they carry around on their shoulders.
Teachers can help ease those children’s burdens somewhat, but it can never be enough. It’s society’s job to make poverty less frequent and less burdensome.
Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.