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Poverty & Learning Disabilities

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  • 0:04 Identifying Learning…
  • 1:13 Impacts of Poverty
  • 1:54 Poverty and Brain Development
  • 2:57 Poverty and Curriculum
  • 3:24 Increased Awareness
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

Is there a connection between poverty rates and children with learning disabilities? As educators, what can we do to make sure all our students are receiving a quality education? This lesson explores the relationship between poverty and learning disabilities and offers suggestions on how we can advocate for all students we serve.

Identifying Learning Disabilities

Tina is a first year teacher working with third grade students in an impoverished neighborhood. She's exactly where she wants to be - she's dreamed of working with students in poverty for as long as she can remember. Like many teachers, she worked hard last summer to prepare her classroom and curriculum. How'd things go?

Tina was ready for much of the obstacles teachers face. One thing that took her by surprise, however, was the number of students performing below grade level in core content areas - math, reading and writing. She suspects some of these students may have a learning disability, or an inability to perform learning tasks on the same level as peers that is not related to a physical disability.

Tina's confusion is typical of many educators. The lines between a delay in achievement and an actual learning disability is often blurry and can only be made more clear with a diagnosis by a trained professional. Though children in poverty are often thought to have a higher rate of learning disabilities, Tina talks things over with her school's special education department and learns that this isn't necessarily true. Let's take a minute to peek into this a bit more thoroughly.

Impacts of Poverty

If Tina took a look at research on the relationship between poverty and learning disabilities, she may initially think the two are related. For example, students living in poverty are being diagnosed with learning disabilities more often than other students. She may conclude that this means children living in poverty have more disabilities, but she should be careful about making these connections.

In fact, the National Research Council (NRC) has identified several situations that account for this misleading data. So, is it more likely that students living in poverty will have a learning disability? While children in poverty are being diagnosed with learning disabilities at a steady increase, the reasons for this increase can be explained.

Poverty and Brain Development

We know a lot more these days about how the brain develops and functions thanks to advances in neuroscience, or the study of how brains work. There are many factors present in children raised in poverty that can impact their brain development, such as:

  • Toxic stress - We all experience stress now and then, but when children experience stress that is prolonged, happens continually and is strong in nature, we call this toxic stress. Experiencing toxic stress has been shown to impact and impede the development of fetal and infant brains, resulting in short and long-term memory issues and impulsiveness.
  • Exposure - Many children living in poverty are exposed to biological risk factors, such as lead paint, malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies, impacting brain development.
  • Quality time - High-quality parent-child interaction is vital to brain development. Children living in poverty often spend less time with parents and caregivers and their interactions have fewer verbal interchanges, resulting in a lower vocabulary and poor social skills.

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