Making Little Brains Kindergarten-Ready

Set to learn.

Photographer: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

One of the most important skills for any kindergartner, besides recognizing the alphabet and opening juice boxes, is knowing how to keep still. At Children's Hospital Los Angeles, hundreds of children have practiced doing just that -- and not just for their own sake, but for the good of science. 

Photographer: Mary Duenwald/Bloomberg

They needed to lie still for an MRI exam of their brains, which can last 45 minutes or more. These healthy children were volunteers in a vast effort to map poverty's impact on children's brains. The hope is that parents, teachers and others can now map a more complete response to poverty in their communities. 

Many studies over the past few decades have found that poverty and its stresses inflict lasting damage on young children's brains. In the largest study of its kind so far, researchers at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, Columbia University and other centers looked at more than 1,000 young brains and found a clear correlation between parental income and the surface area of regions important for school performance: the temporal lobes (a center for language use and reading) and the frontal lobes (planning and impulse control). 

Why is this so? For the children in this study, the researchers can only speculate. Maybe the poorer households had fewer books, or they were more exposed to pollutants such as lead paint or freeway exhaust. Maybe the grown-ups in those families talked to the children less. Or maybe the stress of deprivation is damaging in its own right. Plenty of other research on humans and lab animals alike says it is. And where there is abuse or neglect, the stress and its effects get worse. 

Science has teased out other links as well: between childhood adversity and later depression, mood disorders, inflammation, weakened immunity, diabetes, and asthma and other chronic diseases. Impaired language development, for example, is connected with behavior problems and difficulties with attention and impulse control. 

Taken as a whole, this new science of "life-course health development" is illuminating the special vulnerability of very small children. Ignore their need for proper care, and too many grow up ill-equipped to thrive

Yes, there are already scores of programs designed to help -- on the federal state and local levels, from the public, private and philanthropic sectors. Initiatives such as the Children's Health Insurance Program and the Earned Income Tax Credit can help children from poor families in many ways, and for a lifetime. But such programs and agencies have been in place for years, and still too many poor children show up unready for kindergarten. 

In response, many cities are taking a more holistic approach. This requires first finding out which neighborhoods and schools have the greatest share of unprepared children. It then requires a communitywide commitment to paying close, sustained attention to improving their lives. 

One measuring tool that dozens of cities have been using is a questionnaire for kindergarten teachers known as the Early Development Instrument. It asks teachers to evaluate their students using a range of physical, emotional and social criteria: weight, alacrity, ability to hold a pencil or crayon, how well they play with others, ability to tell a story, and so on. 

The idea is not to identify problem students but to look at whole classes and schools to identify the ones with the biggest problems. Seeing this data mapped by neighborhood has proved motivating. 

For example, Hartford, Connecticut, used EDI scores to map a neighborhood correlation between school readiness and the share of income an average family pays for housing. The data also prompted it to create an office for young children, which aims to nudge existing programs (not just schools, but libraries, recreation departments and nonprofit agencies) to cooperate in paying greater attention to the youngest children. 

But perhaps the most dramatic response can be seen about four and a half miles south of those kids who patiently learned how to lie still for their MRIs at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. 

The Magnolia Place Community Initiative started in 2008 as a way for more than 70 city, county and private agencies to focus on young children in a five-square-mile area of Los Angeles, home to 14,000 families. The goal is to look at their whole lives, rather than just specific needs, and refer them to the appropriate help. So counselors for an agency that helps people find child care might also ask their clients about other problems common among the poor. Is someone jobless? Is everyone well-nourished? Is the mother or father or anyone else ill or depressed? 

At Magnolia's hub office -- an enormous former credit-card factory, freshly repurposed with its 30-foot ceilings and wide-open spaces intact -- the feeling of community is palpable. Yet the future of the initiative will, and should, depend on the data. Its organizers know this. Volunteers who run neighborhood reading groups, for example, keep track of individual parents' daily reading time. They know that the share of families where kids are read to for 15 minutes every day ranges from just 40 percent to 60 percent -- and so better ways of motivating parents are still needed. 

Ultimately, the numbers that have to move are the EDI measurements of school readiness, and this may take years. What's important is that some cities are recognizing the problem and making its solution a priority. 

It's easy -- depressingly so -- to see what poverty does to a neighborhood. What's harder is seeing what it does to a child's brain -- and figuring out how to address that. But when it comes to children's basic capacity to learn and grow, science and policy can't sit still. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.