Overcoming Poverty

Norman Swan: There are many factors that affect children's development, from the genes they inherit from their parents, the age of their father at conception, and their environment, especially if there is poverty. Poverty is well known to be toxic to children. A study in the southern United States where they have the worst poverty in the nation has looked at the brain scans of young people who have spent years growing up in deprivation to see if a parenting program made any difference. One of the researchers was Gene Brody from the Centre for Family Research at the University of Georgia, Athens.

Gene Brody: Economic hardship really rips the psychological fabric of the parents rearing children. These parents work very hard, despite living in tough circumstances, to do their best. But the chronic day-to-day stressors associated with poverty made them feel badly, and for some children this had the consequence of them not doing as well as they could or reaching their potential in school and other areas. And this jived with other research from around the world actually, that shows that children growing up in poverty conditions where resources are scarce but stressors are plenty tend not to develop as well academically and socially as children who aren't battling these particular kinds of stressors.

Norman Swan: And you have some evidence that the brains were in fact different.

Gene Brody: You know, there were clues there where researchers would associate living in poverty with diminished brain development, and it made us wonder, since we follow children from preadolescents through young adulthood, whether children who spent more years living in poverty would have smaller brain volumes in areas of the brain that were important for their academic development, for their memory and for their ability to cope with stress. And unfortunately we found it was, for some children.

Norman Swan: And which parts of the brain and what sort of functionality?

Gene Brody: The parts of the brain that we focused on where the hippocampus and the amygdala.

Norman Swan: So that's memory, emotional control, that sort of thing.

Gene Brody: Right, yes.

Norman Swan: You also looked at an intervention called Strong African American Families which was, what, a parenting program?

Gene Brody: Yes, in 2001, 2002 we developed a program for African American families living in the rural south that was designed to mitigate stress by enhancing the quality of care giving that children received. And we have studied the effectiveness of this program to promote psychological adjustment, academic achievement, and some health outcomes as well. And that caused us to wonder if the benefits of this program would extend to brain development. Would youth, who at age 11 lived more years in poverty and whose brain development was assessed at age 25, not show the deleterious effects of poverty if they had participated and received enhanced levels of parenting that were taught by the Strong African American Families program?

Norman Swan: And what did you find?

Gene Brody: We were delighted to find it did. So the association or the link between poverty and diminished brain development was found only for children who did not participate in the prevention program.

Norman Swan: And what were the elements of this program, what were you teaching parents to do? Because you probably know in Australia we have developed one particular parenting program which is quite popular internationally. What were you doing with these parents, what were you teaching them?

Gene Brody: First I want to give a shout-out to Professor Matt Sanders…

Norman Swan: At Griffith University.

Gene Brody: Whose prevention programs are internationally known. Our program was a little different than Professor Sanders' in that the rural Southern context that our participants grew up in are unique, and the parenting practices that are successful in the 'black belt' might be different than parenting practices in the northern parts of the United States or in very urban areas. So we spent 10 years documenting what were the parenting processes that enhanced the development of children in the rural south. And we settled on and focused on a few things that really tended to matter. And these things were providing emotional support for children, increase the amount of time that parents spend with their children, increase the use of a parenting dynamic which involves high levels of control laced with high levels of warmth. The kids know that the reason their parents are keeping them in tow and being very vigilant about their children is that they often live in some dangerous circumstances which require that protection. Another thing we did was to enhance how routinised the home environments were.

Norman Swan: So making them less chaotic.

Gene Brody: Making them much less chaotic, much more predictable, making sure there was a time and place for them to do their studies, and all the while increasing their presence at their children's school. One of the things that we find is the more that home environments are routinised and predictable and parents show up at school, schools treat the parents differently and in turn the children benefit more from the teacher's attention at school. And over time this particular formulation of parenting practices really has been shown to aid not only psychosocial development but health, and now it appears to expand into the brain.

Norman Swan: And just finally, Gene Brody, the applicability to other areas?

Gene Brody: This program has now been disseminated into 40 communities across the United States, and we are optimistic about its ability to continue to enhance the development of African American youth, and time will tell.

Norman Swan: Thanks for joining us on the Health Report.

Gene Brody: Glad to be here, thank you for asking me.

Norman Swan: Gene Brody is the director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Georgia, Athens.

You've been listening to the Health Report, I'm Norman Swan, I hope you'll join me next week.