Fresh Ideas: Reading is antidote to toxic stress of childhood poverty

If you’ve been reading my columns for a while, I may sound like a broken record on the issues of children, poverty and education. Nonetheless, I feel compelled once again to address Nevada’s abysmal (as in dead last) education ranking on the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s latest Kids Count report card. This time, it’s personal.

You see, Olivia, my smart, kind, confident, imaginative, eager, and funny granddaughter, started kindergarten this week. In Nevada.

For context, let’s look at some other numbers that keep Nevada schools struggling to keep up.

23 percent of Nevada children live in poverty.

25 percent of Nevada children live in households that experience food insecurity.

22 percent of Nevada children ages 1-5 are read to less than 3 times per week.

69 percent of Nevada children ages 3-4 don’t attend preschool.

And yet, we expect all children to learn and grow and develop at the same rate.

Recent research by Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D. and Andrew S. Garner, M.D., Ph.D. documents the measurable damage done to children’s brains and bodies by the “toxic stress” of poverty as they grow and develop. That stress can lead to permanent damage to learning, behavior, and even physiology, resulting in a lifetime of chronic diseases and difficulties.

Another study of brain scans showed children whose family income was below the poverty line were adversely affected. They simply had less gray matter. Researcher Nicole L. Hair offers some hope, though.

“The brain continues to develop and continues to change structurally into our 20s ... With interventions, it may be possible to alter this link between poverty and academic achievement.”

Those interventions should definitely include reading aloud to children, according to John Hutton, M.D. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), his team observed areas of the brain related to language and mental imagery were most active in children who had been regularly read to, starting when they were infants. Children who were read to early and often were better able to extract meaning from both spoken and written printed words. Notably, while one-third of the children in this study were low-income, the findings held true across all socioeconomic groups.

Reading aloud to children can go a long way toward immunizing them against the lifelong costs of toxic stress. Nevertheless, comprehensive social programs are needed, too. Working parents need good-paying jobs, paid family and sick-leave and access to quality, affordable day care and healthcare. Nutrition, the foundation of growing minds and bodies, is another piece of the prescription. SNAP (food stamps), free and reduced school lunches, food banks, and local organizations such as Food for Thought all work to reduce childhood hunger.

Certainly, schools are part of the solution. Sometimes they are the safest and most nurturing places low-income children experience. Small class sizes, early childhood programs, support staff (like school nurses, librarians, and counselors), and technology work to mitigate the toxic effects of poverty. Yes, the 2015 Nevada Legislature made an historic commitment of resources to Nevada schools, but those efforts may take a decade or more to show significant results. Our children can’t wait.

Still, I’m not worried about Olivia. She’s been vaccinated, not just her MMRs, but her ABCs and 123s. The advantages she’s had have set her up for both academic and personal success. I do worry about her classmates though. I can’t guarantee they’ve had the same advantages, the advantages every child deserves and are our obligation to provide.

Lorie Schaefer is a retired teacher and reading specialist. She invites you to review the information and resources available at the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s website,


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