Teenagers, poverty, stress and academics: What we’re learning

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Photo courtesy Samantha Lobato, Project Voyce
<p><span style="color: rgb(64, 69, 64); font-size: 17.7777786254883px; line-height: 30.000057220459px;">Destiny Carney and Luis Robles are part of Project </span>Voyce<span style="color: rgb(64, 69, 64); font-size: 17.7777786254883px; line-height: 30.000057220459px;">.</span></p>
Teenagers, poverty, stress and academics: What we&#039;re learning
Chaunsae Dyson, Destiny Carney and Luis Robles are part of Project Voyce.

Poverty can have long lasting impacts on children, mainly because of the stress and trauma associated with it. Researchers are finding a significant link between that stress, brain development and academic performance.

As part of a CPR project focused on understanding why many Colorado children are growing up in poverty and what can be done about it, we're profiling three teenagers involved with Project Voyce. We talked about the teens on Colorado Matters.

On Destiny Carney, 18, who grew up in poverty:

It’s hard to imagine more overwhelming odds to overcome. Destiny was homeless most of her life with a mother struggling with addiction who at times ignored Destiny. She was bullied in school. All that adds up. There are studies showing a troubling trend: Mothers and children in extreme poverty are more likely to experience severe depression. That happened in the case of Destiny.

“I feel that when you are homeless and the environment the people you are around sometimes kind of make you feel like you can’t do it,” Carney says. “Because some of the other people are, 'well, you know I really wanted to do this but I’m just going to get Section 8.' They’re not really trying hard and other people want to bring you down and there’s drama and I feel like once you get in poverty, it’s kind of hard to get out.”

On the added daily stress of poverty:

Kids in poverty are also saddled with so many responsibilities, far beyond most kids their age. For example, feeding and clothing their brothers and sisters, even working so they can buy their own laundry soap or help pay the rent.

“I know a student’s got a better life than me when all they have to do is go home and do homework,” 17-year-old Chaunsae Dyson told us. “Working a job is a necessity; it is a need for me.”

For many of the children and teens, there often is not an adult outside their family, or even inside their family in Destiny’s case, letting them know they’re worthy human beings. Here’s Luis Robles, another teen I interviewed:

“As a young man you see your dad or your older brother as a role model – for me it was a role model of what I did not want to do,” Robles says. “I would see my brother – he was into smoking marijuana – my dad he was an alcoholic – so I always told myself, that’s not what I want to do. When I grow up to that age – I don’t want to be like them.”

On what it takes to start lifting themselves out of poverty:

Youth have often told me -- it’s taken one teacher noticing them, telling them they have potential that’s made the difference -- that allows them to see their own potential. Getting money to further their education is an almost impossible hurdle. But some have extra undefinable quality – call it 'resilience,' that has allowed them to make it this far.

“For us people in lower-class society what you need the most and the biggest tool that can ever benefit you is having grit – having the perseverance or just stick through it and keep going because if you don’t, it will just make you fall,” Dyson says.

Every kid initially has some grit - whether they run into an adult who can build on that -- often comes down to luck or being at the right place at the right time.

The incredible potential that lies within children in poverty is in danger of being lost. There is creativity, intelligence, and drive. They could grow so much if they just had the chance to be exposed to new ways of thinking about themselves and about the larger world.

On the stress factors associated with poverty's impact on brain development:

Lack of food, neglect, family conflict, substance abuse or exposure to violence are all factors. A new study in the journal Health Affairs shows that for the one in five children who've been through at least two of these traumatic experiences, the consequences can be dire. Those kids were twice as likely as their peers to have a chronic condition and special health needs. And they were 2.5 times more likely to repeat grades in school.

On hopeful news in this latest study:

The findings suggest that building resilience -- that’s defined as “staying calm and in control when faced with a challenge” -- for children ages six to 17 can ameliorate the negative impact of the stress and trauma. So, if a kid in poverty has resilience, researchers see higher rates of school engagement.

Using CT scanners, local researchers are measuring how specific stressors in high-poverty households impact the brain. Researcher Pilyoung Kim talks about how this stress impairs development in the prefrontal cortex – that’s the part of the brain that regulates emotions like fear, sadness, and anger. And then, how too much stress strengthens connections in the amygdala, which helps us detect dangers and threats from the environment.

"If there is imbalance in communication between two regions, one possibility would be the child needs a lot longer time to recover from negative states like being very anxious, fearful or sometimes angry when experiencing a stressor, like someone reacting to them in a hostile way,” Kim says.

On how chaotic living conditions affect brain development:

Researchers spend time in crowded homes, with lots of noise, and more conflict. Children report hearing arguments in the neighborhood, gun shots, that kind of thing. Children have a hard time filtering out the noise, and the potential threats – and -- studies have found, that impairs vocabulary and language development. Poverty-associated stress can reduce the prefrontal cortex’s ability to process information, like learning and memory.

On how stress changes the brain:

It could offer some explanation as to why some children are more frustrated or hostile in classrooms -- why they may perceive innocuous interactions as threatening. Once this is better understood, researchers hope it could influence policy -- how to reduce stress levels associated with poverty.

This story is part of our ongoing exploration of Colorado kids who are living in poverty, how it affects their lives and our common future. We'd like to hear your ideas about about what can be done about child poverty in Colorado. Share your thoughts through our Public Insight Network.