When discussing why American children are failing in school, one should start by asking what they had to eat outside of it. Kids going to school hungry is not a new phenomenon in this country, but much the like rich/poor divide, it is increasing. What is surprising is not the fact that hunger affects early childhood development adversely, but that it is becoming a a growing health crisis in the United States. Child hunger is an issue that affects urban, suburban, and rural communities, with studies showing that teachers are increasingly seeing children that are too hungry to learn in the classroom. Understanding how hunger affects early childhood development, and how it affects learning overall can help give clarity to the emphasis needed to address poverty in this country and abroad.
It is difficult for anyone, especially children, to focus cognitively if they are hungry. As Ernest Mendes, P.h.D. points out in his book, “Empty the Cup…Before You Fill It Up“, you don’t have to look further than Abraham Maslow’s motivation theory and hierarchy of needs.
“Basic needs must be met before growth needs will be pursued. Safety and a sense of belong come before cognitive needs…When lower level needs are not met first, a person will seek to meet those before the cognitive ones.”
Grumbling tummies are included in these lower level needs. Food deprivation for children living in poverty can often induce stress and affect a child’s ability to focus in a classroom environment. 30-40 years after Maslow’s study, “brain science has observed changes in the brain under stressful and non-safe circumstances versus healthy challenge and low threat environments.”
The effects of child poverty have been a focus for pediatricians throughout the country who are advocating for better awareness of the issue. Dr. Bernard Dreyer, a Professor of pediatrics at New York University (NYU) was recently interviewed on NBC News to discuss some of the problems he has seen arise from child poverty. Having worked with low-income families for four decades, Dr. Dreyer noted the most significant symptom from child poverty is “toxic stress”, which goes hand in hand with poor language development, poor cognitive development, poor school performance, and so on. When families come in for doctor visits, he often feels obligated to ask if there are nights when the family goes to bed hungry. “The answer is always yes. If I don’t ask it, they don’t tell me those things. It is heartbreaking.”
The chronic problems of child poverty has led to what Dr. Dreyer calls “nursery school drop outs” where children are so dysfunctional, they are kicked out of the Headstart program. “That’s when it became clear that at 3 or 4 years old, they were already in a situation where their social and emotional development and their language development was so delayed or problematic that they were never going to make it. There was no way they were going to catch up.”
Of course, poverty in America is relative compared to less developed countries. Poverty in India for example, is more concrete. It is very evident impoverished people in India literally do not have food to eat, whereas here in America it is more about a lack of the bare necessities, malnutrition, and other factors that we do not usually lump together with other developed countries. In that sense, impoverished American children seem lucky compared to those in other countries, where education is an afterthought and children our deprived of the most basic human needs. That being said, the inability to receive an effective education is only underscored by the state of child poverty both in America and abroad. Regardless of location, child poverty and hunger affect early childhood development, inhibiting cognitive and social developments that are crucial for learning and growing in this world.