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How Does Expanded Learning Reduce the Effects of Poverty on Students?

Shannon Stagman

Shannon Stagman is Senior Program Director of Evaluation Services at ExpandED Schools.

Can an expanded school day help mitigate the effects of poverty on student learning? Discussion at a recent event hosted at the American Museum of Natural History suggests that it may be possible.

The panel discussion, titled Poverty, the Brain and Mental Health: How Stress Affects Learning, and the Science Behind It, brought together experts from New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Columbia University’s Department of Psychology and Mailman School of Public Health, and Partnership with Children. They shared scientific evidence that showed how high stress exposure can result in structural changes to the brain and can compromise functional domains including memory, learning and behavior. 

Not surprising, young children are most vulnerable to these changes as their brains are still developing, and the potential consequences include cognitive delays and emotional and developmental disorders. Even our genes can be affected by toxic environmental conditions related to poverty, and evidence suggests that the experiences of parents and grandparents contribute to children’s brain development, both through social and biological mechanisms.

The conversation was varied and wide-ranging, but what particularly stood out to me was:

  • Resilience is built through the development of positive nurturing experiences. The adverse effects of poverty can be overcome through factors such as responsive parenting, high quality childcare, optimal learning environments and community support

  • While early intervention is important, the effects of poverty on children’s learning can be mitigated even after they’ve reached school age.  

As I listened to this engaging discussion, I realized that the work we do at ExpandED Schools is a key part of the support system for children and families struggling with the effects of poverty. The expanded day provides warm, nurturing environments for many students who are facing these challenges, as well as access to safe and trusting relationships with adults. Program staff also have an important role to play in supporting students’ parents and families.

We’re just beginning to understand the long-term impact of poverty on young people, and the impact this type of stress can have on everyday lives and school and job performance. Learning more about the biological effects of stress helps us understand how we can be of most assistance to the at-risk populations we strive to support. 


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