We are scientists studying how children’s minds and brains develop. When we met in graduate school, we discovered that both of us had entered the world of academia after growing up in poverty or attending under-resourced schools. Our connection was sparked by a shared disagreement with the tendency, common in our field of developmental science, to view children in poverty in terms of what they lack relative to wealthier peers—a perspective that starkly contrasts with the complicated, creative, and talented children we grew up alongside. While we would never wish poverty or its challenges on others, the scientific focus on what is “wrong” with children in poverty overlooks all the positive ways many adapt and thrive. It also underplays the systemic and structural barriers these children face.

Strengths through adversity
Hidden talents in harsh conditions

Families lacking the resources to make ends meet is a policy issue. Wealthy nations like the United States, our home country, have failed to enact proven policies that would reduce or even eliminate child poverty. Systems governed by policy affect children’s opportunities and development. Schools, for example, are often highly segregated by both race and income, and those serving kids from lower-income families frequently receive fewer resources. Despite these challenges, many children in poverty find a way to adapt and even thrive.

Poverty is not the same for every child.

What strengths can children gain from growing up in poverty?

Not all children experience poverty in the same way. Children growing up in poverty face a complex blend of challenges and opportunities. Some experiences labeled as “adverse” may in fact bring benefits. For example, many people perceive living in multigenerational, often crowded households as an adversity. But families living in poverty may benefit from additional adults at home who can offer emotional, cognitive, and financial resources such as childcare, tutoring support, and exposure to rich cultural traditions.

These experiences shape our brains, especially early in childhood. When neuroscientists find differences in the brains of children from different backgrounds, they tend to assume something is wrong with the kids from families with fewer resources. In our research, however, we have found that such brain differences may reflect how children adapt to their unique worlds. For example, children who grow up with fewer resources can develop enhanced collaborative skills by participating in collective problem solving in their communities. Any brain differences may therefore reflect different forms of expertise with benefits and trade-offs.

There is no optimal pattern of brain development.

Similarly, bilingual children living in poverty can gain enhanced social and cognitive skills as they translate for parents who do not speak the local language. And children in poverty who experience intersecting forms of racial discrimination may become motivated to engage in sociopolitical actions that address inequalities in their communities. “My experience in an immigrant Hispanic household facing poverty taught me valuable skills, but it also opened my eyes to the insufficient systems of support we have,” reflects PhD student Gabriel Reyes. “This continues to drive my advocacy for resources that address these foundational disparities, ensuring that our community’s skills are used for advancement, not just survival.”

The diversity of social, cultural, and linguistic environments that children in poverty experience may result in different patterns of expertise and brain activity relative to other children. Neither is inherently better or worse, even if poverty itself is undesirable.

Not all children display their skills in the same way. 

How can educators support children living in poverty?

Reimagining classrooms will allow educators to nurture the strengths of all children by creating opportunities that take into account students’ diverse backgrounds and experiences. Schools can adopt inclusive teaching practices and curricula, integrate culturally relevant materials, facilitate collaborative learning to leverage communal and interpersonal skills, and use technology for personalized support.

“Historically, schools have valued timed tests and rewarded students who respond quickly to prompts from teachers,” says developmental scientist Dana Miller-Cotto. “The field is now more aware that many communities around the world do not share the cultural values of working quickly or in isolation. Taking one’s time, responding thoughtfully, and working with peers to come up with an answer—a community-oriented perspective to learning—are values that have been shown to be positively correlated with the academic performance of children of color.” Efforts to promote these skills not only foster inclusivity but also ensure that educational content is relevant to students’ lives, which enhances engagement and learning outcomes.

“We envision a future in which every child’s potential is recognized and nurtured.”

Reimagining assessments will also help to maximize children’s strengths. While traditional standardized tests, administered in educational and research settings, strive for fairness, they are not based on the realities that children from diverse backgrounds face. As a result, they may fail to capture those children’s true talents. Better alignment between assessment materials and children’s environments—using familiar objects or settings, for example—can reveal these children’s unique abilities: In one study, youth in poverty scored lower than their more advantaged peers on a working memory test that involved pictures of triangles, squares, and circles, while their performance improved when they were tested with real-world content like pictures of faces or a city bus, nearly closing the performance gap.

However, using real-world examples in tests is no panacea. Children in poverty tend to perform worse on math problems that mention money, for example, than on equally challenging problems that are not money-related. Perhaps these questions trigger financial anxieties, distracting kids from the task at hand. Testing conditions need to offer children the opportunity to showcase their full capabilities.

We envision a future in which every child’s potential is recognized and nurtured, regardless of socioeconomic background. This requires researchers, educators, and policymakers to work together to dismantle systemic barriers and foster environments in which all children can thrive.

We have discovered that we are not the only developmental scientists who disagree with the way children in poverty are often viewed in the academic world. We have joined a broad network of early-career researchers, many of whom have had experiences similar to ours, who are dedicated to illuminating the strengths of children in poverty. “There is a desire and need for a more balanced discourse about children growing up with adversity. Our network aims to move towards a well-rounded view, which recognizes the full spectrum of struggles and strengths in context,” says psychobiologist Willem Frankenhuis, who founded our network. The scientists quoted in this article are members of the network. Together, we strive to reframe the conversation about children growing up in poverty, focusing on the adaptive skills that develop not only in spite of, but in part because of adversity.

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