The Chaos of Poverty and Early Brain Development: Is it really a beautiful day in the neighborhood?

By Susan Cowley

You wake up in the morning and immediately your heart starts pumping fast and hard, because you’re not sure where you are. It’s not a room you know. And there’s a kid under the sheet with you and you don’t know her either. But you know she wet the bed. 

Oops, not your story. Let’s head across town and back in time.

I’ll bet your mama gave you choices. You probably didn’t get to decide what to eat for dinner (“Eat what’s on your plate” is a good message, too). But she might have laid out two or three outfits and allowed your chubby hands to grab one that attracted you.

And Mom had a schedule for you, too. You were just a little kid, so she decided what time you ate your “green eggs and ham,” had your bath, read a bedtime story ending with “Goodnight, Moon,” said prayers if you were a religious family, followed by tucking in ~ likely by 9:00 at the latest.

Okay, maybe your house ran on a bit different “clock,” but you had sequential and repetitive experiences laid down again and again. Besides learning what time to hide behind the clothes hamper to escape bathing, you were also laying strong neural pathways that later gave you the ability to sit in your tiny chair in Kindergarten, stand in a lunch line, answer when spoken to, go to the pint-sized potty, and wash your hands.

Who doesn’t do that by Kindergarten? Millions of children don’t. Here’s how their brains formed. But we’ll call this child “you.”

You wake up in the morning and immediately your heart starts pumping fast and hard, because you’re not sure where you are. It’s not a room you know. And there’s a kid under the sheet with you and you don’t know her either. But you know she wet the bed.

You stumble out to find your Mom. She’s mad because you smell like pee and she won’t let you tell her that the other kid wet on you. Too late anyway. Time to leave. Maybe you’ll eat at the next stop.

You’re dropped off with Mama’s friend. He keeps running from house to curb as cars drive up and leave. But he does have a pickle and you’re happy to have it. Chips, too. But no toys or books. You see a belt hanging by the door. Better to stay as quiet as possible. Who could hear you anyway? The music is pounding so loud it hurts.

You feel a surge of hope: Mom’s back! But, she’s yelling at her friend. And he’s grabbing her by the arm. Your heart is beating so fast you can’t breathe. You don’t know what they’re saying but it sounds like FEAR, your fear.

Mama grabs you by the shirt and hauls you to the car, slams the door and keeps yelling. At who? Later when you get to Mom’s apartment, she’s crying. She pulls you out and hugs you all over tight and tells you she’s sorry, she’s so sorry. You’re afraid to take a breath. She might let you go.

Back in the apartment, your four sisters and brothers are shooing mice back into the walls. Because you still smell, you go through a pile of clothes on the floor searching for something that looks as small as you. No drawers. No hangers. Piles.

The TV is on and the other kids are watching a scary movie. It terrifies you, but you can’t take your eyes off it. Hours go by. Lots of hours punctuated by Ramen noodles and your brothers fighting till there’s blood.

Finally, you’re so tired you fall down asleep…wherever you land. At least tomorrow, you’ll recognize the walls.

We know from brain research that day to day repetitive experiences are the scaffolding that children’s brains use to organize themselves. Without these repetitive experiences children’s brains will organize around something. Children of deep poverty have their brains literally organized around chaos.

Fast forward to Kindergarten. Why would you sit in that little chair every time? What does it mean to stand in a line? If a boy hits you, you’ve learned to “beat him down” or not tell. It’s a world apart from, “Red shirt or purple?”

Your arm may grow to be longer and longer, but your brain will not grow to be a strong ally to your life when chronic stress pours cortisol, a hormone that interferes with learning and memory, into your brain. Jack Shankoff, director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, says that excessive levels of stress hormones disrupt the formation of synaptic connections between cells in the developing brain – and even affect its blood supply. “They literally disrupt the brain architecture,” he says.

The next time you see a Waco child in deep poverty, really look. Is she ready to fight? Or is she so shame-based and terrified, she can’t look up. These are the kids whose amygdalas – the part of the brain responsible for decision making and emotional reactions – have already been hijacked over and over by PTSD, some by the time they were one to two years old. They’re in full fight, flight or freeze.

And, please, rein in blaming Mom. She is 6th generation urban poverty. No one bonded affectionately with her either. No choices. Same environment.

Why does all this matter? Ask Dr. Bonny Cain. If a child doesn’t feel safe, that child can’t learn. And Waco has a host of children who rarely feel safe or valued.

What can you do? Every chance you get, look into the eyes of a child in poverty and let your smiling gaze say, “My, how wonderful you are, what a treasure, how lovable!” You can practice at H-E-B or WalMart; or watch for them at a park or as you enter a public school.

And whenever you see a young parent with an infant or toddler, foster bonding. Point out how much the child prefers Mama or Daddy. “Oh, I see how safe she feels with you holding her.”

Then, be bold and brave. Mentor such a child. Don’t worry about being successful. Be faithful. And that’s everything.

Susan CowleySusan Cowley is the long-time owner of The Cowley Group, a Waco marketing firm. In 1999 she helped to co-found Talitha Koum Institute where she now serves as Executive Director. Learn more about TKI’s mental health therapeutic methods and its mentoring program at

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email [email protected] for more information.







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