Public Release: 

UNC researcher awarded $2.5 million to study stress of poverty on children

Research will address what experiences affect brain development during first two years of life for disadvantaged children.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill - Office of Research Communication

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Cathi Propper, Ph.D., an associate research professor, has been awarded a $2.5 million National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) grant to study the link between poverty and developing cognitive processes that facilitate learning, self-monitoring and decision-making in children. Propper is an investigator at UNC's Center for Developmental Science. Co-principal investigators include Roger Mills-Koonce, Ph.D., CDS faculty and professor at the UNC School of Education; Sarah Short, Ph.D., of University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Healthy Minds; and Michael Willoughby, Ph.D., of the Research Triangle Institute.

The five-year study will be the first to investigate how poverty influences children's cognitive development over the first two years of life. Findings will contribute critical information regarding whether specific measures of experience including language exposure, caregiver behavior and child sleep hygiene may ameliorate this risk.

"There is a well-established link between living in poverty and poor social and academic outcomes, but we don't know exactly how these conditions 'get under the skin,'" says Propper. "This funding will allow us to learn more about the influence of poverty on brain development, while carefully examining the early experiences that may help improve long-term trajectories for these children."

The difficulties of living in economic hardship have indeed been associated with deficits in cognitive and academic performance in children. Federal and state governments invest billions of dollars annually in programs that are intended to help "level the playing field" between children who grow up in poverty relative to their peers who do not.

Early-life experiences that occur between the prenatal period through age 2 have major impacts on the trajectories of children's early cognitive development, including the neural substrates that support these abilities. Traditional investments toward children in the one-to-two years prior to their enrollment in kindergarten may be too late.

Given limited public health resources, more focused investments in children's early experiences may have a greater impact on their subsequent academic development, and studies such as this one have the potential to inform early intervention and prevention efforts.

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