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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

This Is Your Brain On Poverty: How Financial Insecurity Affects Young Brains

The Momentous Institute

Financial insecurity and poverty can take a toll, but it can also affect the brains of kids growing up in poverty. 

The Momentous Institute is trying to reverse that. Michelle Kinder is the executive director of the organization, which runs a school and two therapy programs in Dallas. 

Interview Highlights: Michelle Kinder...

…On what financial insecurity can do to the brain:

“What happens is that the amygdala, which is the fear center – that fight, flight or flee space – is overactive. The prefrontal cortex -- which is where you make good decisions and you’re able to inhibit yourself -- that is under active.   

You can see the difference of a brain of a child who’s had their needs met, and the brain of a child who has not had their needs met: both in how much activity is happening in what part of the brain, and even in the size of different parts of the brain. It’s a literal deprivation that can go on long-term, not just in the time that it’s happening.”  

...On the issues that can develop in adult-hood:

“Self-regulation is an issue for adults, even after they are in a stable place financially…For us, self-regulation is the ability to manage emotions to calm yourself down, the ability to regulation your inner world despite what’s coming at you from the outer world.”

…On witnessing the impact of poverty on children:

“I’m thinking of a little boy who’s four years old, he had been kicked out of three pre-schools. His behavior looked like defiance. Our work became helping him learn to self-regulate, make sense of routines, and make sense of how to calm himself. The easiest tool we have is our breath. So we teach our kids from the very beginning to use their breath as an anchor in times of stress.

It’s not enough to just teach the kids these skills, we also need teachers and daycare workers and parents to have a brain lens and a trauma lens on what they’re looking at in terms of behavior.  

I’m going to interact very differently with a kid who’s acting out if I think you’re doing it on purpose…versus if I’m looking at that same kid and thinking, ‘you have a different brain because of your early experiences and you’re having a coping crisis.’”

Watch: Kids from The Momentous Institute singing 'The Brain Song'

Watch: A Momentous instructor going through breathing exercises

Watch: Children talking about 'The Glitter Ball'

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.