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Poverty and the Young Mind

How Little Ripples is Restacking the Deck for Children in Eastern Chad

As a teacher, I think a lot about the brain: how it works, how to get information in there, how to make education meaningful, how to make learning stick. The human brain is the single most important tool that I use to do my job, day in and day out. I live and work in Taos, New Mexico which is a rural, high poverty community; more and more evidence shows that poverty doesn’t just affect the body of a growing child, but that it produces lasting effects in brain development as well. These results are measurable – and they impact how students learn and whether or not they are even available to learn on the level we routinely ask of them. Understanding these differences shapes how Little Ripples  structures the curriculum and Ponds to better meet the needs of their students in the refugee camps of  eastern Chad, Africa. 

According to the NSCDC (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child), poverty conditions are characterized by chronic stressors such as overcrowding and noise, high mobility, substandard housing, extended separation from caregivers, proximity to danger and exposure to violence. At times of stress, the hormone cortisol actually helps us cope – helping us assess risk and choosing the appropriate option of freeze, fight or flight. Over time, however, elevated cortisol levels cause significant neurological differences in the growing brain. These can include maturation lags in the frontal lobe, which means a decreased attention span and lower working memory. Other studies have noted decreased hippocampal volumes, affecting students’ ability to create long-term memory pathways. Finally, brain surface in the frontal and temporal lobes can be diminished – the areas responsible for consequential thinking, planning and sequencing, and executive function.

Change the Experience and You Change the Brain

There is good news of the horizon, however. The brain is one of the most resilient organs in the body and it creates new learning and neural pathways much longer than previously supposed. Recent findings in brain plasticity indicate that early intervention can help reverse much of the damage caused by the cycles and stresses of poverty. As education speaker Eric Jensen puts it, “Change the experience, and you change the brain.” Little Ripples’ seeks to restack the deck for these children growing up in areas of food scarcity, displacement, and threat of violence through their innovative, research-based program.


Active, hands-on learning is key to engaging developing minds and to help young students learn through play. “Poor children often face a combination of deficits in … the ability to tune out unwanted distractions and focus on classroom activities” (Ojiaku, 2015). This means that often the same students who most need the instruction are the same ones who may have the hardest time paying attention in the traditional classroom. Little Ripples designs and trains teachers to deliver hands-on lessons in a kinesthetic way. Each classroom or Pond is provided a “Ripples Box” starter kit of materials that includes balls and materials for game-based learning. One of our greatest joys is seeing those moments when a Little Ripples classroom looks and sounds like “a real preschool” – children running, laughing and playing as they learn social-emotional and gross motor skills.  

Play time at Little Ripples, refugee camp Goz Amer.

Early Literacy:

Children raised in chronic poverty conditions often generally exhibit significantly lower vocabularies partly due to decreased working memory and impacted linguistic areas. These students, as they get older, are at an increasing disadvantage. They are less likely to know words used aloud in class, for example, or to understand grade-level text. Therefore, they are also more likely to give up, withdraw, or to disengage from learning at an earlier age than peers.The neurological differences associated with high stress and high cortisol also show up in decreased associative learning, critical thinking skills, reading comprehension, and language usage (Melville, 2015).

The LR curriculum is devoted to the promotion of early childhood literacy in the areas of language and math, with excellent results so far. In the first year of implementation, of 134 surveyed, the number of students who were able to count to 5 or higher increased from 43% to 73%. Finally, the number of students who were able to recite at least the first 10 letters of the alphabet increased from 45% to 83%. These are huge gains in the program’s first year and a solid foundation on which to build.

Social-Emotional Learning:

Little Ripples incorporates social-emotional learning into the curriculum and classroom culture, thus increasing students’ sense of belonging and security. Distressed children often exhibit behavioral as well as cognitive symptoms; “misbehavior” is often due to lowered social competence or lessened emotional literacy. Students raised in the chronic stresses of poverty may may seem apathetic, passive or disengaged. Others might demonstrate high impulsivity, use of inappropriate language, and/or lashing out at those around them, verbally or physically. Helping students identify and name their emotions is a core part of LR’s mindfulness curriculum; validating feelings in this way always the students to voice concerns and worries. It also helps them see patterns in their own behavior that may or may not be working for them. After a year of curriculum implementation in Camp Goz Amer, caregivers of Little Ripples students reported that violence (kicking, biting, or hitting) towards adults had decreased roughly 15%; violent and/or physically harmful interactions between children themselves decreased over 10%. In addition, many caregivers reported increases in positive social/emotional indicators among their children. 

A Little Ripples Pond teacher leading her students through a simple mindfulness breathing exercise.

Safe Space and Community Building:

By design, the Little Ripples model works to create a physically as well as emotionally safe space for children; the routine and daily schedule also adds structure and stability in a world that has been marked by uncertainty and sometimes traumatic change. The Ponds are home-based classrooms, with two teachers caring for and instructing up to 45 children, ages 3-5. Prior to Little Ripples’ presence, there were few services for children of this age, who were often left on their own or with older siblings as their parents farmed or searched for food. The meal that the students are served at their Ponds is prepared by neighbors and is a reliable source of sustenance in an increasingly food scarce environment. Finally, empowering refugee women to become teachers and leaders in their communities is another component of the Little Ripples training program that has tremendous impact – one that is spreading ripples of its own. On their Fall 2015 trip, our team held a leadership training at the request of other area NGOs; over 60 women participated in the event.

Fostering Hope with the Three Pillars

A little-mentioned casualty of low socioeconomic status can be an increased correlation with a more negative worldview. Sadly, growing up amid the chronic stresses of poverty can result in lowered expectations about the future. Developing hope through the three pillars of peace, helping and sharing is the basis of the LR curriculum. It is one area in which Little Ripples trainers and teachers can make change every day in the life of a child.

If you have any questions or comments about this blog or Little Ripples, please join the conversation below or send us an email.

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Elizabeth LeBlanc

Elizabeth Shuler LeBlanc is thrilled to be working with the i-ACT team as an Expert Teacher Adviser. Elizabeth graduated from Wake Forest University in 1998 with a BA in English Literature; she is currently pursuing a Masters of Education at NMSU with a focus on Educational Learning Technologies. Her love of travel and concern for vulnerable populations began during a college backpacking trip in Guilin, China. Elizabeth teaches Language Arts to students in grades 5-12 at Taos Academy Charter School where she also serves as Curriculum & Data Coordinator. Working with i-ACT brings together her passion for innovative design, early childhood literacy, global education and Emotional Intelligence/Six Seconds training. Elizabeth lives, works, plays and moms in the beautiful rivers and mountains of Taos, New Mexico.


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