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Hunger in the first few years of life has lasting effects on academic achievement

Mar 31, 2017

Children who experience hunger may lag developmentally behind their peers starting as early as kindergarten. That's according to a new study published in the journal Child Development.

Study authors suggest that dealing with hunger in the first five years of life can hurt school performance not only in kindergarten, but for years to come.

Researchers analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education, which followed more than 10,000 kids born in low-income households in 2000.

They found early experiences of hunger correlated with poor performance in kindergarten. And the earlier a child experienced hunger, the stronger the effect later on. Anna Johnson is a psychologist and study author. She told NPR:

When children were 9 months old, those who experienced food insecurity were more likely five years later, in kindergarten, to have lower reading and math scores than similar low-income 9-month-olds who didn't experience food insecurity. They were also more likely to be hyperactive and throw tantrums in the classroom. Many previous studies have shown that kids who enter the kindergarten door behind, tend to stay behind. They do not catch up.

It's no secret that it's important to have access to adequate, healthy food. Previous studies show hungry kids have lower grades, are more likely to repeat a grade, come to school late or are absent, according to the National Education Association.

And although student participation in programs like the USDA School Breakfast Program is associated with improved cognitive performance and better grades, it doesn't solve the problem. According to The Washington Post:

Breakfast and lunch programs in schools are making great strides in attacking childhood hunger, but a huge gap remains. According to No Kid Hungry, a quarter of all low-income parents worry their kids don’t have enough to eat between school lunch and breakfast the next day; and three out of four public school teachers say students regularly come to school hungry. Increasingly, advocates are focusing on programs that ensure kids have enough to eat when they are not in school, and after school and summer meal programs are on the rise.

Authors of the study suggest effects on early development could also be an indirect result of parents being hungry due to skipping meals to ensure their kids are properly fed. According to Johnson:

They're not playing games with the children, they're not getting down to their levels and playing a puzzle and talking about colors, or holding the child in their lap and tickling their feet and singing songs to them. All of these things we know to be important for supporting early brain development.

John Cook is the lead scientist at Boston Medical Center's Children's Health Watch. He told NPR the recent findings reinforce the importance of assistance programs like SNAP and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Food Nutrition Service.

It really highlights the range of effects that food insecurity can have on a child's readiness to learn, which then sets the tone for their academic attainment, essentially for the rest of their school years. Those programs have been proven to be very effective in proving both the food security and the health of school children and enabling them to go to school ready to learn.

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