4 min read

If kids were bonds…

If kids were bonds…

There is a great deal to be depressed about in this week’s selection of recent research—so many ways in which futures are stolen for kids and society. But every paper also points to a change we can make for something better.

Chronic stress kills childhoods

"Lower family income and exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are significantly associated with earlier eruption of the first permanent molars." In other words, chronic stress steals childhood.

Early life stress is associated with earlier emergence of permanent molars

Rhythmic sleepy brain

If the following apply to audiobooks, I'm screwed: listening to instrumental music before bed produces night-time earworms and "worsened polysomnography-measured sleep quality". In fact…

Bedtime Music, Involuntary Musical Imagery, and Sleep

Music just before bed seems to increase in "frontal slow oscillation activity, a marker of sleep-dependent memory consolidation". These bedtime earworms hijack our hippocampus like a mimetic virus. There's got to be a scifi story in that.

In any case, your "sleepytime chill mix" is probably not helping like you thought.

The good and bad of diverse schools

My son tested into an advanced math course but didn't like the class culture. So, he chose to stay with the regular class while supplementing with self-study materials. Does the research suggest whether this will help or hurt him?...

One paper found that grouping elite students together does raise "average human capital", but that it "decreases intergenerational mobility" in the remaining students. On net, the longer-term community-wide gain of mixing students outweighs near-term small losses to elites...

Another paper on intergenerational mobility found "at least 1/3 of long-term persistence is attributed to environmental factors." The diffusion of resilience throughout a school via peer role modeling likely lifts the majority of students, while those student's starting with advantages experience relatively little decrement...

So, my son's math outcomes might be a bit behind similar students in the advanced class, but his preference for the "less regimented class" might actually produce greater long-term gains...

But my son is not an average kid (in so many ways) and a little chaos in the classroom might actually help him. In fact, schools should disconnect culture and content, and offer a more regimented basic class along with a more chaotic advanced class. Culture and capacity ought to be independent factors.

On a related note, Heckman and colleagues find that support for at-risk families has benefits that diffuse through the entire family, and returns $9 for every dollar invested. In the long run, more equitable, integrated schools almost certainly means more absolute gains for everyone.

No babysitters

Disparities in college graduation between- and low-income "were reduced the more months that low-income children spent in early care and education (ECE)”, but wage disparities were only reduced by "sustained high-quality ECE.”

This is a common finding in the research literature: early life interventions provide transient and limited benefits unless they are high-quality, sustained experiences…

If you are concerned that "high-quality, sustained" care might be expensive for society, Heckman and colleagues find they return $7 for every dollar invested.

Subjective Utility & Scholarships

What happens if high-performing, low-SES students are guaranteed scholarships that they'd likely earn eventually anyhow? For perfectly rational agents it shouldn't change anything, but for real people it more than doubled application and enrollment rates. Another example of experience-dependent "subjective utility"!

Subjective Utility: even when people fully understand the relative costs and benefits of a choice, experience-dependent learning can meaningfully shift choices toward policies that have produced greater past reward. In other words...

...smart kids and their families understand the value of university but lack lived experience of it improving their lives. Hard-working, under-represented employees understand the value of putting time into their jobs but having little experience of it actually paying off for people like them.

Heckmann on long-term gains

Numerous papers last year revealed the profound benefits of early childhood enrichment for at-risk kids. When these kids grow up they have significantly greater IQ, cognitive flexibility, grit, conscientiousness, and executive function, with decreased depressive symptoms, substance use, health risk taking, and social inhibition.

Furthermore, these positive effects don’t stop with recipients. Their children have “higher levels of education and employment”, “lower levels of criminal activity”, and “better health”.

Pollution steals futures

If pollution-related habitat loss and the occasional extinction don’t worry you, how about brain damage?

Increased exposure is “associated with poorer reasoning and problem solving and higher-trait anxiety/depression” in individuals, as well as changes in “working memory and stress-related” information processing.

But wait, there’s more...

“White and Native American populations have” consistently lower exposure to pollutants than “Black, Asian and Hispanic or Latino populations.” And unsurprisingly, “areas with low-income populations have been consistently exposed to higher” pollution levels, with disparities “increasing over time.”

Pollution is stealing our future.

Adolescent Thalamus

This one is just for the thalamus fans out there: “inhibiting the mediodorsal and midline thalamus in mice during adolescence…caused prefrontal-dependent cognitive deficits during adulthood” by decreasing thalamo–prefrontal projection density”.

Take away: kids need enriched environments and good sleep.

Break the Cycle

As many of you read, infants whose parents received direct cash payments showed evidence of greater cognitive function (increased gamma-band activity) at year 1. There are many dots to be connected here, but the result is quite promising. My own project pairs gamma-band stimulation for kids with learning disabilities and adults with dementia. The results are incredibly exciting.

Stress steals futures

In our research on long-term life outcomes, anxiety (bad) and cognitive ability (good) are recurring factors; however, I’ve always suspected that traits like these might interact rather than operating independently. Sure enough, new findings suggest that “cognitive ability may ameliorate trait anxiety”.

The research affirmed that “early-life socioeconomic deprivation…was associated with lower cognitive ability in adolescence (at age 13) as well as higher trait anxiety in young adulthood (at age 23/24)”, but that “higher cognitive ability in adolescence predicted lower trait anxiety in young adulthood.”

Same as it ever was

For “over 95 years in Britain the association between family SES and children’s primary school performance has remained stable.” When I read findings like this I can only wonder how many generations of inventors, scientists, and entrepreneurs instead spent their lives in coal mines or fulfillment centers because we couldn’t be bothered to secure the same opportunities for other kids as we do for our own.

Worse job training program ever

“Roughly one in four juveniles arrested in the U.S. spend time in a detention center prior to their court date” despite the fact that “juvenile detention leads to a 31% decline in the likelihood of graduating high school and a 25% increase in the likelihood of being arrested as an adult.”

Worst job training program ever.