In a new study that examined the effects of poverty and trauma on young refugees’ cognitive skills, researchers found that only poverty appears to have lasting effects on working memory.
“Our results suggest that the minds of young refugees are under the siege of poverty,” said Kristin Hadfield, assistant professor of psychology at Queen Mary University of London, a coauthor of the report.
“Even when adolescents are exposed to very high levels of war violence, it is poverty that influences their working memory. Our study suggests that aspects of adolescent refugees’ living situations after being displaced may be more important to their cognitive function than their exposure to war.”
For about a decade, researchers have studied whether trauma or poverty is the most powerful influence on children’s cognitive abilities.
In the latesta study, a multi-university international research team (Harvard University, Yale University, Queen Mary University of London Hashemite University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) compared adolescents living in Jordan — refugees and nonrefugees — to determine what kinds of experiences affected their executive function (the higher-order cognitive skills needed for thinking abstractly, making decisions, and carrying out complex plans).
Their findings, published in the journal Child Development, conclude that poverty worsens refugee youth’s working memory.
From 2015 to 2016, the team evaluated 240 Syrian refugee youth and 210 Jordanian nonrefugee youth ages 12 to 18. The youth lived in urban communities in northern Jordan close to an active war zone in nearby Syria.
The Syrian refugee youth had been in Jordan an average of almost three years, so the two groups of youth were exposed in different ways to war-related violence and ongoing poverty. Syrian refugees had experienced extreme adversity and stress; by contrast, Jordanian peers had experienced less exposure to both poverty and the violence of war.
The researchers assessed working memory (the ability to keep goals in mind) and inhibitory control (the ability to resist doing things you haven’t planned to do); both are important for children’s learning abilities and social development.
Using tablet-based tasks, the researchers looked at four factors: the youth’s poverty, levels of exposure to trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and insecurity. Then they conducted analyses to test whether these factors predicted the teens’ performance on the tasks related to working memory and inhibitory control.
The study concluded that refugees and nonrefugees did not differ significantly in their working memory or inhibitory control, suggesting that exposure to war-related trauma may not have lasting impacts on executive function. However, the researchers found that poverty worsened the refugee youth’s working memory.
The study reflects similar findings on U.S. children living in poverty, for whom exposure to poverty and violence has been found to have different influences on executive function skills.
This research is the first to test the cognitive signatures of childhood exposures to trauma and poverty in refugee and nonrefugee youth. The study is limited in relying on a few measures to assess cognitive skills, and in relying on the recall of trauma exposures which can be biased by memory and experiences of PTSD. Also, the refugee youth had been out of Syria for three years on average, so the war traumas were not recent.
“In crisis settings, many health and humanitarian interventions are funded to boost social and emotional learning,” explains Catherine Panter-Brick, professor of anthropology, health, and global affairs at Yale University, who coauthored the article.
“Our study signals the need to address the ongoing poverty experienced by children and adolescents affected by war, a problem that may seem less visible and urgent than the consequences of war-related stress or trauma.”
“Our findings suggest that household poverty can influence working memory, and by extension, learning outcomes, educational achievement, and labor force participation.”