Newswise — Low-income children tend to do poorly on high-stakes academic achievement tests. A pilot study led by Deborah Waber, PhD in Children's Hospital Boston's Department of Psychiatry suggests their low scores may arise from developmental issues " particularly in "executive" functions like organization, planning and control over thoughts and actions.

Poverty-related factors like poor nutrition, exposure to violence or toxic agents and disorganized or stressful environments can disrupt children's developing nervous systems, Waber says.

Using cognitive testing and teacher questionnaires, the study evaluated 91 fifth-graders from two low-income Boston schools. Overall, the children's executive functions were poorer than average, and more than half had "failing" or "needs improvement" scores on the fourth-grade like the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) English and math tests. Executive function correlated closely with MCAS performance: Tests of mental processing speed and short-term memory, combined with teacher ratings (on items like finishing assignments, checking work for mistakes and organization of desk and backpack), accurately predicted whether a child would pass or fail the MCAS 86 percent of the time.

Waber now hopes to expand her study, recently published in the journal Developmental Neuropsychology. She believes that funds used for testing would be better spent on early diagnostic assessment and helping children develop executive functions, through measures like smaller classrooms in the younger grades, explicit teaching of organizational skills, teacher support and adoption of special-education techniques in general education.

Children's Hospital Boston is the nation's premier pediatric medical center. Founded in 1869 as a 20-bed hospital for children, today it is a 347-bed comprehensive center for pediatric and adolescent health care grounded in the values of excellence in patient care and sensitivity to the complex needs and diversity of children and families. More than 100 outpatient specialty clinics are located at Children's. Children's Hospital Boston is the primary pediatric teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, home to the world's leading pediatric research enterprise, and the largest provider of health care to the children of Massachusetts. For more information about the hospital visit:

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Developmental Neuropsychology