Why hungry children can’t learn – and why I’m ashamed

I was one of the early signatories of this letter. I am not a big letter-signer but I had no hesitation about this because I am very upset by the idea of children sitting in class without food in their stomachs. I’m not just upset because I’m a caring person and suffering distresses me, as it should. I’m upset because I know that hunger prevents the brain from taking in information properly. It makes me shudder that some children, already disadvantaged, should be prevented from learning and thinking and growing their brains.

I teach young people that their brains are in our hands, by which I mean that there are many things we can each do, even young people, to make our brains work better for us. But this is simply not true for people who are hungry. The last thing on their minds is learning about maths or history or even how to look after their well-being. The only things on their mind are hunger and distress.

Food is our most basic need. Without it, we eventually die. Without enough of it – and of the right variety – our bodily and mental functions weaken and fail. So, when the brain detects a potential scarcity of food, it diverts bandwidth and attention towards the need to find food. Finding food becomes, to the brain, far more important than listening to a teacher or reading the words on the page or doing well in a test. Who needs to do well in a test when starvation beckons?

The behaviour of the brain when it detects life-threatening scarcity is beautifully described in a brilliant book, Scarcity: the true cost of not having enough by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. The authors show that when the brain detects scarcity of an essential resource, it diverts attention and energy towards urgently replenishing that resource. Attention or brain bandwidth is finite, so when you divert some of it towards a major task, there is less left for another major task. Listening to a teacher or reading information or trying to concentrate on producing your best work are always major tasks. They require a lot of bandwidth.

 

You do not want anything diverting attention away from learning. Remember, too, that “learning” includes ALL new information. Hunger blocks information from going in and being processed. So, this is not only about exam results but everything.

Stress is something else that has this same bandwidth-diverting effect. I talk about this in my teacher training sessions on The Learning Brains in Your Classroom, in which I explain what happens to our ability to procTeenagers and negative friendships; excerpt from The Teenage Guide to Friends by Nicola Morganess information when we are under pressure from something else. (I offer strategies, too, and one of them is to follow the Table of Wellbeing, with its four legs, the first of which is “food and water”.)

Hunger or distress are the two worst states of mind/brain if you want children to learn well. They simply can’t take in the information or process it into longterm memory. If the children in your class (or household) are hungry, they aren’t learning.

The children who are hungry in class will fall behind those from more fortunate households. That is what upsets me. I don’t really have a word for how much it upsets me. That is why I signed the letter.

I call on the government and all those with power to ensure that none of our children are hungry. Their education depends on it. Their future lives and freedoms depend on it. This is our society. It shames me that children are hungry in my society.

 

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