This article allows readers to look at racial and ethnic disparities in school readiness from a neuroscience perspective. Although researchers have traditionally measured gaps in school readiness using broad achievement tests, they can now assess readiness in terms of more specific brain-based cognitive functions. Three neurocognitive systems—cognitive control, learning and memory, and reading—are essential for success in school. Thanks to recent advances in brain imaging, it is now possible to examine these three systems, each located in specific areas of the brain, by observing them in action as children engage in particular tasks.
Socioeconomic status—already linked with how well children do on skills tests generally—is particularly closely linked with how well they perform on tasks involving these crucial neurocognitive systems. Moreover, children's life experiences can influence their neurocognitive development and lead to functional and anatomical changes in their brains. Noting that chronic stress or abuse in childhood can impair development of the brain region involved in learning and memory, the authors show how the extreme stress of being placed in an orphanage leads to abnormal brain development and decreased cognitive functioning.
More optimistically, the authors explain that children's brains remain plastic and capable of growth and development. Targeted educational interventions thus have the promise of improving both brain function and behavior. Several such interventions, for example, both raise children's scores in tests of reading and increase activity in the brain regions most closely linked with reading. The brain regions most crucial for school readiness may prove quite responsive to effective therapeutic interventions—even making it possible to tailor particular interventions for individual children. The authors look ahead to the day when effective educational interventions can begin to close racial and socioeconomic gaps in readiness and achievement.