how does hunger affect learning

How Does Hunger Affect Learning?

Like falling dominos, childhood hunger can impact everything from a child’s physical and mental well-being to their academic experiences. With 75% of educators working with students who regularly come to school hungry, childhood hunger is easily one of the most pressing issues in schools today.

Hunger vs Food Insecurity

Hunger is not something we can measure; it's something we experience. Instead, researchers measure "food insecurity". Households that are food insecure are those that struggle to provide enough food for everyone living there at some point during the year.

We know that children without consistent access to nutritious meals are more likely to have a future filled with uncertainty, health issues, and personal challenges. If you think about the many ways in which academic performance can affect your future as an adult, it makes sense - hunger doesn’t just make learning difficult; it can also influence a child’s future. 

How Hunger Affects School Performance

When you feel hungry, how does it affect your focus? For most of us, hunger distracts us from the tasks at hand. Now, imagine you’re a child or teenager that is hungry and how it would affect your ability to learn new skills or focus in the classroom. 

In a pre-pandemic survey, nearly 60% of children from low-income communities said they had come to school hungry, and the majority of those kids admit that it makes school difficult. Of those children, 12% are too distracted by their hunger to be able to tackle their evening homework.

And teachers can see the effects of hunger as well: 

  • 80% observed the negative impact of hunger on concentration 
  • 76% saw decreased academic performance
  • 62% saw behavioral issues increased
  • 47% noticed children getting sick more often

Thankfully, school meals programs can make a world of difference for children in schools. While food insecurity among households with children persists, it is essential to spread awareness about the short- and long-term effects of hunger and the high value of school-based meals.

Cognitive Effects of Child Hunger

Nutritionally, childhood hunger can take a toll on children’s cognitive development – equally harmful is the constant stress and anxiety associated with hunger. Together, these factors affect children in many ways.

Longitudinal data suggest that children’s learning outcomes suffer when they regularly experience hunger and that nearly every aspect of physical and mental function is hurt as well. Food insecurity affects concentration, memory, mood, and motor skills, all of which a child needs to be able to be successful in school.

The Effects of Child Hunger on Social Behavior

Beyond academic achievement, hunger can hurt a child’s ability to build and strengthen their social-emotional skills. 

When children are hungry, they typically have less energy and the ability to focus. So you can imagine that feeling tired and distracted impacts a child’s social interactions and behavior. A child dealing with hunger may have a harder time forming friendships and interacting with friends, as well as maintaining self-control, or listening to instructions. 

Multiple studies have found connections between behavioral challenges and hunger, with some data pointing to hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in kindergarten.

Childhood Hunger and Kindergarten Readiness

Even before a child’s first day of school, experiences with hunger and food insecurity can have an impact on their academic future. 

Research has found that nutritional deficiencies such as iron deficiency in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life can impact their cognitive, socio-emotional, motor, and physiological health, even changing the actual structure of their brain. Though it’s often a challenge to separate hunger from the other impactful challenges experienced by families in low-income communities, scientists have suggested that there are links between academic performance and childhood hunger. 

Some data proposes that children experiencing hunger at home had lower scores in vocabulary and word recognition. The research also revealed the negative impacts of hunger on children’s social-emotional skills and approach to learning. In many cases, a child that enters kindergarten behind their peers will struggle to catch up, which affects their academic performance for years to come. 

Understanding the Relationship Between Stigma and Hunger

We know that school-based nutrition options, including the option to eat breakfast at school, translate into better academic achievement for students. Unfortunately, some children might feel social pressure from their peers that prevents them from taking advantage of the free or reduced-price meals available at school. For many children and teens, it can feel embarrassing to receive free or discounted meals; it can also be difficult not to be able to pay lunch fees or purchase “extras” that their friends enjoy. This issue can prevent solutions from being as effective as possible - but luckily, efforts are being made to change this. 

For example, a growing number of schools are making daily breakfasts for all students to participate in. Some schools are also offering grab-and-go meal and snack options so that students don’t need to separate from their peers. 

If you are a teacher or student interested in making a difference at your school, you can help by:

  • Working to spread awareness to end the stigma of hunger
  • Supporting school programs for nutrition and equity-like school meals programs 

How No Kid Hungry Strives to End Childhood Hunger 

No Kid Hungry is committed to finding sustainable solutions to help end childhood hunger in the United States - and we are constantly working on expanding equitable access to nutritious meals in as many ways as possible. 

We are helping many schools and community organizations provide meals to children, including free and reduced-price breakfast, lunch and after-school meals. One of our primary goals is to make sure no child ever has to come to school hungry, and you can be a part of our mission

For example, you can take action by advocating for laws that protect federal nutrition programs that feed children. You can also donate to No Kid Hungry. When you give, your donations go directly toward funding more school nutrition programs. No matter what steps you choose to take in the effort to solve the problem of childhood hunger, you're making a difference.


Image Credit: monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images