Utilizing Our Understanding of Brain Science

Utilizing Our Understanding of Brain Science to Strengthen Workforce Engagament

How is the brain impacted by poverty?

A person’s brain development is strongly affected by their environment. Exposure to environmental risk factors such as poverty, social bias, and trauma and other related risk factors directly impact the development of the prefrontal cortex and limbic system. These areas of the brain deal with executive functioning, which includes problem-solving, decision-making, goal-setting, goal-attainment skills, and other skills that are critical to a person’s employability, and in affect, their ability to be socially and economically stable.


In other words, the inherent stress of living in poverty has the capacity to negatively impact the cognitive and behavioral skills that low-income people need to prepare for, attain, and retain employment opportunities that can bring them out of poverty. There is growing research that supports that the developed adult brain is more flexible than previously thought, and under the right conditions, individuals can stimulate further development of the prefrontal cortex and limbic system and improve their executive functioning skills significantly.


Applying brain science to workforce engagement

This area of science and its application in human services delivery is new and largely untested. There are a few brain science-informed approaches to human services delivery and participant engagement that are delivering promising outcomes; however, there are almost none that specifically deal with employability, work readiness, and other aspects of workforce engagement. Using the existing research and tools in the area, as well as employability skills frameworks such as the National Network of Business and Industry Associations’ COMMON EMPLOYABILITY SKILLS model, the Center for Employment & Economic Well-Being (CEEWB) will take a closer look at how the stress of living in poverty impacts people’s work readiness and employability, and how the human services, workforce development, and education systems can utilize this understanding to better serve and empower unemployed and underemployed workers.


About the National Network of Business and Industry Associations’ COMMON EMPLOYABILITY SKILLS

There are certain foundational skills that all employers look for in prospective employees. These core skills are common across industries; however, they have not always talked about or labeled the same way. The National Network of Business and Industry Associations brought together the organizations that represent employers from major economic sectors, and worked together to identify the basic skills that potential employees need in the workplace. The resulting COMMON EMPLOYABILITY SKILLS model helps job seekers know what basic skills employers in any industry look for, and helps educators and trainers to know what foundational skills to emphasize in their programs. Each of the four skill sets in the model—Personal Skills, People Skills, Applied Knowledge, and Workplace Skills—are connected to the parts of the brain that can be significantly negatively impacted by stress of living in poverty and experiencing structural inequality.


What are executive skills?

Executive skills—also referred to as executive functions, executive control, cognitive skills or cognitive control—are defined as “a collection of top-down control processes used when going on automatic or relying on instinct or intuition would be ill-advised, insufficient, or impossible” (Diamond, 2013). There are three core executive functions that serve as the foundation of higher order executive skills:


Inhibition (inhibitory control): controlling one’s attention, behavior, thoughts, and/or emotions to override a strong internal predisposition or external lure


Working memory: holding information in mind and mentally working with it


Cognitive flexibility: changing perspectives or approaches to a problem, flexibility adjusting to new demands, rules, or priorities


Executive skills are critical to nearly all aspects of life, including mental and physical health, school readiness and success, family harmony, and the aspect of greatest concern for the CEEWB, work readiness and success (Diamond, 2013).



Crittenton Women’s Union. (2014). Using brain science to design new pathways out of poverty. Boston, MA: Babcock, E. D.


Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. The Annual Review of Psychology, 64, (135-168).


National Network of Business and Industry Associations. (2014). Common employability skills. Available at http://www.nationalnetwork.org/.


Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education. Employability skills framework. Available at http://cte.ed.gov/employabilityskills/.

Spotlight on...

Ramsey County, Minnesota


Integrating Executive Functioning Principles, and Soft Skills Activities, and Case Management Coaching into TANF Work Programs in order to Improve Economic Success for TANF Recipients [U.S. DHHS, ACF, Office of Family Assistance Webinar – February 2015]

This presentation explains Ramsey County, Minnesota’s motivations to transform its workforce programs based on evidence-based and evidence-informed interventions. Ramsey County tested multiple interventions, including an enhanced coaching pilot that incorporates coaching with executive skills informed interventions, strategies, and tools.


Coaching and Executive Skills/Lifelong Learning Initiative [Presented at the National Association for Welfare Research and Statistics’ 2015 Annual Workshop – August 2015]

This presentation outlines Ramsey County, Minnesota’s Lifelong Learning Initiative, whichdeveloped and implemented a program infrastructure that supports coaching as a tool to strengthen executive functioning skills, leading to long-term education and employment goal achievement.


Building Better Programs – Executive Functioning is a project of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The website’s section on Executive Functioning includes materials that describe what executive functioning skills are, provides examples of programs that build executive function skills or use executive function principles in their program designs. This website is rich in resources for programs interested in using executive function principles to improve their work and other human service programs. Building Better Programs’ Executive Functioning Webinar Series includes topics specifically related to employment programs.


This is Your Stressed-Out Brain on Scarcity (Podcast)

    NPR’s All Things Considered, July 14, 2014


Conference Presentations

The Psychology of Poverty – How Understanding Executive Functions can Improve Public Assistance Programs [Presented at the National Association for Welfare Research and Statistics’ 2015 Annual Workshop – August 2015]

This presentation by the Public Consulting Group not only explains what executive functioning skills are, and how they are impacted by poverty and stress, it also offers a number of suggestion for how to practically and successfully apply executive functioning-informed design to public programs, including workforce and employment programs.


Understanding Psychological Processes and Executive Functioning Principles in Human Services Programs [Video of Welfare Research and Evaluation Conference (WREC) 2014 Plenary Session – May 2014]

This plenary session addresses the implications of executive functioning research for human services programs and examines how emerging insights can strengthen programs designed to help families achieve self-sufficiency.


Papers, Briefs, and Reports

Behavior and Brain Sciences Help Optimize Labor Programs

    Association for Psychological Science, August 2017


Poverty Interrupted: Applying Behavioral Science to the Context of Chronic Scarcity

    Allison Daminger, Jonathan Hayes, Anthony Barrows, and Josh Wright, ideas24, May 2014


Using Brain Science to Design New Pathways Out of Poverty

    Elisabeth D. Babcock, MCRP, PhD, Crittenton Women’s Union, January 2014


Behavioral Interventions for Labor-Related Programs

    Mathematica Policy Research for the U.S. Department of Labor



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