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Teaching with poverty in mind: what being poor does to kids’ brains and what schools can do about it: Part 1

| August 22, 2016 | 0 Comments

By Erik Jensen

In May 2016, The South A frican Early Childhood Review – an annual publication providing data‚ analysis and commentary on over 40 statistical indicators measuring the progress of early childhood development (ECD) service delivery across multiple government departments‚ including health‚ social development and education – was released.

The study, undertaken jointly by ECD non-profit organisation Ilifa Labantwana, the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town and the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation in the Presidency, found that about 3 969 000 (63%) of young South African children live in poverty.

Some of these children may sit in your classroom every day, or in the classrooms of schools in your neighbouring communities. In order that teachers and school administrators may better understand how to assist poverty-stricken families, Independent Education is proud to present the first in a series of extracts from a seminal work by Erik Jensen, titled Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It (Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, 2009).

Recent evidence suggests that the complex web of social relationships that students experience – with peers, adults in the school, and family members – exerts a much greater influence on their behaviour than researchers had previously assumed.

This process starts with students’ core relationships with parents or primary caregivers in their lives, which form a personality that is either secure and attached or insecure and unattached. Securely attached children typically behave better in school. Once students are in school, the dual factors of socialisation and social status contribute significantly to behaviour. The school socialisation process typically pressures students to be like their peers or risk social rejection, whereas the quest for high social status drives students to attempt to differentiate themselves in some areas – sports, personal style, sense of humour or street skills, for example.

Socio-economic status forms a huge part of this equation. Children raised in poverty rarely choose to behave differently, but they are faced daily with overwhelming challenges that affluent children never have to confront, and their brains have adapted to suboptimal conditions in ways that undermine good school performance.

A better understanding of these challenges points to actions educators can take to help their less-advantaged students succeed.

Emotional and social challenges

Many low socio-economic status (SES) children face emotional and social instability. Typically, the weak or anxious attachments formed by infants in poverty become the basis for full-blown insecurity during the early childhood years. Very young children require healthy learning and exploration for optimal brain development. Unfortunately, in impoverished families there tends to be a higher prevalence of such adverse factors as teen motherhood, depression and inadequate healthcare, all of which lead to decreased sensitivity towards the infant and, later, poor school performance and behaviour on the child’s part.

The process of attunement

Beginning at birth, the attachment formed between parent and child predicts the quality of future relationships with teachers and peers and plays a leading role in the development of such
social functions as curiosity, arousal, emotional regulation, independence and social competence. The brains of infants are hardwired for only six emotions: joy, anger, surprise, disgust, sadness and fear. To grow up emotionally healthy, children under three need:
a strong, reliable primary caregiver who provides consistent and unconditional love, guidance and support
safe, predictable, stable environments
10 to 20 hours each week of harmonious, reciprocal interactions. This process, known as attunement, is most crucial during the first six to 24 months of infants’ lives and helps them develop a wider range of healthy emotions, including gratitude, forgiveness and empathy
enrichment through personalised, increasingly complex activities.

Children raised in poverty are much less likely to have these crucial needs met than their more affluent peers are and, as a result, are subject to some grave consequences. Deficits in these areas inhibit the production of new brain cells, alter the path of maturation and rework the healthy neural circuitry in children’s brains, thereby undermining emotional and social development and predisposing them to emotional dysfunction.

A constant lack of adequate care in the home

In many poor households, parental education is substandard, time is short and warm emotions are at a premium – all factors that put the attunement process at risk. Caregivers tend to be overworked, overstressed and authoritarian with children, using the same harsh disciplinary strategies used by their own parents. They often lack warmth and sensitivity and fail to form solid, healthy relationships with their children.

In addition, low-income caregivers are typically half as likely as higher-income parents are to be able to track down where their children are in the neighbourhood, and frequently they do not know the names of their children’s teachers or friends. One American study found that only 36% of low-income parents were involved in three or more school activities on a regular basis, compared with 59% of parents above the poverty line.

Low SES children are often left home to fend for themselves and their younger siblings while their caregivers work long hours; compared with their well-off peers, they spend less time playing outdoors and more time watching television and are less likely to participate in after-school activities.

Unfortunately, children won’t get the model for how to develop proper emotions or respond appropriately to others from watching cartoons; they need warm, person-to-person interactions. The failure to form positive relationships with peers inflicts long-term socio-emotional consequences.

Too few trusting environments

The human brain “downloads” the environment indiscriminately in an attempt to understand and absorb the surrounding world, whether that world is positive or negative. When children gain a sense of mastery of their environments, they are more likely to develop feelings of self-worth, confidence and independence, which play heavily into the formation of children’s personalities and ultimately predict their success and happiness in relationships and in life in general.

Economic hardship makes it more difficult for caregivers to create the trusting environments that build children’s secure attachments. Behaviour research shows that children from impoverished homes develop psychiatric disturbances and maladaptive social functioning at a greater rate than their affluent counterparts do. In addition, low SES children are more likely to have social conduct problems, as rated by both teachers and peers over a period of four years. Unfortunately, a study of negative emotionality and maternal support found that low-income parents were less able than were well-off parents to adjust their parenting to the demands of higher-needs children.

Effects of poverty on parents

Low-income parents are often overwhelmed by diminished self-esteem, depression and a sense of powerlessness and inability to cope – feelings that may get passed along to their children in the form of insufficient nurturing, negativity and a general failure to focus on children’s needs. In a study of emotional problems of children of single mothers, it was found that found that the stress of poverty increases depression rates among mothers, which results in an increased use of physical punishment. Children themselves are also susceptible to depression: research shows that poverty is a major predictor of teenage depression.

Effects of poverty on school behaviour and performance

Strong, secure relationships help stabilise children’s behaviour and provide the core guidance needed to build lifelong social skills. Children who grow up with such relationships learn healthy, appropriate emotional responses to everyday situations. But children raised in poor households often fail to learn these responses, to the detriment of their school performance. For example, students with emotional dysregulation may get so easily frustrated that they give up on a task when success was just moments away. And social dysfunction may inhibit students’ ability to work well in cooperative groups, quite possibly leading to their exclusion by group members who believe they aren’t “doing their part” or “pulling their share of the load”. This exclusion and the accompanying decrease in collaboration and exchange of information exacerbate at-risk students’ already shaky academic performance and behavior.

Some teachers may interpret students’ emotional and social deficits as a lack of respect or manners, but it is more accurate and helpful to understand that the students come to school with a narrower range of appropriate emotional responses than we expect. The truth is that many children simply don’t have the repertoire of necessary responses. It is as though their brains’ “emotional keyboards” play only a few notes (see Figure 1).

The proper way to deal with such a deficit is first to understand students’ behaviour and then to lay out clear behavioral expectations without sarcasm or resentment. Understand that children raised in poverty are more likely to display:
• “acting-out” behaviours
• impatience and impulsivity
• gaps in politeness and social graces
• a more limited range of behavioural responses
• inappropriate emotional responses
• less empathy for others’ misfortunes.
These behaviours will likely puzzle, frustrate or irritate teachers who have less experience teaching students raised in poverty, but it’s important to avoid labelling, demeaning or blaming students. It is much easier to condemn a student’s behaviour and demand that he or she change it than it is to help the student change it. Every proper response that you don’t see at your school is one that you need to be teaching. Rather than telling kids to “be respectful”, demonstrate appropriate emotional responses and the circumstances in which to use them, and allow students to practice applying them. To shift your own responses to inappropriate behaviour, reframe your thinking: expect students to be impulsive, to blurt inappropriate language and to act “disrespectful” until you teach them stronger social and emotional skills and until the social conditions at your school make it attractive not to do those things.

It’s impossible to overemphasise this: every emotional response other than the six hardwired emotions of joy, anger, surprise, disgust, sadness and fear must be taught. Cooperation, patience, embarrassment, empathy, gratitude and forgiveness are crucial to a smoothly running complex social environment (like a classroom). When students lack these learned responses, teachers who expect humility or penitence may get a smirk instead, a response that may lead teachers to believe the student has an “attitude”. It’s the primary caregiver’s job to teach the child when and how to display these emotional responses, but when students do not bring these necessary behaviours to school, the school must teach them.

What all students do bring to school are three strong “relational” forces that drive their school behaviours:
1. The drive for reliable relationships Students want the safety of a primary safe and reliable relationship. Students would prefer parents, positive friends and teachers, but they’d take an “iffy” friend if no one else were available. The relationships that teachers build with students form the single strongest access to student goals, socialisation, motivation and academic performance. For your school to foster high achievement, every student will need a reliable partner or mentor.
2. The strengthening of peer socialisation Socialisation is the drive for acceptance that encourages students to imitate their peers and join groups, from clubs to cliques to gangs. Students want to belong somewhere. Evidence suggests that it is peers, not parents, who have the greatest influence on school-age students. If your school aims to improve student achievement, academic success must be culturally acceptable among your students.
3. The quest for importance and social status. This is the quest to feel special. Students compete for attention and social elevation by choosing roles that will distinguish them (e.g. athlete, comedian, storyteller, gang leader, scholar or style maverick). Kids are very interested in what other kids do, whether others like them, and how they rate on the social scale. Every student will need to feel like the “status hunt” can just as well lead to better grades as better behaviours.

Each of these forces shapes behaviours in significant ways. Schools that succeed use a combination of formal and informal strategies to influence these three domains. Informally, teachers can incorporate classroom strategies that build relationships and strengthen peer acceptance and social skills in class. This is a fair warning to all teachers: do not dismiss the so-called “soft side” of students’ lives, the social side. It runs their brains, their feelings and their behaviours – and those three run cognition! There is a complex interplay between cognition and emotions. When students feel socialised and accepted, they perform better academically. However, pushing students harder and harder into performing well academically may conflict with social/ relational success. You will hit a test score ceiling until you include students’ emotional and social lives in your school “makeover”.

Category: Spring 2016

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