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Removing Barriers for Students in Poverty
March 10, 2016 | Volume 11 | Issue 13
Table of Contents
Restacking the Deck: How Teachers Can Counteract the Effects of Poverty on the Developing Mind
Elizabeth S. LeBlanc
In the field of education, teachers and administrators work hard to address the opportunity gap—or at least its outward symptoms. But what about the effects that we can't see as easily? The role of poverty in shaping the developing brain leads to measurable neurological differences. Understanding those differences can affect how teachers structure their classrooms to better meet the needs of learners.
The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child identifies some of the chronic stresses associated with poverty: substandard housing, overcrowding, noise, separation from caregiver(s), and proximity to violence (Ostrander, 2015). Prolonged exposure to these stressors can contribute to significant changes in a child's brain development. The hormone cortisol helps people handle stress in short bursts; over time, however, consistently elevated cortisol levels can lead to neurological differences, including maturation lags in the frontal and temporal lobes (Melville, 2015), decreased brain surface in the cerebral cortex (Ostrander, 2015), and lower hippocampal volumes (Frodl et al., 2006).
Poverty also affects students' language skills and selective attention skills, or the ability to tune out unwanted distractions and focus on classroom activities (Ojiaku, 2015). Other affected areas include associative learning, critical thinking skills, reading comprehension, and language usage (Melville, 2015). In essence, the same students who most need the instruction provided are those who may have the hardest time attending and engaging in the classroom. Recognizing the neurological diversity of students coming into the classroom is the first step in mitigating these issues.
Change the Experience, Change the Brain
Distressed students exhibit behavioral as well as cognitive symptoms; what may be termed "misbehavior" in the classroom is often due to low social competence. Students raised with the chronic stresses of poverty may demonstrate higher impulsivity, use of inappropriate language, and behavior that appears disrespectful. Alternately, they may display disengagement and passivity. Educating teachers to see misbehavior as teachable moments can help students get the support and skills they so desperately need to change these patterns.
Recent research in the field of neuroscience reveals that the human brain is much more plastic than previously believed (Ostrander, 2015). In other words, as author Eric Jensen advises, if you "change the experience, you change the brain" (2014). Educators wanting to counteract the effects of chronic stress and poverty-related learning differences should consider these five research-based strategies.
Create a safe space. Incorporate social-emotional learning into the curriculum and classroom culture to increase students' sense of belonging and security. Directly teaching emotional literacy, modeling strategies for navigating emotions, and identifying and evaluating patterns of behavior are all valuable components of helping students manage their responses in an acceptable and appropriate way. Set aside time and activities in each lesson that help students develop their executive functioning skills, like consequential thinking.
An additional casualty of low socioeconomic status is its association with a more negative worldview. In fact, Jensen says that "being poor is associated with lowered expectations about future outcomes" (2014). Increased findings in neural plasticity are hopeful: "there is every reason to believe that intervention early in life does reverse negative neural changes" (Melville, 2015). Developing hope, through access to academic and social-emotional curricula, is one area in which teachers can make positive changes, every day, in the educational life of students.
Frodl, T., Schaub, A., Banac, S., Charypar, M., Jäger, M., Kümmler, P., & Meisenzahl, E. (2006). Reduced hippocampal volume correlates with executive dysfunctioning in major depression. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, 31(5), 316–325.
Jensen, E. (2014). Why teach differently to those from poverty? Retrieved from http://www.jensenlearning.com/news/why-teach-differently-to-those-from-poverty/teaching-with-poverty-in-mind
Melville, N. (2015, July 28). Child poverty: Negative impact on brain development. Medscape Medical News. Retrieved from http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/848725
Ojiaku, P. (2015). How does poverty affect the brain? [Web log message]. Scientific American. Retrieved from http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/mind-guest-blog/how-does-poverty-affect-the-brain/
Ostrander, M. (2015, June). What poverty does to the young brain. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/what-poverty-does-to-the-young-brain
Elizabeth S. LeBlanc is an educator at Taos Academy Charter School, an innovative blended learning program in the high deserts of New Mexico, a rural high-poverty area. She also consults with Little Ripples, a nonprofit company that provides refugee-led early childhood education in western Chad, Africa.
ASCD Express, Vol. 11, No. 13. Copyright 2016 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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