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October 1, 2021

How Poverty and Stress Influence Students' Behavior

Disciplining compassionately means keeping in mind how poverty can affect the brain.
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Social-emotional learning
Classroom Management
October 2021 Sanchez thumbnail image: Illustration of a face peering through walls of color.
Credit: October 2021
Educators must be especially conscious of using compassionate discipline with students living in poverty. Imagine the stresses felt while growing up poor—insecurity about the basics, living in unsafe conditions, perhaps having untreated health conditions or a parent in jail. Research shows that living in poverty can produce changes in the human brain—from decision making to empathy. As an educational consultant who helps schools apply neuroscience findings, I feel it's crucial that teachers understand how poverty can affect the brain.
The stresses of living in poverty often cause a loss of grey matter in the prefrontal cortex, which plays a role in complex cognitive tasks, social behavior, and decision making. Living in poverty is also correlated with a drop in brain white matter; this lowers communication between the cortex and the amygdala and reduces self-control (Javanbakht et al., 2015). The prefrontal cortex takes a long time to develop, so it's highly susceptible to environmental and experiential factors.
Poverty also affects the amygdala, which produces emotions and helps us respond to others' social cues. When the prefrontal cortex's control is compromised, the amygdala frequently overrides the "rational brain," producing a loss of emotional control and inappropriate behavior. The amygdala's ability to accurately assess social situations can be weakened by constant low-grade stress, and the combination of reduced cortex control and a hypersensitive amygdala can increase aggressive reactions, even if another person's facial expressions are simply perceived as negative (Marsh & Ambady, 2007). Consider how many behavior problems in schools stem from such hypersensitivity—and that changes in a student's brain may truly make it harder for that child to let perceived slights go or stay calm.

Poverty and Empathy

Growing up in poverty can also dampen the development of empathy due to a range of stresses, including stress on parents. Although empathy is built into our DNA, we aren't born with it fully developed. Empathy begins with infant-mother attachment. Around age 11, our ability to assess other people's emotions undergoes a sharp increase, and around age 13, there's an increase in our ability to appropriately respond to others' emotional needs. We hit a peak in assessing others' emotional cues and responding appropriately during young adulthood (Burke & Mackay, 1997).
Infant-mother attachment is critical because it lowers cortisol, a stress hormone that interferes with the development of empathy. One study indicated that cortisol is often higher in infants from low-income homes, presumably due to parental stresses and hardships that make attachment more difficult (Blair et al., 2011). Since responding to the emotional needs of others is key to cooperating with peers and forming friendships, the potential link between the effects of poverty, empathy, and student behavior is important to recognize.

Increase Empathy

Community service or helping younger children can develop empathy and altruism in students and broaden their cognitive flexibility.

Reducing Poverty's Harm

Fortunately, caring teachers can help reduce or reverse the harmful neurological effects of poverty. Here are three ways to strengthen low-income students' natural capacity for self-control, social behavior, and empathy.

Forge a Positive Social Climate

The amygdala is naturally alerted in new situations and when meeting new people. That alertness is often higher when meeting people who seem different from us—and may be stronger for students living in poverty, due to frequent experiences of insecurity (Puccetti et al., 2021). Consider, for instance, students transitioning to a new school with a large, diverse student population. The risk for misreading social cues and reacting inappropriately rises.
Neuroscientists know that when people discover they have something in common, the amygdala's alertness lowers. So a great way to establish a positive social climate in which students become more relaxed and trusting of each other is to do a series of activities that help students discover things they have in common (Bauer et al., 2019). Teachers might survey students about things they like, then have students with similar interests work together in a group. Since the amygdala responds strongly to symbol, assign a symbol to each "in common" answer and display it at each group table (like a red circle for those whose favorite color is red). Repeat this process until all students have had some opportunity to work together. Physical cooperative activities are ideal; they have greater power than do strict academic assignments to help students realize that they can get along.
Do such activities before natural like-minded groups form in the class. If a student's amygdala remains on high alert because of perceived differences with students in another group before a positive social climate is established, the risk of conflict between group members increases.

We should teach students how to let down their defenses and connect with other students when they first meet.

Author Image

Horacio Sanchez

Teach Social Skills

Many behavioral issues in schools are rooted in social conflict. Larger settings are more likely to promote some social unease for most students—and higher levels of anxiety for many students from poverty—so educators in large schools encounter this issue often.
We should teach all students how to let down their defenses and connect with other students when they first meet. Because the amygdala is always on alert for threats, students who present with threatening or unreadable expressions arouse the amygdala, reducing their chances for social bonding. Teaching students to establish trust and common connections in talking with someone gives them social skills for a lifetime.

Increase Empathy

People can develop empathy and altruism through acts of kindness, which increase activity in the parietal cortex (Weng et al., 2013). Teachers might have students do community service or help younger children. They might also help students develop cognitive flexibility, the ability to look at an issue from multiple perspectives, which is an aspect of empathy.

What "Compassionate" Does

I won't describe here specific techniques for working with students when problematic behavior arises; those can be found elsewhere in this issue. I will stress that disciplining compassionately means keeping our relationship with a student central and remembering how poverty affects the brain.
By developing a trusting climate, teaching social skills, and helping children become empathetic, we can help students who experience poverty overcome these negative effects—so they can thrive in school.

Bauer, C. C. C., Caballero, C., Scherer, E., West, M. R., Mrazek, M. D., Phillips, D. T., et al. (2019). Mindfulness training reduces stress and amygdala reactivity to fearful faces in middle-school children. Behavioral Neuroscience, 133(6), 569–585.

Blair, C., Granger, D. A., Willoughby, M., Mills-Koonce, R., Cox, M., Greenberg, M. T., et al. (2011). Salivary cortisol mediates effects of poverty and parenting on executive functions in early childhood. Child Development, 82(6), 1970–1984.

Burke, D. M., & Mackay, D. G. (1997). Memory, language, and ageing. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 352(1363), 1845–1856.

Javanbakht, A., King, A. P., Evans, G. W., Swain, J. E., Angstadt, M., Luan Phan, K., et al. (2015). Childhood poverty predicts adult amygdala and frontal activity and connectivity in response to emotional faces. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 9, 154.

Marsh, A. A., & Ambady, N. (2007). The influence of the fear facial expression on prosocial responding. Cognition & Emotion, 21, 225–247.

Puccetti, N. A., Schaefer, S. M., van Reekum, C. M., Ong, A. D., Almeida, D. M., Ryff, C. D., et al. (2021). Linking amygdala persistence to real-world emotional experience and psychological well-being. The Journal of Neuroscience, 41, 3721–3730.

Weng, H. Y., Fox, A. S., Shackman, A. J., Stodola, D. E., Caldwell, J. Z. K., Olson, M. C., et al. (2013). Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering. Psychological Science, 24(7), 1171–1180.

Horacio Sanchez thumbnail

 Horacio Sanchez is president and CEO of Resiliency Inc. He is a speaker and educational consultant who helps schools apply neuroscience to improve educational outcomes. He is the author of several books, including The Poverty Problem (Corwin, 2021).

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