ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

Learning in the Midst of Poverty

ASCD Annual Conference

Post submitted by whole child blogger Paulina Malek, a senior majoring in magazine journalism at Temple University. She hopes to report on poverty, race relations, and animal rights issues in the future.

About 15 percent of Americans are living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This number also includes millions of students who are coping with its stressors daily. In his ASCD Annual Conference session "Highly Effective Teaching with Poverty in Mind," Eric Jensen discussed shifting attitudes about students who experience poverty and techniques educators can use to help them achieve success. Jensen, a staff developer, educator, and author, uses research-based strategies to train educators in brain-based learning.

In his session, Jensen first dispelled a myth regarding the relationship between education and poverty in the classroom. One stereotype suggests that individuals of lower socioeconomic status don't care about education as much as those in the middle and upper classes. Jensen explains that some people of lower socioeconomic status actually work longer hours or multiple jobs, and so their schedules conflict with events like parent-teacher conferences. In other words, lack of time is the issue, not lack of interest.

Stress is an important factor for students who are experiencing poverty. Although Jensen said some stress can be good for students—if it occurs and goes away—distress is caused by elevated levels of stress that tend to linger, which can lead to increased impulsivity and the inability to delay gratification (which some educators may view as insubordination). "Teachers think those kids have an attitude. It's called surviving," Jensen said.

Additionally, Jensen stresses that students from low socioeconomic levels are different because they are exposed to more stressors, resulting in symptoms related to learning delays, attachments, ADHD, and dyslexia. He further explains that teachers should not threaten students, but rather teach them how to maintain control over their stress and help them learn coping skills. It's not about the amount of stress that a student has, but about the perception of the amount of control he believes he has, according to Jensen.

Instructors can do several things to help those students cope with the realities of their stressful lives. Jensen encourages educators to help shifts students' attitudes by having students recite daily what they're grateful for, what they hope to learn, and what they're looking forward to in the future. "Instead of complaining about kids' attitudes, they are in fact, altering them," he said.

Another skill educators can help students obtain deals with an executive function. Since stress can impair short-term memory, Jensen encourages teachers to play memory-building word games. In fact, memory has shown to be the top predictor of scores in mathematics, according to Maria Chiara Passolunghi and Silvia Lanfranchi in the British Journal of Educational Psychology.

A significant contributor to student success is also—not surprisingly—the effectiveness of teachers. If every principal replaced the lowest 10 percent of teachers in their school with average teachers, U.S. student achievement rates would rise to near or almost the top of the developed country average, according to Lifting Student Achievement by Weeding Out Harmful Teachers by Eric A. Hanushek. It's also important to remember that student IQ decreases during the summer, so providing students with stimulating activities during periods of idleness would be beneficial. "Good teaching matters more than you think," Jensen concluded.

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