ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

Use the Brain's Resilience to Teach Beyond Poverty

Post written by Clare Struck, a 2011 ASCD Conference Scholar, is an elementary counselor at the Malcolm Price Laboratory School (PLS) in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and an instructor for the school counseling practicum at the University of Northern Iowa. PLS is the 2010 Vision in Action: The ASCD Whole Child Award recipient. Originally featured in ASCD Express.

"Teaching with Poverty in Mind," an ASCD Annual Conference session by Eric Jensen, had a strong influence on me and encouraged me to take actions to support the students I work with as an elementary school counselor, as well as the school counseling graduate students I supervise.

Much of the data on brain-related research and kids in poverty that Jensen shared in his session was disheartening. For example, he provided brain research that noted that highly immature frontal lobes are unable to delete or reframe any negative input. He explained that kids "download" negative experiences like chaos, disharmony, poor relationships, foul language, poor manners, and weak vocabulary just as automatically as they would any positive or enriching input.

Nonetheless, I left the session with a sense of hope. Jensen convinced me that brains can change and that we as educators have a responsibility to take action to help adapt the brains of students in poverty or undergoing other high-stress situations.

The first step I took was to read Eric Jensen's book Teaching with Poverty in Mind. Reading about the complexities of defining poverty and learning to understand how to define situational poverty, generational poverty, absolute poverty, relative poverty, urban poverty, and rural poverty cautioned me to not simply use the socioeconomic status (SES) statistics to identify students living in poverty.

Collegial Outreach

I plan to invite my preK–5 colleagues to read his book and to participate in a follow-up book study group. Jensen provided practical strategies and themes for success that he calls the SHARE factors for the school level and the classroom level.

The school-level SHARE factors are

  • Support of the Whole Child,
  • Hard Data,
  • Accountability,
  • Relationship Building, and
  • Enrichment Mind-Set.

The classroom-level SHARE factors are

  • Standards-Based Curriculum and Instruction;
  • Hope Building;
  • Arts, Athletics, and Advanced Placement;
  • Retooling of the Operations Systems; and
  • Engaging Instruction.

Reflections, discussions, and action plans connected to these SHARE factors will be important components of this process.

Going forward, I also would like to introduce this material to Iowa school counselors at the 2011 Iowa School Counseling Summer Summit and at the Iowa School Counseling Association Annual Conference in November. I also plan to include some of the content of Teaching with Poverty in Mind in my seminars for the Iowa School Counseling practicum students I supervise.

I want to teach my students about the different kinds of poverty Jensen defines in his book, highlight the brain research that is linked to low-SES kids, and introduce the SHARE factors to them. Most of all, I'll emphasize the good news that kids' brains can change and discuss some of the specific strategies Jensen encourages educators to use.

Empowering school counselors with this research and these insights can help them put plans into motion that can have a positive effect on changing the brains of our students who live in poverty. When Jensen spoke about how acute stress and chronic stress impairs working memory, I thought of students with whom I work, who, while not in poverty, live in situations that produce high stress that can adversely affect their ability to learn.

The strategies Jensen provides are not trendy, quick solutions, nor are they for the faint-hearted. For us to make a difference with these students, we must roll up our sleeves and commit to the long haul.

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