Teaching students living in poverty presents unique challenges for educators. One such challenge is helping students overcome the social and emotional instability that many low-SES students face when growing up (Jensen, 2011). For many of these students, response to such conditions manifests in poor school performance and behavior. However, there are strategies that teachers and administrators can implement to curb disruptive behavior and build the necessary emotional resources that all students need for academic and personal success.
The emotional and social deficits that educators experience when working with students from poverty formed at a very early age. Young children require healthy learning and exploration for optimal brain development to occur (Jansen, 2011). Unfortunately, there are not many of these opportunities for impoverished families, as there tends to be a prevalence of adverse factors such as teen motherhood, depression, and inadequate health care, which lead to decreased sensitivity toward an infant (van Ijzendoorn et. al, 2004).
This insensitivity interferes with healthy brain development as it abates the necessary bond between child and parent and consequently, negatively influences the quality of future relationships between teachers and peers (Szewczyk-Sokolowski, Bost, & Wainwright, 2005). Many times, deficiencies in early brain development are coupled with lack of quality role models for students in poverty and result in a perpetuation of social and emotional instability. Role models play an essential and integral part in the development of emotional resources.
The brains of infants are hardwired for only six emotions: joy, anger, surprise, disgust, sadness, and fear (Ekman, 2003). Every other emotional response must be taught. When appropriate role models are present, the child can go through the developmental stages at appropriate times and build emotional resources (Payne, 2005). Emotional resources are taught when a child observes an adult for emotional responses to a given situation and notes the continuum of behaviors that go with those responses (Payne, 2005).
Therefore, when a lack of appropriate emotional responses are displayed by a quality role model, the child is only able to resort to one of the six emotions that is hardwired into their DNA. As such, it is critical that schools help build these emotional resources if they are not offered at home since they dictate behavior and, eventually, determine achievement (Payne, 2005). Discipline, within the culture of poverty, must also be considered when addressing the social and emotional instabilities that low-SES students face. Children raised in poverty are more likely to display behaviors that will likely confuse, annoy, or frustrate teachers.
Some behaviors include laughing when disciplined, arguing loudly, responding aggressively, offering inappropriate or vulgar comments, physically fighting, inability to keep hands to self, and inability to follow directions (Payne, 2005). Although these behaviors are inappropriate for the school setting, they are necessary to help students in poverty survive outside of school. Therefore, it is important that schools approach discipline by teaching a separate set of behaviors rather than labeling, demeaning, or blaming students (Payne, 2005).
Although students growing up in poverty may not bring a breadth of emotional resources to school with them, all students do bring three “relational” forces that drive their behavior in significant ways. When carefully planned and executed, educators can leverage these forces to guide student behavior and, ultimately, foster environments where all student can succeed regardless of economic background. The first force that drives student behavior is a desire for reliable relationships (Jensen, 2011). Students want safe and reliable relationships and would prefer, parents, positive friends, and teachers.
However, the relationships that teachers build with students form the single strongest access to student goals, socialization, motivation, and academic performance (Jensen, 2011). As such, educators must be willing to embody respect, embed social skills within classroom strategies, and be inclusive (Jensen, 2011). Doing so will help build students’ emotional resources while creating opportunities for socialization. The second force that students bring to school with them is the strengthening of peer socialization. Socialization is the drive for acceptance that encourages students to imitate their peers and join groups (Jensen, 2011).
School-aged children are more influenced by their peers than their parents (Harris, 1998). As such, schools must make academic success culturally acceptable among students in order to improve student achievement. Additionally, schools should offer clubs and/or organizations that students can join. This will help students gain a sense of belonging that they want and need. The third force is the student’s quest for importance and social status. Students compete for attention and social elevation by choosing roles that distinguish them (Jensen, 2011).
Kids are very interested in whether other kids like them, what they do, and how they rate on the social scale (Harris, 2006). As such, teachers should create jobs within their classroom that students are responsible for such as homework collector, attendance taker, and supply manager. If teachers choose to do this they should also make sure that the jobs are age appropriate and are not embarrassing or demeaning, as this will affect student buy-in. Schools that offer clubs and/or organizations foster opportunities for students to feel special thereby fulfilling the students need for attention.
Children raised in poverty seldom choose to behave differently from their affluent peers. However, because of the overwhelming challenges that they face on a daily basis, their brains have adapted to less-than-ideal conditions in ways that damage good school performance. One such challenge they must overcome is emotional and social instability, which dictates behavior and, eventually, determines achievement. As an administrator, I can help students overcome this challenge by helping students build emotional responses, giving them opportunities to feel belonged, and making sure that they feel special.
I will do this by first teaching teachers the research that shows how low-SES students suffer from emotional and social challenges. With their buy-in we can develop curriculum and policies that give positive feedback to all students in all classes in a way that nurtures their need for attention and acceptance. Clubs, sports, and other extra curricular activities will be available for students to interact positively with their peers and role models to reinforce their belonging.
Although there are many other challenges students in poverty face, paying close attention to the emotional and social well being of a child is key in increasing their chances for academic success.
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