How Poverty Affects Behavior and Academic Performance
In Chapter 1, we were introduced to history teacher Chris Hawkins. The family Mr. Hawkins grew up in was far from poor: his father was a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, and his mother was a store manager. He had no clue what growing up in poverty was like, and he was shocked to learn about what typically goes on (and doesn't go on) in the homes of his kids. He has learned that there's far more behind the apathetic or aggressive behaviors, commonly attributed to a lack of politeness or dismissed as "lower-class" issues, than he had assumed. What he's learned about his students has depressed and discouraged him. The mantra that gets him through the year is the thought that retirement is only six years away.
The Risk Factors of Poverty
There is no shortage of theories explaining behavior differences among children. The prevailing theory among psychologists and child development specialists is that behavior stems from a combination of genes and environment. Genes begin the process: behavioral geneticists commonly claim that DNA accounts for 30-50 percent of our behaviors (Saudino, 2005), an estimate that leaves 50-70 percent explained by environment.
This tidy division of influencing factors may be somewhat misleading, however. First, the effects of the nine months a child spends in utero are far from negligible, especially on IQ (Devlin, Daniels, & Roeder, 1997). Factors such as quality of prenatal care, exposure to toxins, and stress have a strong influence on the developing child. In addition, the relatively new field of epigenetics-the study of heritable changes in gene function that occur without a change in primary DNA sequence-blurs the line between nature and nurture. Environment affects the receptors on our cells, which send messages to genes, which turn various functional switches on or off. It's like this: like light switches, genes can be turned on or off. When they're switched on, they send signals that can affect the processes or structures in individual cells. For example, lifting weights tells the genes to "turn on" the signal to build muscle tissue. Genes can be either activated or shut off by a host of other environmental factors, such as stress and nutrition. These switches can either strengthen or impair aggression, immune function, learning, and memory (Rutter, Moffitt, & Caspi, 2006).
Recent evidence (Harris, 2006) suggests that the complex web of social relationships students experience-with peers, adults in the school, and family members-exerts a much greater influence on their behavior than researchers had previously assumed. This process starts with students' core relationships with parents or primary caregivers in their lives, which form a personality that is either secure and attached or insecure and unattached. Securely attached children typically behave better in school (Blair et al., 2008). Once students are in school, the dual factors of socialization and social status contribute significantly to behavior. The school socialization process typically pressures students to be like their peers or risk social rejection, whereas the quest for high social status drives students to attempt to differentiate themselves in some areas-sports, personal style, sense of humor, or street skills, for example.
Socioeconomic status forms a huge part of this equation. Children raised in poverty rarely choose to behave differently, but they are faced daily with overwhelming challenges that affluent children never have to confront, and their brains have adapted to suboptimal conditions in ways that undermine good school performance. Let's revisit the most significant risk factors affecting children raised in poverty, which I discussed in Chapter 1 (the word EACH is a handy mnemonic):
- Emotional and Social Challenges.
- Acute and Chronic Stressors.
- Cognitive Lags.
- Health and Safety Issues.
Combined, these factors present an extraordinary challenge to academic and social success. This reality does not mean that success in school or life is impossible. On the contrary, a better understanding of these challenges points to actions educators can take to help their less-advantaged students succeed.
Emotional and Social Challenges
Many low-SES children face emotional and social instability. Typically, the weak or anxious attachments formed by infants in poverty become the basis for full-blown insecurity during the early childhood years. Very young children require healthy learning and exploration for optimal brain development. Unfortunately, in impoverished families there tends to be a higher prevalence of such adverse factors as teen motherhood, depression, and inadequate health care, all of which lead to decreased sensitivity toward the infant (van Ijzendoorn et al., 2004) and, later, poor school performance and behavior on the child's part.
Theory and Research
Beginning at birth, the attachment formed between parent and child predicts the quality of future relationships with teachers and peers (Szewczyk-Sokolowski, Bost, & Wainwright, 2005) and plays a leading role in the development of such social functions as curiosity, arousal, emotional regulation, independence, and social competence (Sroufe, 2005). The brains of infants are hardwired for only six emotions: joy, anger, surprise, disgust, sadness, and fear (Ekman, 2003). To grow up emotionally healthy, children under 3 need
- A strong, reliable primary caregiver who provides consistent and unconditional love, guidance, and support.
- Safe, predictable, stable environments. Ten to 20 hours each week of harmonious, reciprocal interactions. This process, known as attunement, is most crucial during the first 6-24 months of infants' lives and helps them develop a wider range of healthy emotions, including gratitude, forgiveness, and empathy.
- Enrichment through personalized, increasingly complex activities.
Children raised in poverty are much less likely to have these crucial needs met than their more affluent peers are and, as a result, are subject to some grave consequences. Deficits in these areas inhibit the production of new brain cells, alter the path of maturation, and rework the healthy neural circuitry in children's brains, thereby undermining emotional and social development and predisposing them to emotional dysfunction (Gunnar, Frenn, Wewerka, & Van Ryzin, 2009; Miller, Seifer, Stroud, Sheinkopf, & Dickstein, 2006).
The need for human contact and warmth is well established. A study of infants in Irish foundling homes in the early 1900s found that of the 10,272 infants admitted to homes with minimal or absent maternal nurturing over a 25-year period, only 45 survived. Most of the survivors grew into pathologically unstable and socially problem-ridden adults (Joseph, 1999).
In many poor households, parental education is substandard, time is short, and warm emotions are at a premium-all factors that put the attunement process at risk (Feldman & Eidelman, 2009; Kearney, 1997; Segawa, 2008). Caregivers tend to be overworked, overstressed, and authoritarian with children, using the same harsh disciplinary strategies used by their own parents. They often lack warmth and sensitivity (Evans, 2004) and fail to form solid, healthy relationships with their children (Ahnert, Pinquart, & Lamb, 2006).
In addition, low-income caregivers are typically half as likely as higher-income parents are to be able to track down where their children are in the neighborhood (Evans, 2004), and frequently they do not know the names of their children's teachers or friends. One study found that only 36 percent of low-income parents were involved in three or more school activities on a regular basis, compared with 59 percent of parents above the poverty line (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000).
Low-SES children are often left home to fend for themselves and their younger siblings while their caregivers work long hours; compared with their well-off peers, they spend less time playing outdoors and more time watching television and are less likely to participate in after-school activities (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). Unfortunately, children won't get the model for how to develop proper emotions or respond appropriately to others from watching cartoons; they need warm, person-to-person interactions. The failure to form positive relationships with peers inflicts long-term socioemotional consequences (Szewczyk-Sokolowski et al., 2005).
The human brain "downloads" the environment indiscriminately in an attempt to understand and absorb the surrounding world, whether that world is positive or negative. When children gain a sense of mastery of their environments, they are more likely to develop feelings of self-worth, confidence, and independence, which play heavily into the formation of children's personalities (Sroufe, 2005) and ultimately predict their success and happiness in relationships and in life in general. Economic hardship makes it more difficult for caregivers to create the trusting environments that build children's secure attachments. Behavior research shows that children from impoverished homes develop psychiatric disturbances and maladaptive social functioning at a greater rate than their affluent counterparts do (McCoy, Firck, Loney, & Ellis, 1999). In addition, low-SES children are more likely to have social conduct problems, as rated by both teachers and peers over a period of four years (Dodge, Pettit, & Bates, 1994). Unfortunately, a study of negative emotionality and maternal support found that low-income parents were less able than were well-off parents to adjust their parenting to the demands of higher-needs children (Paulussen-Hoogeboom, Stams, Hermanns, & Peetsma, 2007).
Low-income parents are often overwhelmed by diminished self-esteem, depression, and a sense of powerlessness and inability to cope-feelings that may get passed along to their children in the form of insufficient nurturing, negativity, and a general failure to focus on children's needs. In a study of emotional problems of children of single mothers, Keegan-Eamon and Zuehl (2001) found that the stress of poverty increases depression rates among mothers, which results in an increased use of physical punishment. Children themselves are also susceptible to depression: research shows that poverty is a major predictor of teenage depression (Denny, Clark, Fleming, & Wall, 2004).
Effects on School Behavior and Performance
Strong, secure relationships help stabilize children's behavior and provide the core guidance needed to build lifelong social skills. Children who grow up with such relationships learn healthy, appropriate emotional responses to everyday situations. But children raised in poor households often fail to learn these responses, to the detriment of their school performance. For example, students with emotional dysregulation may get so easily frustrated that they give up on a task when success was just moments away. And social dysfunction may inhibit students' ability to work well in cooperative groups, quite possibly leading to their exclusion by group members who believe they aren't "doing their part" or "pulling their share of the load." This exclusion and the accompanying decrease in collaboration and exchange of information exacerbate at-risk students' already shaky academic performance and behavior.
Some teachers may interpret students' emotional and social deficits as a lack of respect or manners, but it is m...
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