Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It by Eric Jensen

Chapter 2. How Poverty Affects Behavior and Academic Performance

  • Emotional and Social Challenges: Many low-SES children face emotional and social instability. In poor families there tends to be a higher prevalence of adverse factors like teen motherhood, depression, and inadequate health care that all lead to decreased sensitivity toward the infant. From birth, children need harmonious, reciprocal interactions and personalized, increasingly complex activities provided by strong, reliable primary caregiver(s) in a safe, predictable, stable environment. Without it, their emotional and social development is undermined and they are predisposed to emotional dysfunction. Poor parents often act in an authoritarian manner with children, and use harsh disciplinary strategies used by their parents. They often lack warmth and sensitivity and fail to form solid, healthy relationships. Children don’t get a model for how to develop proper emotions or respond appropriately to others. These children, therefore, have higher needs, which cannot be met by parents who are often overwhelmed by diminished self-esteem, depression, a sense of powerlessness, and an inability to cope. Such feelings may get passed along to their children.
  • Effects on School Behavior and Performance: Emotional dysregulation leads to being easily frustrated and giving up on tasks early. They don’t have the ability to work well with others and may be ostracized. Poor academic performance is sure to follow. Teachers should not be surprise if poor children are more likely to act out, be impatient and impulsive, have poor manners, have limited behavioral responses, have inappropriate emotional responses, and less empathy. It is vital, therefore, that teachers model respectful behaviors and controlled emotions consistently. Many emotions such as sympathy, patience, forgiveness, empathy, optimism, and compassion must be taught and for many poor students they aren’t taught at home. (See the list on page 18.)
  • Action Steps: Give the students respect even if they don’t deserve it. Offer choice and solicit input when possible rather than giving do this now orders. Avoid sarcasm and be encouraging rather than pointing out a child’s bad behavior to the class. Teach manners directly. This includes greetings, turn taking, and thanking students even for small things. Celebrate effort and praise students for reaching intermediate goals.
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