It’s clear that children from poverty are often at a disadvantage in school, and educators can find it challenging to help such students become positively engaged in their own learning. In a recent webinar for Scientific Learning, author and educator Eric Jensen (Teaching with Poverty in Mind), provides invaluable guidance for teachers who work with at-risk and low-income youth.
Jensen identifies a number of ways in which children living in poverty may differ from other children in terms of learning, and asserts that it is the responsibility of teachers to help bring about positive changes in students' developing brains to improve their learning ability. He provides a number of powerful observations and suggestions for purposeful teaching aimed at improving brainpower for learners from poverty:
At-risk learners are often lacking long-lasting, stable relationships in their lives. They may also require more assistance in developing the full emotional range to respond well to various kinds of stimulation. He states that "discipline" issues sometimes emerge when teachers expect more than what students are currently capable of, on an emotional level. Jensen suggests that classroom teachers help students develop a healthy range of emotional responses in order to build healthy, stable, trusting relationships as a foundation for learning.
Understand and control stress.
Jensen defines stress as "a physiological response to a perception of a lack of control over an aversive situation or person", and notes that at-risk students are likely to have more stress in their lives than other students. Teachers can help increase students’ perception of control by encouraging activities like peer mentoring and student jobs in the classroom, as well as offering more opportunities for students to make their own choices throughout the school day.
Develop a growth mindset.
Children who are raised in a poverty-stricken environment often need help developing a " growth mindset," which places more importance on attitude, effort, and strategy than on luck, genetics, and socioeconomic status. Since developing a growth mindset is teachable and free, Jensen challenges educators to rise to the responsibility of this important part of teaching.
Build executive function.
Working memory, the ability to retain fresh information long enough to do something with it, is a component of executive function—a term which generally refers to a collection of cognitive processes of the brain. According to data presented in the webinar, working memory at age 5is a far greater predictor of student success at age 11 than IQ. It is also a more reliable predictor than reading scores, motivation level, math scores, or attitude. Jensen advises that if educators focus on building their students’ working memory, they will get significant improvements across the board.
Students from poverty often need more help engaging in the classroom. To help students become truly engaged, he suggests the use of physical activity, music, drama, social work (cooperative groups, teams, partners, etc.) and positive affirmations.
Above all, Jensen advises educators to avoid giving up on “difficult” students by deciding that certain kids “can’t be taught,” and provides powerful examples of at-risk children succeeding in large numbers in supportive environments. He also admonishes, "If you don't teach it, don't punish kids for not being good at it!”