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April 09, 2009

Coping with Stress

Sometimes, within the walls of my school, it is easy to forget about the stress and chaos in which some of my students live.  In our classroom, everybody knows our routines and procedures, functions with (relative) independence, interacts peacefully, and has access to the same experiences. At home, however, many of my students face extremely challenging circumstances; they witness abuse, sleep on the floor, move between homes and shelters, and are cold in the winter. When I step back and think about it, I am truly impressed by their resilience and ability to make tremendous progress in school.
Earlier this week, I read an article in the Washington Post that explained the correlation between poverty, stress, and working memory in children.  The article was based on research done by Gary W. Evans, a professor at Cornell University; Evans found that the longer a child lived in poverty, the higher their allostatic load (a measure of stress), and the lower their working-memory at age 17.  I was particulary drawn to this article for two reasons.  First, I was a research assistant for this study for two years while at Cornell.  I collected information from particpants, helped analize several rounds of data, and worked closely with Gary. Needless to say, I have a very personal connection to these findings! Second, I was drawn to the article because of my role as a teacher in a high-need school. At first glance, the findings seem disparaging. Many of my students live in stressful situations, and there is not much that I can do to change that. Upon deeper reflection I realized there is a lot that I can do to tailor my classroom to meet the needs of my students and to help them cope with that stress.  Specifically, I can:
  • Teach my students how to identify and appropriately respond to their emotions, especially those of stress and anxiety.
  • Maintain consistent routines, expectations, and interactions at school. School should always be a safe and predictable environment, regardless of what is happening at home. 
  • Listen to my students and validate their emotions. This may mean joining in a dramatic play episode or having a quiet conversation with a student; the ultimate goal is to let my students express themselves and then respond to their needs.

While these tactics will not change the circumstances in which many of my students live, they may be able to reduce some of the stress that my students feel. By reducing stress, we may be able to break the connection between poverty and low academic achievement, which will ultimately bring us one step closer to closing the achievement gap and improving the life trajecotories of students in poverty. 


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