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.