“‘Poor kids are incredibly isolated from everything … What they most lack is some adult who is steadily caring for them. It’s not just love, but providing them with the kind of guidance that people coming from [well-off] homes are increasingly surrounded by. I don’t just mean guidance about careers, but guidance about life’” 
Step 1: Understand how poverty affects the brain.
Step 2: Make classroom-level changes, both in thought-processes and actions
(Check back for later posts on schoolwide strategies to implement at your school.)
I just finished reading the book Teaching with Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen that explains the science behind poverty and the effects it has on the brain. I highly recommend it as a way to help understand, empathize with, and teach your low SES students. There is also a great
The most important understanding to take from the book is that “chronic exposure to poverty causes the brain to physically change in a detrimental manner” .
Children growing up in poverty are more likely to be exposed to risk factors that will adversely affect their physical, socioemotional, and cognitive well-being than high-income families. Jensen’s primary risk factors include the following:
This section of Jensen’s book was eye-opening for me. In it he explains that there are only 6 emotional responses that are hardwired into our brain.
- Fear 
Not surprisingly, low SES students are more likely to experience chronic and acute stressors than their more affluent peers. Look at the following list of side-effects from stress, and it won’t be hard to understand why these students struggle to be successful in an academic setting.
- is linked to over 50% of absences
- impairs attention/concentration
- reduces cognition, creativity, and memory
- diminishes social skills and social judgement
- reduces motivation, determination, and effort
- increases the likelihood of depression
- reduces neurogenesis (growth of new brain cells) 
The two side effects of stress that stood out the most to me (as I’ve lost the most sleep and pulled out the most hair from these issues in my classroom…). were impulsivity and learned helplessness. Jensen explains that impulsivity is actually an exaggerated response to stress (think survival of the fittest). So every instance of a stressor will increase a students impulsivity and ability to defer gratification. In addition, “exposure to chronic or acute stress is debilitating”, presenting itself as learned helplessness, when students give up or become passive about school. This is actually an adaptive response to life conditions . Again, our students aren’t choosing to act impulsively or to give up - these reactions are just survival mechanisms.
The most interesting finding in this section was the connection between socioeconomic status and language. For example, socioeconomic status had an extremely high effect size (1.0) on the difference between low-income and high-income 5 year olds performance in language . This makes sense because we know there is a huge discrepancy between the quantity, quality, and type of communication between low-income and high-income households.
Health and Safety Issues
This section of Jensen’s book reminds us of Maslow’s hierarchy. Unless our students’ basic needs are met, we will struggle to educate them. Low SES kids are more likely to suffer from issues like malnutrition, environmental hazards, and insufficient health care. Consequently, their immune systems adapt to these conditions and “diminish their ability to concentrate, learn, and behave appropriately” .
Change for the Better
It is so imperative that we understand the physical changes that occur in the brain when our students are growing up in low-income households. While I attempted to highlight the major “a-ha” moments that I had, I really can’t get at everything that Eric Jensen explained in the book. Once we have an understanding of where are students are starting, we can start to make a plan about how to reach them and support them. I want to leave you with the idea that Jensen stresses throughout the book: We can change things for the better.
“Because the brain is designed to adapt from experience, it can also change for the better. In other words, poor children can experience emotional, social, and academic success.” 
- “Child Poverty.” National Center for Children in Poverty. n.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
- Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. “The Early Catastrophe:The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” (2003, spring). American Educator, pp.4-9.
- Sparks, Sarah D. "Education Week." Education Week. N.p., 9 Mar. 2015. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.
- Klein, Rebecca. "These 9 Graphs Show The Sad State Of Child Poverty In America." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 11 Mar. 2015. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.
- Jensen, Eric. Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids' Brains and What Schools Can Do about It. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2009. Print.
Check back next week for posts on schoolwide and classroom level strategies to implement to address the needs of your low-SES students.
What was your “aha moment” when reading about science behind poverty?