Thursday 3 November 2011

The Effects of Poverty on Teaching and Learning

Poverty is an issue that more and more children are coming face to face with. The price that children of poverty must pay is unbelievably high. Each year, increasing numbers of children are entering schools with needs from circumstances, such as poverty, that schools are not prepared to meet.

The Concept of Being At-Risk
The term at-risk refers to children who are likely to fail in school or in life because of their life's social circumstances. It does not appear that any one single factor places a child at-risk. Rather, when more than one factor is present, there is a compounding effect and the likelihood for failure increases significantly. Poverty is considered a major at-risk factor (Leroy & Symes, 2001). Some of the factors related to poverty that may place a child at-risk for academic failure are: very young, single or low educational level parents; unemployment; abuse and neglect; substance abuse; dangerous neighborhoods; homelessness; mobility; and exposure to inadequate or inappropriate educational experiences.

Being able to identify and understand children who are at-risk is critical if we are to support their growth and development. In order to do this, warm and caring relationships need to be developed between teachers and children. This will enable teachers to detect any warning signs that may place children at-risk for failure, interfering with their chances for success in school and life (Leroy & Symes, 2001). Academic and behavioral problems can be indicators of impending failure. Among such behaviors are: delay in language development, delay in reading development, aggression, violence, social withdrawal, substance abuse, irregular attendance, and depression. Teachers may have difficulty reaching a student's parent or guardian. They may also find the student does not complete assignments, does not study for tests, or does not come to school prepared to learn because of poverty related circumstances in the home environment. These children may be unable to concentrate or focus. They may be unwilling or unable to interact with peers and/or adults in school in an effective manner.

Challenge: Diversity
Teachers need to be sensitive to the vast array of needs that children of poverty bring to the classroom. Social contexts have a significant impact on the development of children. The social world of school operates by different rules or norms than the social world these children live in.

Focus should be placed on finding a harmonious relationship between the cultural values of students and values emphasized in school. Children of poverty may live in places that rent by the week or even day. The conditions they live in and their day-to-day life experiences can have a significant effect on their education and achievement.

As teachers, these aspects of poverty make planning and preparation absolutely critical. Content needs to be related in varying ways to meet the needs of the diverse students in the classroom. We have to consider the cultural values of these children as we arrange their learning. Constructivism is a key concept in that it respects student differences and allows students to use their own prior knowledge and experiences to make connections and learn. It affords students the opportunity to become active learners by questioning, hypothesizing and drawing conclusions based on their individual learning experiences. If there is limited foundation for children to draw upon, we need to help them develop a base of knowledge and experiences so they have somewhere to start.

By providing emotional support, modeling, and other forms of scaffolding, teachers can help students use their strengths, skills, and knowledge to develop and learn (Marlowe and Page, 1999). Learning experiences and problem solving based on real-life problems can help them deal with some of the issues they may be faced with in their lives. Learning by doing gives students the opportunity to be active and imaginative problem solvers (Bassey, 1996

Challenge: The Achievement Gap
The difference in academic performance among children from different classes or groups (ethnic, racial, income) is referred to as the achievement gap. Children of poverty generally achieve at lower levels than children of middle and upper classes. The causes are numerous and are related to both the social environment in which poor children live and the education they receive in school. Factors such as the quality of student learning behaviors, home environment, past experiences with education, and teacher attitudes are among the many influences on student achievement. Slavin (1998) proposes that schools can have a powerful impact on the academic achievement and success of all children by viewing them as at-promise rather than at-risk and preparing them to reach their full potential.

A good education is often the only means of breaking the cycle of poverty for poor children. These children need an education that is founded in high standards and high expectations for all. Curriculum alignment must exist to ensure that a rigorous curriculum and assessment accompany and are aligned with the standards. What occurs in our classrooms has a significant impact on student achievement. The curriculum should be challenging to prevent decreased opportunity for higher education, which translates into less opportunity in life for them. Content should be of high quality and be culturally relevant. A watered-down curriculum is unacceptable.

Challenge: Student Motivation to Learn
One of the social issues facing children of poverty is emotional trauma. The emotional climate can often be very stressful and emotionally depriving. The lack of emotional nurturing can lead to feelings of alienation, inadequacy, depression and anxiety. Aggressive or impulsive behavior and social withdrawal can also result. Emotional security and self-esteem are often lacking. There is a craving for attention and a need to belong (Ciaccio, 2000; Brophy, 2000). The characteristics that are lacking in the poverty environment are those that help foster effective learning and academic success. Emotional draining and negative self-status can literally zap the motivation to learn out of children.

We need to place an emphasis on sparking that desire to learn or (motivation) by not only helping to restore the child's self-image but also by encouraging students to see the demands and rewards of schooling. Children will work hard, for intrinsic rewards, only if they have a very good reason (Ciaccio, 2000). We need to make them feel that they are lovable, important and acceptable human beings by making them feel secure and good about themselves and by building trusting respectful relationships with them (Bassey, 1996). The teacher may be the dependable and caring adult, often the only adult of this kind, who is a consistent and reliable figure in their lives of unpredictability and change (Bowman, 1994). Positive and respectful relationships of this nature are essential for at-risk students (Hixson and Tinsmann, 1990; Ciaccio, 2000).

Educators also need to work to foster resilience in children, focusing on the traits, coping skills, and supports that help children survive in a challenging environment. Children need our help if they are to adapt successfully despite adversity; alter or reverse expected negative outcomes; and thrive in spite of negative circumstances. We need to set high expectations for all that communicate guidance, structure, challenge, and, most importantly, a belief in the innate resilience of children. We need a curriculum that supports resilience (Benard, 1995).

We must make it our responsibility to find ways to generate and maintain student interest and involvement on a consistent basis by making our classrooms safe, accepting, interesting and engaging places (Haberman, 1995). By creating lessons that have meaning to these children, teachers are responding actively and constructively to the background or prior knowledge and experience of their students.

The concepts of agency and conation, which encompasses self-efficacy and self-regulation, are key to understanding motivation as it relates to children of poverty. The living environments and the culture of poverty often leave poor children with low levels of motivation to learn. Besides the fact that all of their energies may be directed elsewhere in their struggle to survive, they may have poor experiences with schooling or may perceive that they don't really need school to be successful. They may translate money or belonging into success, and perceive careers in criminal activity that permeate poorer neighborhoods (such as drug dealing, prostitution, gambling, theft and gang involvement) as lucrative careers and as the only ones possible for them.

The concept of agency is that an individual can intentionally make things happen through their actions. This is an underlying concept in social learning or social cognitive theory. If we can show children that they can be agents, we can enable them to play a part in their self-development and take responsibility for their learning, personal development and achievement (Brophy, 1998; Bandura, 2001).

As agents, children do not simply undergo experiences. They become actively engaged participants by using sensory, motor and cognitive processes to accomplish tasks and goals that give their lives meaning and direction. They explore, manipulate and influence the environment. We need to get children to act mindfully to make desired things happen rather than let themselves be acted on by their environments.

Unless they believe they can produce desired results, students have little incentive to persevere in the face of difficulty. Efficacy beliefs influence whether people think pessimistically or optimistically and in ways that are self-enhancing or self-hindering. Teaching the use of self-talk techniques through role playing and group activity can be helpful in identifying thoughts that are often inaccurate and negative. This can also help students to persist longer at challenging tasks as opposed to simply giving up, resulting in higher levels of achievement (Huitt, 1999; Pajares, 1996).

The social environment has an impact on goal-oriented motivation. We need to work towards developing conative components that enhance self-direction, self-determination and self-regulation. Teachers should focus on the learning process, effort and striving, not solely on the ability of the child or results. Personal standards should be stressed as opposed to normative standards. Because success helps to raise self-efficacy, we should do whatever possible to help our students succeed and work to strengthen confidence through our words and actions.

Student self-beliefs have great influence on whether they fail or succeed in school. We need to provide intellectual challenge and create classroom climates of emotional support and encouragement to help students meet the challenge. We need to nurture the self-beliefs of our students and provide them with successful models that transmit knowledge, skills and inspiration. Improving self-efficacy can lead to increased use of cognitive strategies and, in turn, higher achievement. A high sense of efficacy also promotes pro-social behaviors such as cooperativeness, helpfulness, sharing, and mutual concern for welfare. Many of the difficulties students encounter are closely connected to beliefs they hold about themselves and their place in the world they live in. Academic failure is a consequence of the beliefs that students hold about themselves and about their ability to have control over their environments.

Challenge: Lack of Readiness to Learn
Readiness is a multi-dimensional concept that considers behavioral and cognitive aspects of a child's development as well as adaptation to the classroom. When considering the poverty factor as related to readiness, it is important to note that poverty is not just about money; it is about how an individual does without resources and with all of the baggage that goes along with being poor (Slocumb and Payne, 2000). When readiness is considered, it is generally considered with regard to readiness for school entry. However, after researching the topic of poverty, readiness really needs to be considered at all age levels as the student approaches any new learning experiences or activities.

Children from poverty start out in life at a disadvantage. The experiences they miss out on are those that could help in the development of skills and academic achievement. Some examples would be the use of home computers; visits to zoos and museums; attendance at pre-school programs; availability of literature and educational reading materials; interaction with educated, literate and well-spoken adults; and being read to by a parent.

The social environment that is present in conditions of poverty affects the development of these children by limiting the ways they learn to live in social groups. Opportunities for intellectual development, such as the development of cognitive skills and thinking patterns, are the result of social interaction. Children who live in poverty conditions are unable to develop mutually satisfying social relationships. Language is an important tool in the process of learning to think. If children have limited opportunity to learn language, organize perceptions, and develop other higher order cognitive processes, their ability to solve problems and think independently is negatively affected (Benson, 1995; Bowman, 1994; Guerra and Schutz, 2001).

The quality of a child's earliest experiences has great influence on future development and potential to succeed. Intervention should be implemented at an early stage to stop the process of failure before it begins (Slavin, 1998). Early childhood education programs can help at-risk pre-schoolers overcome the disadvantages that come with being poor and ensure that they enter school ready to learn by providing emotional nurturing and intellectual challenge. These programs foster the development of language abilities and cognitive skills. They provide children with experiences that will serve as a foundation of knowledge for future learning. They also provide children with the opportunity to observe pro-social behavior and develop positive relationships with adults and peers (Spectrum, 1999)

Readiness from the perspective of older children has not only to do with the development discussed above but also with creating a support system that will enable children to be free to focus on learning. By encompassing more aspects of the lives of these children, schools can give them a better chance at succeeding. This may include developing a support network with community partners by offering or referring students and families to community programs that meet health, social, and recreational needs. It may also involve keeping schools open and accessible to children and their families during evening or early morning hours so they have safe, quiet places to study and have access to athletic facilities, recreational activities, computers, libraries, tutoring and other resources. This can provide poor children with a full range of support so they can develop a sense of connectedness or belonging with their schools and can concentrate on learning and being students (Maeroff, 1998).

Challenge: Relationships with and Involvement of Parents and Families
Developing positive relationships with parents and families of low socio-economic status and getting them involved with their children's education and school activities is a challenge. Parent ability is weakened by living in poverty conditions and by the emotional and psychological stress associated with living in poverty (Kaiser and Delaney, 1996).

Parenting is the means through which children experience the world. Because the parent-child relationship is the primary context for early behavioral, social and cognitive development, negative effects on parents due to poverty factors in turn have a negative effect on the development of the child. Children rely on their parents to mediate their environment, respond to their needs and provide emotional stimulation and support. If, because of poverty related stresses, the parent does not do this, the child's development could be delayed or be otherwise negatively affected (Kaiser and Delaney, 1996).

Parental support and involvement in school activities is lower among poor parents. This does not necessarily indicate a lack of interest. It reflects issues related to poverty such as time (especially if they work shifts or more than one job), availability and affordability of child care and/or transportation, as well as possible negative personal experiences between the parent and his or her own school when growing up (Kaiser and Delaney, 1996).

The importance of strengthening and supporting parents and families cannot be emphasized enough. Areas of positive functioning need to be supported in programs that help families and children work to build or re-build their lives. Preventive programs can also help families of poverty. Any of the programs can build on the children's strengths while simultaneously providing needed services to families (Schmitz, Wagner and Menke 2001). Most parents, regardless of their socio-economic status, love their children and want them to succeed. Many of these parents need to learn strategies that can help them cope and help their children get a chance at breaking the cycle of poverty (McGee, 1996).

Home-school collaboration is particularly important for children of poverty in helping to facilitate better educational outcomes (Raffaele and Knoff, 1999). Because relationships with these families are often the most difficult to cultivate, teachers and schools need to make an extra effort to reach out to parents and families of poverty, helping them to help their children. Research suggests that the more parents participate, the better student achievement is. Sometimes reaching a parent can be difficult if they have no phone, do not speak our language or cannot read. It is even more critical that we find ways to reach these parents. Once we do reach them, however, there is no guarantee that they will be positive, cooperative, or receptive. We must do our best to attempt to foster a positive relationship with them in face of resistance, keeping in our minds and trying to convince them that their involvement is for the benefit of the child.

Teachers can inform parents of simple, time-efficient ways to help their children at home. Activities involving parents with their children can be scheduled such as family math, science, reading or technology nights. Teachers can provide literature and articles for parents to read on parenting issues. Teachers and schools can schedule conferences and activities at school during convenient times for parents. Child-care and activities can be provided for children while conferences are held. Meetings and activities can also be held at community centers or locations more accessible to families without transportation.

Parents should know that they are welcome to observe the class and spend time helping out in the classroom, lunchroom or during activities. Parents should be encouraged to view student work, accomplishments and portfolios when they come to school so they can become more aware of their child's abilities and talents and can discuss them with their children in a meaningful way. Parental involvement sends a message to all children, not only the child of the involved parent, that school is important. Parental involvement can also be contagious, especially when other children observe positive interaction among the teacher, student and parent.

Teachers should keep parents informed of what is going on in the classroom and encourage parents to talk to their children about school. A monthly calendar of topics and activities can help parents to discuss topics both as they approach and after they have been studied. We can encourage parents to read with their children or have their children read to them. A class trip to the local public library where every student signs up to receive a library card is a great opportunity for children to get excited about literacy. Parents can then receive mailings from the library as to free activities for children and adults that can help to develop literacy and technology skills and give parents an opportunity to spend time with their children. Libraries can also provide parents with resources for finding employment and writing resumes.

Brain-Based Research, Learning and Poverty
Knowing how the brain functions can have a great influence on how teachers address the emotional, social, cognitive and physical learning of students. Because it is known that perceptions and emotions contribute to learning, brain research provides rich possibilities for education. Research findings encourage us to expose children to a variety of multi-sensory early learning experiences and encourage even very young children to work with patterning, sorting, classifying, using number games, and exploring shapes. Emotions are a significant aspect of life for children of poverty. Emotions have a connection to memory in that they help to store information and also trigger recall. Emotions affect the actual capacity of children to grasp ideas. One of the most prominent emotions in children of poverty is fear.

Classroom environments that are safe and trusting can enhance learning. Environments should be high in challenge and low in threat. An atmosphere of relaxed alertness should be maintained. The living environment of many poor children is high-stress, so one of our immediate concerns should be to keep the stress level and perceived threat in the classroom at a low level. Fear and threat can cause the brain to downshift. Downshifting is biological response that focuses solely on survival needs. Poor children often have a feeling of helplessness, low self-esteem and may be fatigued. Thus, when their brains downshift they will not go any further than addressing survival needs. New information and experiences will be shut out. Attention will be affected because the brain keeps repeating thoughts or unresolved emotional issues. This needs to be considered when planning lessons and when considering classroom management (Caine, 2000).

Cooperative learning and shared decision making can help to build a sense of community and foster development of relationships, both student-teacher and student-student relationships. This can help students of poverty to develop a sense of belonging and a sense of connectedness to their school (Kovalik and Olsen, 1998). Helping students to find ways to handle strong emotions productively can help them to deal with emotions such as anger, fear, hurt and tension in their daily life experiences and relationships. If students can deal with these emotions effectively, they will be free to learn. Brain based research supports the constructivist theory of learning: students build understandings based on prior knowledge and experiences. Intellectual development is gradual and dependent on external stimulation. If there is deprivation, as may be the case for children of poverty, their intellectual development will likely be delayed.

We need to be aware of the emotional needs of our students. If children are lacking in emotional and intellectual development, they may have difficulty with language development. Difficulty with language development may prevent a child from developing higher order thinking skills that eventually lead to independent problem solving. This will make it difficult for them to learn and develop several of Gardner's multiple intelligences. Gardner's theory states that all seven intelligences are needed to function productively in society. In order to help motivate students, teachers can use a teaching style that engages all or most of the students, with the goal of exciting students about learning.

While all students possess all seven intelligences, each child comes to school with different areas developed. Poor children may come to school with musical or bodily-kinesthetic intelligences more developed due to the types of experiences and modeling children of poverty may have in their home environments. This is also an indicator of the child's learning style and possible strengths and weaknesses. This information can tell teachers what a child's learning style is by indicating how easy or difficult it is to learn when lessons are presented in a certain way. Learning styles also allow teachers to properly assess student progress (Brualdi, 2000).

Emotions have an impact on memory, as previously mentioned, because emotion drives attention and attention drives learning and memory. If content has no motional relevance to students, they will not recall it. Thus, when developing lessons and units we need to find topics that are both relevant to our students' lives and of interest to our students. Again, in order to do this, we need to have developed relationships with our students. We cannot just guess at what they find interesting or what is relevant to their lives. We need to find ways to relate content to their lives (Kovalik and Olsen, 1998).

We, as teachers, need to introduce information in new and exciting ways and make the learning experience challenging yet enjoyable. Children must be exposed to language patterns and have interactions on which to build a foundation of knowledge. New information should be introduced and examined in context in order to create a link for the student to help recall the learning experience and the information learned. Retrieval is better in contextual, episodic, event-oriented situations (Jensen, 1998). We need to refocus attention frequently, change activities and vary modalities to keep the learner stimulated (Parry & Gregory, 1998). Lessons should be multi-sensory and employ the use of motion, rhythm and manipulatives in an effort to facilitate learning (Jensen, 1998).

Additionally, advance organizers help students to organize, integrate and retain information to be learned. Research has shown a high correlation between the use of advance organizers and increased learning and retention of material. Graphic organizers and maps organize knowledge into conceptual frameworks, making it easier to understand and recall the information. They organize and present information in an accessible way. They display relationships, connect new learning to prior learning and organize information into a more usable form (Fogarty, 1997).

Rehearsal is important because information can be held much longer if it is given conscious and continuous attention. Repetition and review help to practice retrieval of information. Without rehearsal information stays in short term memory for less than 20 seconds. This is an important concept when considering literacy and reading instruction. Children of poverty often have difficulties with reading development. For a new reader or a reader with problems, the repetition and patterns found in multi-sensory instruction help to keep information in short-term memory long enough for it to be processed and transferred to long-term memory (Fogarty, 1997).

Brain congruent activities can help make the curriculum more meaningful. If the brain can access stored information that is similar to new information, it is more likely to make sense of the new information. Activities should help children to link new and existing information. This can help students see that they already possess some knowledge about the new topic and are, in fact, dealing with information that has meaning or relevance for them. This is important for poor children in helping boost self-esteem and confidence in learning situations. Since students retain and apply information in meaningful ways when it is connected to real-life experiences, lessons that involve solving authentic problems and simulations should be used. This can also help children of poverty to develop their problem solving skills and begin to realize their abilities (Westwater and Wolfe, 2000).

One last issue in brain research has to do with nutrition and children of poverty. The food that children eat or do not eat affects their brain development, functioning and behavior. Chemicals released in response to both stress and from foods can prevent higher order thinking. Children of poverty are exposed to great amounts of stress and their nutrition may be poor. Chronic stress causes the body to deplete nutrients, inhibits the growth of dendrites and limits interconnections among neurons. The results are: no nutrients are available for learning; thinking is slowed; learning is depressed. Thus, when nutrition is poor, children: have difficulty tolerating frustration and stress; become apathetic; and are non-responsive, inactive and irritable (Given, 1998). How can they even attempt to learn?

One implication for teachers is to find ways for all students to be successful. Another implication is to make sure that students have access to the breakfast and lunch programs available as well as nutritious snacks.

Implications for Curriculum Adaptations
The following are highlights of what must be considered when developing curriculum in schools or classrooms where students of poverty are involved.

- Provide all students with a rigorous curriculum.
- Have high expectations for all students.
- Make students responsible for their own learning.
- Provide support to students and their families. Involve parents.
- Help children to succeed.
- Create an environment and use activities that foster mutual respect, resilience, self-esteem, self-regulation and self-efficacy.
- Develop relationships with students to identify their needs (emotional and intellectual) and identify their individual learning style.
- Emphasize that each student is unique with value, talents and abilities.
- Promote awareness and acceptance of diversity. Encourage students to recognize similarities as well as differences.
- Use principles of constructivism to make learning interesting, valuable and relevant to students. Teach for meaning.
- Provide developmentally appropriate, meaningful learning activities and use thematic or integrated instruction, cooperative learning, inquiry and authentic learning.

Poverty should not be an excuse for us to expect less from our students. They indeed come to us with numerous issues and challenges that interfere with their learning. We need to focus on their learning, find ways to help them overcome these challenges and gain the most they can from their education. Their education is likely their one chance to break the poverty cycle. It is actually one of the best reasons for them to succeed.

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