At Risk Students: Stress and the Legacy of Poverty

Summary: While the parent/child cocoon is the seat of cognitive growth according to attachment theory, disruption to that relationship within the stresses of poverty can also mean low income students’ frontal cortex does not develop optimally, which becomes a liability upon entry to school. Multiple programs to alleviate poverty and initiatives in schools themselves seek to repair this legacy by recreating the conditions of proper growth in both community and classroom.

The science of being human is gradually catching up to the poetry of human life. Mothers and fathers from ancient time have recognized that nurture and protection of children, those deeds of the parental heart, are the bedrock upon which offspring lives are made or broken.

Now our nation’s perplexed quest to improve the lot of our low income school children is paced by inquiries into neurobiology, behavioral science, developmental psychology and the composite examination of what works and what does not in schools.

This science, on the hunt for what works in schools increasingly has peered into what does happen, or does not happen, in the very early years of life, in the presence (or absence) of “good enough” parenting, well before a child appears in the school door.

John Bowlby in the mid twentieth century proposed “attachment theory” to explain in part the developmental safety of closeness to a caretaker, usually a mother. Later contributors and studies have bulwarked this understanding. Within the relatively safe web of a mother’s attentions, the infant and later the child is able to explore her widening world and in the process develop her burgeoning cognitive and emotional complexities. Some of this is within the interactive gurgle and coo with the mother figure, but also when exploring beyond that intense dyad, under stress, the child can return to the comfort of the mother figure for reassurance, and in the process learn that despite occasional alarms, the world is a safe place in which to explore and learn.

In this way the early templates for competence, autonomy, socialization, language development, and so forth are founded.

By contrast, if the parent figure’s emotional availability is erratic, frightening, or distant, the child frequently is on high alert – otherwise known as the flight or fight response – which as an evolutionary mechanism allows all animal life to respond to threat, and to protect. In human culture, however, too much time spent on alert will initiate physiological problems – and in fact contemporary medicine documents the longer term effects of stress on adult medical health.

Moreover, advances in neurobiology have demonstrated that chronic vigilance and the associated presence of stress hormones such as adrenaline actually inhibit development of the prefrontal cortex, the seat of our higher cognitive and executive functions.  It is from the prefrontal cortex that we manage our emotions, direct our behavior, focus attention, and process information, those skills which in turn modulate a student’s interactions with school, his classroom, his teacher, and the complexities of his fellow students.

Which brings us around to low income students. Neurobiologists and social scientists have demonstrated that students who live in poverty are likely to endure well more than their share of stress, and so are well more than other children likely to experience the disruption of the prefrontal capacities so critical to success in school. Thus students who live in poverty are more likely to dysregulate their emotions and behaviors in ways that expose them to discipline, and are less likely to be able to navigate the cognitive matrices of school academics.

It is important to note that this is not to denigrate the parenting skills of low income parents, or to assume that low income students have anything but full potential, but to recognize that the sometimes extraordinary stresses both parents and children encounter in poverty overwhelm them in ways that we more middle class types may understand in only an emotionally removed fashion. Parents who are overwhelmed raise children in stress who then become parents themselves who continue the inverse cycle.

Thus we have schools replete with low income students whose collective academic skills remain stagnant, developmentally hindered by stressful early years, and as interpreted through test scores. While the individual prospects for these students teeter there are broader implications; the social mobility upon which this culture prides itself is eroding while income inequality widens. The middle class shrinks as employers lament the shallow talent pool in the labor market. Jobs that promise a viable financial future require personal and academic skills which at this juncture are proving too difficult to grasp for many in the poverty class. To characterize the spiral as downward is not overly alarmist.

What to do? What is being done? Almost magically, as thousands of initiatives in school reform and social politics seek to penetrate the complex of problems faced by schools and poor communities, many solutions in fundamental ways serve to recapitulate the benefits of the basic attachment dyad of Bowlby’s. Let me explain.

There are macro efforts that seek, for example, to strengthen the security of the attachment dyad and/or the family. Nurses support and teach young low income mothers through public health services. Affordable and stable housing campaigns are under way or well established in many communities. Federal and state scrutiny of police seeks peace in the streets of low income neighborhoods. Preparation of convicts for reintroduction to life on the outside seems ascendant, while citizens and politicians from left and right increasingly recognize that overly punitive incarceration practices have eviscerated poor communities of color. The Affordable Care Act has extended health care to many poor. Though good job creation has lagged, even conservative commentators have voiced approval of putting more money in the hands of the poor, as a relatively efficient way of stabilizing families and alleviating the stresses of poverty.

The thread through all of these endeavors is the stabilization of poor communities, and with stabilization the better likelihood that a caring parent or parents, be they mothers or fathers, can provide the kind of protective cocoon in which their young children can develop their prefrontal lobe faculties to such a degree that they are school ready when the time comes.

In a related fashion certain successful school programs envelop struggling students and form complex social attachments in order to support and stimulate growth. It is true pedagogy with such potential currently is neither wide spread enough, nor of sufficient longitudinal duration in troubled students’ lives, but those that have been implemented seem to have this common promise.

In some schools specially trained auxiliary staff work with acutely at risk students who are often the originators of disruption to classroom process. Certain types of teachers have proven adept at helping marginal students feel they belong and are competent. Restorative justice approaches to discipline hold students accountable, but keep them in school as in a family to which they inextricably attached. Cooperative learning is a teaching approach which emphasizes group and project active work within a classroom community rather than silence before the lecture of a teacher. Advisory is a daily small group in which academics are shelved briefly, where personal issues may be approached and in the best instances a set of enhanced relationships within the larger school fostered. Student led conferences, involving teachers and parents place visible responsibility on the student to reflect on his progress.

The composite vector here is toward inclusion of all students, with relationships in place that problem solve rather than exclude, which nurture independent thinking and through academic autonomy aim to breed in students a sense of competence, all of which parallel the same purposes in the student’s original dyad with a mother/parent figure. These features we may expect to be a part of any serious policy or pedagogy meant to cultivate school success for children of poverty.

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