Teaching from Poverty

Based on research from Ruby Payne's "A Framework for Understanding Poverty" and Eric Jensen's "Teaching with Poverty in Mind"/"Brain-Based Learning"

The intent of many political interventions in public education had great intent to help children and prepare a generation of students for success. These interventions, dating back to No Child Left Behind in 2001, created performance accountability models based on student academic achievement. Schools and educational leaders have faced increased demands for accountability and are under relentless pressure to improve student academic performance (Bogan & Nguyen-Hoang, 2014). Many state initiative created initiatives to turnaround failing schools. This began with identifying performance targets and then creating a “list” of schools that did not meet those targets. In many states, the “list” of low[erforming schools considered “turnaround schools” had common correlates and similarities. One of the most prevalent characteristics of almost all of the schools on these lists were identified as high-poverty schools (Title I, free and reduced lunch percentages, etc.). Low-student achievement and poverty were the most common characteristics of these schools shared. Essentially meaning that these “school turnaround” initiatives basically identified poverty.

In identifying poverty, it's similar to the question of "which came first the chicken or the egg?". Is poverty a causal factor in low academic performance or is low academic performance a contributing factor to poverty? The one thing we know is that they tend to be synonymous in high poverty schools, which have the highest percentages of our most at-risk students nationally. In examining the research of Dr. Ruby Payne and Dr. Eric Jensen, there's a scientific basis behind the impacts that poverty has on the brain and student achievement.

“Chronic, unmediated stress often results in a condition known as an allostatic load. Allostatic load is "carryover" stress. Instead of returning to a healthy baseline of homeostasis, the growing brain adapts to negative life experiences so that it becomes either hyper-responsive or hypo-responsive.”

Eric Jensen, Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids' Brains and What Schools Can Do about It

Teaching With Poverty in Mind - Dr. Eric Jensen

This research helps educators understand the impact that poverty has both on the brain and on student achievement. These principles of Brain-Based Learning include:

Principles of Brain-Based Learning (by Eric Jensen)

  • Malleable memories
    Memories are often not encoded at all, encoded poorly, changed or not retrieved. The result is that students rarely remember what we think they should. Memories are susceptible to inattention, erosion over time, subject bias, misattribution and a host of other confounding conditions. Memories are strengthened by frequency, intensity and practice under varying conditions and contexts.

  • Non-conscious experience runs automatic behaviors
    The complexity of the human body requires that we automate many behaviors. The more we automate, the less we are aware of them. Most of our behaviors have come from either “undisputed downloads” from our environment or repeated behaviors that have become automatic. This suggests potential problems and opportunities in learning.

  • Reward and addiction dependency
    Humans have a natural craving for positive feelings, including novelty, fun, reward and personal relationships. There is a natural instinct to limit pain even if it means compromising our integrity. For complex learning to occur, students need to defer gratification and develop the capability to go without an immediate reward.

  • Attentional Limitations
    Most people cannot pay attention very long, except during flow states, because they cannot hold much information in their short-term memory. It is difficult for people to maintain focus for extended periods of time. We are born with the capacity to orient and fixate attention when it comes to contrast, movement, emotions or survival. But classroom learning requires a level of learned attention and many teachers don’t know how to teach this skill. Adapting the content to match the learner provides better attention and motivation to learn.

  • Brain seeks and creates understanding
    The human brain is a meaning-maker and meaning seeker. We assign value and meaning to many everyday occurrences whether it’s on intentional or not. Meaning-making is an important human attribute that allows us to predict and cope with experiences. The more important the meaning, the greater the attention one must pay in order to influence the content of the meaning.

  • Rough Drafts/Gist Learning
    Brains rarely get complex learning right the first time. Instead they often sacrifice accuracy for simply developing a “rough draft” of the learning material. If, over time, the learning material maintains or increases in its importance and relevance, the brain will upgrade the rough draft to improve meaning and accuracy. To this end, prior knowledge changes how the brain organizes new information. Goal-driven learning proceeds more rapidly than random learning. Learning is enhanced by brain mechanisms with contrasting output and input goals.

  • Input Limitations
    Several physical structures and processes limit one’s ability to take in continuous new learning. The “slow down” mechanisms include the working memory, the synaptic formation time for complex encoding and the hippocampus. While we can expose our brain to a great deal of information in a short time frame, the quality of that exposure is known as “priming” and is not considered in-depth learning. Schools typically try to cram as much content as possible in a day as possible. You can teach faster, but students will just forget faster.

  • Perception influences our experience
    A person’s experience of life is highly subjective. Many studies show how people are easily influenced to change how we see and what we hear, feel, smell and taste. This subjectivity alters experience, which alters perception. When a person changes the way they perceive the world, they alter their experience. It is experience that drives change in the brain.

  • Malleability/Neural Plasticity
    The brain changes every day and more importantly, we influence those changes. New areas of brain plasticity and overall malleability are regularly discovered. It is known that experience can drive physical changes in the sensory cortex, frontal lobes, temporal lobes, amygdala and hippocampus. In addition whole systems can adapt to experience such as the reward system or stress response system.

  • Emotional-Physical State Dependency
    Nearly every type of learning includes a “go” or “no go” command to the brain in our neural net signaling process. These complex signals are comprised of excite or suppress signals. Emotions can provide the brain’s signals to either move ahead or not. Thus, learning occurs through a complex set of continuous signals which inform your brain about whether to form a memory or not. Both emotional and bodily states influence our attention, memory, learning, meaning and behavior through these signaling systems.

Poverty Mindset - Dr. Ruby Payne

Dr. Paynes research provides educators a framework for understanding poverty, both the social and physiological basis' that impacts student learning and achievement. Dr. Ruby Payne’s “Framework for Understanding Poverty” is one of the leading authorities on poverty and it’s impact on the individual child. Dr. Payne divides poverty into two separate groups: generational and situational. Generational poverty is when two or more generations of a family lived in poverty and situational poverty is poverty due to a particular event such as a business failure, divorce, sickness, etc. Paynes says there is a “culture of poverty” with hidden rules and beliefs. Important to note is that both types of poverty may impact student achievement.

Why/How Poverty Impacts Learning (Dr. Ruby Payne)

Dr. Payne points to the formation and development of language as a foundational skill. She discusses the formal register and says that it is important to ensure that poor children are taught the formal register so they will be able to use it. Generational poverty may impact learning in several ways including:

Language - It’s important to understand the behavior of students living in poverty. The use of the casual register in language is one of the first things to understand. The casual register is the style of language that friends use with one another. This form of language has a limited vocabulary with less specific word choice and depended on nonverbal cues. This register of language is two registers from formal register, the register of work and school. An example would be a post on social media or text message that uses incorrect grammar and incomplete sentences and inside references. This doesn’t promote and grow the formal register in the same way a conversation would be generated toward a boss or in a job setting where the vocabulary would be increased and you would use better grammar and structure. Many children living in poverty do not experience the formal register at home very often. As they enter school, there vocabulary and language development is below the level of their peers so they are starting at a deficiency. As they enter upper elementary and middle school, they are required to respond, verbally or in writing, more often in a formal register. Another characteristic of poverty is the use of non-verbal cues, which may contribute to the struggle many students from poverty have in writing their thoughts on paper in a formal nature.

Entertainment - Entertainment plays a large role in poor families (Payne, 2013). Entertainment becomes an escape from poverty and oftentimes families that live in generational have trouble preparing for the future because they may not be able to visualize the future or may feel more secure living in the “now”. This explains why many students in poverty that say they have trouble affording school supplies wear expensive name-brand clothes and have the newest cell phones. For them, the importance is on the short term enjoyment rather than the long term investment. When students live in a short term world, the long term consequences are hard to perceive. Middle class culture teaches that the long term is the goal. It is also because of this lack of long term understanding that students in poverty may get angry or become frustrated and shut down if the work becomes too difficult or they don’t like what they are doing. They struggle to sometimes see the long term benefits of what they are doing.

Relationships - According to Payne, people become possessions in families in poverty, because they may be the only resource that poor people can rely on for survival. While middle class culture promotes self-sufficiency, people in poverty have to rely on others for support. Relationships in poverty are more about like/dislike instead of the middle class perspective where relationships are about social standing and advancement in the long-term. Students in poverty generally will work or do for people they like, which can be problematic if they don’t like a person in authority like a teacher or principal. Respect takes on a different meaning than in a middle class perspective. Respect is earned and comes from being able to help someone, not by a position of authority. Students in poverty tend to go out of their way to work and please people they respect, which can be powerful for teaching and learning.

Students in situational poverty have problems as well. According to Payne (2013) families lack the coping skills that families in generational poverty have developed. They may not understand how to “work the system” in terms of how to stretch limited resources (which bills need to be paid first, how to look for cheap housing while avoiding being taken advantage of, etc) because of their lack of experience. This can cause other struggle such as loss of identify, which is important to the middle class school of thought and priorities. Even though the parents may try to keep their financial situation from their children, children have way of finding out and “may become withdrawn, act out or get involved in substance abuse” (Payne, 2013, pg. 95).

“These are patterns that you see. These are why individuals use these patterns, and here is what you can do to help those individuals make the transition to the “decontextualized” environment of formal schooling, if they so desire to make that transition. There are street rules and there are school rules.”

- Ruby Payne, "A Framework for Understanding Poverty."

“We should never make an assumption about a student or parent based on a single dimension of their identity” (Gorski, 2007, pg. 33). Payne’s work is a generalization and does not represent all students living in poverty. This framework for understanding poverty is intended to help middle class teachers and administrators understand the differences and challenges faced by students living in poverty to help instructional facilitation and increase student learning. It’s important that ALL educators hold high expectations for ALL students, regardless of poverty or other factors. Our goal is for ALL students to learn at a high level.

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