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The Effects of Poverty on Teaching and Learning

The Effects of Poverty on Teaching and Learning

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Published by Madiha Imran

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Published by: Madiha Imran on Mar 15, 2010
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11/14/2012

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The Effects of Poverty on Teaching and Learning
Originally Posted At:
Another great tutorial from TeAch-nology.com! The Web Portal For Educators! (http://www.teach-nology.com)
by Karen M. Pellino
**What's All the Hype?**
Poverty is an issue that more and more of our nation’s children are coming face to face with. Theprice that children of poverty must pay is unbelievably high. Each year, increasing numbers of children areentering schools with needs from circumstances, such as poverty, that schools are not prepared to meet.This paper will examine the effects of poverty on teaching and learning. Poverty as a risk factor will bediscussed as will a number of the many challenges that arise in teaching children of poverty. Implicationsof brain-based research for curriculum reform and adaptation will be presented.
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’ssocial circumstances. It does not appear that any one single factor places a child at-risk. Rather, whenmore than one factor is present, there is a compounding effect and the likelihood for failure increasessignificantly. Poverty is considered a major at-risk factor (Leroy & Symes, 2001). Some of the factorsrelated to poverty that may place a child at-risk for academic failure are: very young, single or loweducational 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 anddevelopment. 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 chancesfor success in school and life (Leroy & Symes, 2001). Academic and behavioral problems can be indicators of impendingfailure. 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 astudent’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. Thesechildren may be unable to concentrate or focus. They may be unwilling or unable to interact with peers and/or adults inschool in an effective manner. These issues not only have an impact on the learning of the child of poverty but can alsoimpact the learning of other children.
Challenge: Diversity
The rise in the number of children in poverty has contributed to making our nation’s classrooms more diverse thanever before. This, indeed, makes both teaching and learning more challenging. This issue can remain a challenge for teachers, as opposed to becoming a problem, if focus is placed on student learning as opposed to teaching.Teachers need to be tuned in to the culture of poverty and 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 worldof school operates by different rules or norms than the social world these children live in. Focus should be placed on findinga harmonious relationship between the cultural values of students and values emphasized in school. Considering that somany different cultures are represented in our society, we often encounter students who belong to more than one culturalgroup. They may be poor in addition to being non-English speaking or of an ethnic/racial/religious minority group (Bowman,1994; Marlowe and Page, 1999).High-mobility is a symptom of poverty and its surrounding social factors. Children of poverty may live in places thatrent by the week or even day. They may move from town to town as their parent searches for work or runs from problems(such as an abusive spouse, criminal record, financial responsibilities). They may live in homeless shelters or batteredwomen’s shelters that only allow brief stays. They may live on the streets. The conditions they live in and their day-to-daylife experiences can have a significant effect on their education and achievement. Moving is a very emotional event for children. Combine this issue with the multitude of other issues faced by mobile and homeless children and the impact ontheir emotional, social and cognitive development can be overwhelming.School attendance is often irregular. Transfer to a new school becomes the norm. Aside from the differences fromthe general school population due to other aspects of their poverty, mobility compounds the difficulty these children havemaking friends. They may behave hostilely or be totally withdrawn due to past attempts to make friends. With regard to boththe academic and social aspects of school, they may figure, “Why bother? I’m just going to move again.” They also oftencome to school with no records from their previous schools; and it may be difficult for schools to track the records down.Teachers have no idea what these students have learned. It is challenging for schools to place these children in classroomsand get them additional services they may need. Even if placement is successful, these children will likely move againwithin the school year. It is also challenging to help these students to learn at least something of value while they remain inour classrooms.Children become aware of social and economic status differences at a very young age. They also growincreasingly aware of both their own social status and that of their peers, developing class-related attitudes during their years in elementary school. Teachers can help children to develop caring and sensitivity toward different cultures includingsocial classes. Activities and lessons should be based on how children perceive themselves and the world at the variousstages of development. For example, children who are in the age range of 7-12 years are less egocentric. They focus on
 
internal characteristics or traits of people as opposed to external, observable social class differences. They also recognizesimilarities and differences among groups. At around age 11, children can consider causes and solutions to poverty.Taking into account a spiral curriculum, at earlier ages children can become acquainted with social class and other cultural differences. During the latter years, the topic can be revisited for deeper understanding. This is a great opportunityto include community service learning projects in the curriculum, such as volunteering as a class in a soup kitchen. It isimportant that these activities be followed with both group discussion and individual reflection to help children think criticallyabout their experiences (Chafel, 1997; Gomez, 2000).
As teachers, these aspects of poverty make planning and preparation absolutely critical. Contentneeds to be related in varying ways to meet the needs of the diverse students in the classroom. We haveto consider the cultural values of these children as we arrange their learning. Constructivism is a keyconcept in that it respects student differences and allows students to use their own prior knowledge andexperiences to make connections and learn. It affords students the opportunity to become active learnersby 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 knowledgeand 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 problemsolving 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). Thus,diversity actually presents us with a chance to enhance the quality of education for all our students and provide them with avariety of opportunities to develop into productive citizens. As our schools and nation become more diverse, the need for understanding and acceptance of differences becomes more important. Our challenge is to provide children with aneffective multicultural education that will foster awareness, respect, and acceptance.
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 levelsthan children of middle and upper classes. The causes are numerous and are related to both the socialenvironment in which poor children live and the education they receive in school. Factors such as thequality of student learning behaviors, home environment, past experiences with education, and teacherattitudes are among the many influences on student achievement. Slavin (1998) proposes that schools canhave 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. Thesechildren need an education that is founded in high standards and high expectations for all. Curriculumalignment must exist to ensure that a rigorous curriculum and assessment accompany and are aligned withthe standards. What occurs in our classrooms has a significant impact on student achievement. Thecurriculum should be challenging to prevent decreased opportunity for higher education, which translatesinto less opportunity in life for them.Content should be of high quality and be culturally relevant. A watered-down curriculum isunacceptable. Teachers should be knowledgeable of the cultures in which their students live so they canplan effective and engaging lessons. Additionally, instructional and classroom management techniques thatwork well with some students don’t necessarily work well with poor children. The perspective andexperiences of the children need to be considered (Goodwin, 2000). Other aspects that can help close theachievement gap are discussed in the following sections: motivation, readiness and parent/familyinvolvement.An article by Haycock (2001) addresses issues related to poverty and the achievement gap throughresearch conducted by The Education Trust in the late 1990’s. They questioned both children and adults onwhat they suspect are causes of this achievement gap. One comment among those made by the childrenwas, “ ’What hurts us more is that you teach us less.’ “ Haycock (2001) concludes: “…we take the studentswho have less to begin with and then systematically give them less in school.What schools do obviouslymatters. What also matters is effective teaching.
Challenge: Student Motivation to Learn
One of the social issues facing children of poverty is emotional trauma. The emotional climate canoften 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 canalso result. Emotional security and self-esteem are often lacking. There is a craving for attention and aneed to belong (Ciaccio, 2000; Brophy, 2000). The characteristics that are lacking in the povertyenvironment are those that help foster effective learning and academic success. Emotional draining andnegative 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 torestore 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 bymaking them feel secure and good about themselves and by building trusting respectful relationships withthem (Bassey, 1996). The teacher may be the dependable and caring adult, often the only adult of thiskind, 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, andsupports that help children survive in a challenging environment. Children need our help if they are toadapt 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 thatsupports resilience (Benard, 1995).Ciaccio (2000) also discusses the technique of total positive response to student misbehavior as amethod of developing relationships with students and a method of effective classroom management. Everyincidence of student misbehavior is dealt with in a positive versus negative manner in an effort to disarmstudents that may exhibit some of the most challenging behaviors. Total positive response involves the useof positive strategies to meet student needs, combined with caring and total acceptance. The challenge is tofind the positive in the negative. Because at-risk students have egos that are often severely damaged,criticism can cause them to tune teachers and authority out. Additionally, emotionally damaged studentscannot effectively deal with criticism and channel it to improvement. We must make it our responsibility tofind ways to generate and maintain student interest and involvement on a consistent basis by making ourclassrooms safe, accepting, interesting and engaging places (Haberman, 1995). By creating lessons thathave meaning to these children, teachers are responding actively and constructively to the background orprior knowledge and experience of their students.The concepts of agency and conation, which encompasses self-efficacy and self-regulation, are keyto 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 theirenergies may be directed elsewhere in their struggle to survive, they may have poor experiences withschooling or may perceive that they don’t really need school to be successful. They may translate money orbelonging into success, and perceive careers in criminal activity that permeate poorer neighborhoods (suchas drug dealing, prostitution, gambling, theft and gang involvement) as lucrative careers and as the onlyones possible for them.Children from low SES live in environments with social conditions over which they have little control.It is not their choice where they live. It is not their choice that their parent may be unemployed ordisabled. It was not their choice to be born into poverty. They often have the feeling they want or need toescape this environment and do better; but they feel they have no control over the nature and quality of their lives. The concept of agency is that an individual can intentionally make things happen through theiractions. This is an underlying concept in social learning or social cognitive theory. If we can show childrenthat they can be agents, we can enable them to play a part in their self-development and take responsibilityfor their learning, personal development and achievement (Brophy, 1998; Bandura, 2001).
As agents, children do not simply undergo experiences. They become actively engaged participants by usingsensory, motor and cognitive processes to accomplish tasks and goals that give their lives meaning and direction. Theyexplore, manipulate and influence the environment. We need to get children to act mindfully to make desired things happenrather than let themselves be acted on by their environments.When many children from low SES run into difficult challenges they engage in negative self-talk and may perceivetheir failures as challenges they cannot overcome. They may not increase their efforts and may become despondent if theyinterpret failure to mean they are personally deficient. Because of the culture they live in, they may also feel exploited or disrespected and respond hostilely or apathetically. Goal setting is a critical aspect of agency because it allows individualsto construct outcome expectations. This provides direction, coherence and meaning to life, elements often lacking in lowSES students, and can also enable these students to transcend the dictates of their environment.
Conation refers to the connection between knowledge, affect and behavior. It is the intentional,goal-oriented component of motivation that explains how knowledge and emotion are translated intobehavior. Conation is a proactive aspect of behavior that is closely related to volition (the use of will orfreedom to make choices about what to do). It is necessary in order for an individual to become self-directed and self-regulated. Conation is especially important when addressing issues in learning. It issomething that is often lacking in low achieving students, particularly those from low SES backgrounds(Huitt, 1999). A critical task facing teachers is to help students develop conative attitudes, skills for self-regulation (goals, plans, and perseverance), and self-efficacy (the belief that something can be done).SES affects behavior through its impact on an individual’s aspirations, sense of efficacy, personalstandards and emotional states. A strong sense of efficacy can help strengthen resiliency to adversity oftenfound in the environment of the low SES student. Low SES students often live in chaotic and unstructured

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