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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. In order to address this challenge it is first necessary to understand the dynamics of parenting in the context of poverty. Parenting is a critical process affecting many developmental outcomes for children living in poverty. 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).
Conditions required for families to be successful are often lacking in the environment of poverty: stability, security, emotionally positive time together, access to basic resources, and a strong shared belief system. Thus, family relationships suffer when individuals live in poverty. Parents exhibit less capacity to be supportive and consistent in their parenting, provide less vocal and emotional stimulation, are less responsive to their children's needs and model less sophisticated language. Parenting style is more punitive and coercive and less consistent (Kaiser and Delaney, 1996). Overall, 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). Research shows that 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 English 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. McGee (1996) mentions that a significant discovery was made by researchers studying poverty and homeless families. They discovered that human relationships must take precedence over academics. They found that only if parents trusted teachers and felt accepted by teachers could the teachers stand a chance of getting through to them.
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. One author mentioned the importance of providing food at meetings and activities when homeless families are involved. However, this sounds like a good idea when any families of poverty are involved (McGee, 1996).
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. Brain research indicates that constant fear has a negative effect on learning. Additionally, a person's physical and emotional well-being are related to their ability to think and learn. Considering that children of poverty may be poorly developed, both physically and emotionally, and that their home environments are often emotionally stressful can explain why they often encounter difficulties in school (SEDL).
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. Additionally, cortisol, a stress hormone, will be in abundance; and the result will be emotional volatility. Downshifting can also cause behaviors such as vigilance and resistance or defiance. Students under these conditions can only learn in concrete ways, not abstract ways. 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).
Brain-based learning research has shown that the brain does not store memories, but recreates them every time we recall. We have pathways for specific types of learning. We can use methods of instruction to help students to access information stored in different pathways and retrieve memories needed to learn new information (Jensen, 1998). Since the brain learns by capturing, sorting and holding onto information, we should create classrooms and experiences to capitalize on the brain's natural abilities and promote student learning (Parry & Gregory, 1998).
Sensory memory decides what should go on to short-term memory and what should be discarded. Our attention is focused on anything the brain finds new, exciting, pleasurable or threatening. The more closely new information conforms to what the learner perceives as interesting, useful and emotionally stimulating, the more likely it is to be integrated. This supports the importance of anticipatory set, contingent value and engaging activities (Parry & Gregory, 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).
Activating prior learning at the start of a lesson is beneficial because it enables the students to bring information up to the level of conscious thought, from long-term into short-term or working memory. Making connections between separate pieces of information aids the formation of concepts or generalizations, which increases the possibility the material will be transferred into long-term memory and made available for recall. Poor children may need more attention in this area because of the level of their emotional and intellectual development or lack of a knowledge or experience base.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 foods that children eat or do not eat affect 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. When protein foods, often lacking in diets of poor children, are digested, tyrosine is released into the bloodstream. Tyrosine becomes L-dopa in the brain and is then converted into dopamine. Dopamine produces a feeling of alertness, attentiveness, quick thinking, motivation and mental energy. Fear of failure, isolation and trauma, usually present in poor children, cause dopamine to be converted into norepinephrine. This causes alertness to be converted into aggression and agitation. 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?
Given (1998) also discusses serotonin, carbohydrates and their effect on brain functioning. Carbohydrate foods cause the production of serotonin. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression and low self-esteem. Additionally, the body manufactures its own serotonin when an individual experiences positive self-esteem, success in problem solving and other accomplishments. One implication for teachers is to find ways for all students to be successful, thereby increasing levels of serotonin. Another implication is to make sure that students have access to the breakfast and lunch programs available as well as nutritious snacks.