Adjusting curriculum for kids in poverty

Mar 25, 2015

Students wait in a line at E Prep and Village Prep Academy in Cleveland.
Credit Mark Urycki / StateImpact Ohio

In January, an analysis of federal data found that for the first time in at least 50 years more than half of the public school children in America are living in poverty. In Ohio, the number is only 39 percent, but it still concerns school officials here who know that poor kids come to school carrying extra burdens. In recent years education officials have been looking to brain research for answers.

Educators call them “stressed” kids, and brain research predicts that children under stress will have a more difficult time learning and behaving. 

Neuroscientists say the brains of kids under stress are less active in their prefrontal cortex, which governs thinking, and more active in the amygdala, that deals with “fight or flight” emotions.

Author and former family counselor Barbara Oehlberg of Solon, Ohio says kids in poverty often have weak parental relationships or attachments, and that can affect brain growth. 

“Children who have experienced weak attachments do not have the neural networks to be self-regulated,” she says.

Oehlberg says the good news is that the brain can change and adapt.  She developed a “Grow the Brain Program,” a classroom approach that is safe and friendly to provide emotional security for children. 

Oehlberg got a chance to try it out in the Canton City School District at Belden Elementary where 95 percent of its pupils live in poverty. 

“What they need is relationships because many of these children have not had the opportunity to have them," says Oehlberg. "So building that grows the brain.  It strengthens self-regulation.  If they understand why children are misbehaving then you can design strategies to prevent it.”

A kindergarten teacher at Belden, Jonathan Shaw, remembers one particular boy who was so disruptive that he was ruining the class for everyone else. 

He says, “Instead of taking the approach of writing him up and sending him down to the office we handled it in the classroom through morning meetings where we presented the problem as a class to the students.  We said that we don’t feel safe with the actions you’re doing in the classroom and we deserve to feel safe again.”

Harsh discipline might only make the perpetrator defensive and resistant but this was a group intervention.

“That was the one thing he said constantly," reports Shaw. "'Thank you for not forgiving up on me. I’ll do better, I’ll do better.’ In the classroom it went from me controlling every single behavior to the students taking ownership of not only their own behaviors but their peers as well.”

Not all the teachers tried this more gentle approach - about one quarter of the teachers the first year and three-quarters the second year.  But the principal, Mallory Floyd, said after a year and a half Belden’s school rating by the state did improve.

“Now we can’t directly say that it was because of the Growing Your Brain program but the ones involved with it - we understand fully that that made a difference,” says Floyd.

Another advocate of this approach taught middle school and high school for Cleveland city schools. Meryl Johnson would start every day with journal writing and discussion time to form a bond with her students.

Says Johnson, “The fact that I would take the time showed that I cared about them. I really had fewer discipline problems.  I would hear teachers complaining about students giving them trouble all the time.  Having those kinds of activities made it easier for students to have a trusting relationship with me and I didn’t have the kind of discipline problems that seemed to occur with the same students in other classrooms.”

One charter school in Cleveland is trying a more strict approach.  E Prep Woodland Hills is a 5th to 8th grade school with a poverty rate over 95 percent. Pupils there walk down the hallways in complete silence, single file. Yet officials say they follow the same kind of brain research that found stress inhibits cognitive skills.

The head of E Prep, Chris O’Brien, says their model lowers stress. “I think our kids can relax when they know the rules. When every room is the same, when the game doesn’t change from teacher to teacher they can relax. They know what the expectations are. They can get comfortable with the environment. They learn the rules of the game and then they learn how to be very successful in that game.”

O’Brien says now the challenge becomes preparing his 8th graders for entering high school, when the same rules won’t necessarily apply.