Better Education for the Whole Child

April 23, 2014

It might be a long road, but with the guidance of dedicated staff, at least those kids can know they no longer have to walk that road alone.Two years ago, my husband and I heard a broadcast of NPR’s This American Life that really stuck with us. Entitled “Back to School,” the show examined the role that stress, poverty, and familial instability played in the cognitive and educational development of kids in Chicago Public Schools. I was intrigued because I am an English teacher from Mississippi, and I know how complex the interweaving of poverty and education has been there. My husband was intrigued because he’d spent the last year living and working in Chicago with minority women and their children who were all products of that public school system. So that show stayed with me, and I still think about it frequently.

Students who come from poor homes tend to do worse on most standard academic tests. Part of why this is particularly troubling for places like Mississippi and Chicago is that the majority of students in those public schools come from poor homes. In fact, according to Alex Kotlowitz of the New York Times, 87% of all Chicago Public School students are the products of low-income families. Of these numbers, radio host Ira Glass summed it up, “It’s well-documented that poor children do worse on tests and worse in school than better off ones. This is the so-called achievement gap.”

In other words, studies linking poverty to poor educational performance were news to no one, but what surprised the writers at This American Life was the following recent finding from cognitive neuroscience: “What is holding these children back is not poverty. It’s not the lack of money or resources in their homes. It’s stress. If you grew up in a poor household, it is more likely to be a household that just stresses you out in ways that kids in better off homes were not stressed out. And that stress prevents you from developing these non-cognitive skills.”

Among others, the non-cognitive skills Glass speaks of are empathy, patience, and self-control, all of which have been scientifically linked in recent years to the development of so-called executive functions. These executive functions are apparently a much greater predictor of a child’s success both in school and in life than their more purely cognitive counterparts like math skills.

Essentially, whether because of poverty or instability, lack of cognitive or non-cognitive skills, students who experience severe levels of stress in their homes of origin tend to suffer academically. That stress can take many forms for kids—not knowing if parents will feed or shelter them, being shuttled from place to place, not knowing if parents will come back home from a night out, not knowing if parents will be able to maintain employment or stay out of prison. Obviously, the manifestations of stress are as varied as the kids themselves. But it boils down to this: kids who don’t feel safe literally don’t have the same brain capacities as kids who do, because their systems are constantly being flooded with cortisol and adrenaline and other “fight or flight” hormones leaving no room for the kind of calm, focused attention required to thrive in school.

These findings are directly in line with recent initiatives at Palmer Home, particularly the Whole Child Initiative, which basically holds that if one part of a child is wounded, it will take mending the whole child—emotionally, educationally, spiritually, and physically—to fully address that wound.

One key component of that healing work is educational support. Although in the past Palmer Home has had volunteer tutors and even had Title I educational support for those students with diagnosed learning disabilities requiring accommodation, it’s only been in the last year that they have hired full-time and part-time staff members solely dedicated to educational support, led by Educational Coordinator Pam Abrams.

Abrams, a former English teacher with nearly 30 years experience in the classroom, was approached on the eve of her retirement by Palmer Home CEO Drake Bassett about the possibility of coming on staff to not only shore up the academic work of students who were already enrolled in school, but to help further develop an on-campus school for students who had the greatest need for one on one attention. Abrams agreed and began work at Palmer Home just one day after her official retirement from the public school system.

Now Palmer Home has a small on-campus school for elementary students with a variety of learning disabilities requiring differentiated instruction. They also have a monitored homeschool program for high school students who had struggled the most in a traditional school setting. Abrams says the students are as hungry to learn and to succeed as they are to be loved.

In order to succeed later in life, Palmer Home residents must not only be able to address the emotional, spiritual, and physical wounds they have endured, but also be able to overcome any educational obstacles they face. It might be a long road, but with the guidance of dedicated staff like Mrs. Abrams and my mother, at least those kids can know they no longer have to walk that road alone.