Monday, March 16, 2015

Eric Jensen, Poverty, and Relationships

About two months ago the education blogging community was furiously debating whether or not grit is racist. It brought about some interesting points of view from both sides of the debate, and hopefully added to our larger understanding of what we expect from all students, what it means to be successful, and what students need to achieve that success. Not long after stumbling into the debate I read Eric Jensen's book, Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind. None if it is new information, but what I appreciate is that Jensen does an excellent job of bringing up the many different factors that impact students from poverty, along with the research that shows how these factors interfere with students. I found that much of what he says resonates with Responsive Classroom, and it is reaffirming to read the list of research studies that support the ideology Responsive Classroom is based on.

Instead of just saying "students need grit," and leaving it at that, Jensen lists seven factors that teachers need to consider when teaching students from poverty, which he determined by examining the effect size of these factors in various research studies. The seven factors with the greatest effect size? Health and nutrition, vocabulary, effort and energy, mind-set, cognitive capacity, relationships, and stress level. 

As a special education teacher who has primarily taught in schools with high poverty, relationships is the factor I have always found to be the key to everything. All humans have a biological need to connect, and Jensen sites a 2012 study that links relationships to the size of the hippocampus, which controls learning, memory, and emotional regulation (24). I've found that when I've connected with students everything else falls into place. They believe in themselves, become less stressed, feel more secure and are willing to learn, take risks, put effort into their work. 

Students, regardless of their socio-economic background often walk in our doors in the morning carrying a tremendous amount of life we only see through slumped shoulders, tired eyes, or angry expressions. We never know what they had for breakfast that morning, what fight they overheard between their parents, or what they believe about themselves. Yet it's these unseen stressors under the surface that drive our students' actions and their approach to school. What we see in our classrooms often looks like apathy, anger, frustration, or restlessness. Jensen describes these states as attractor states, which he defines as "the preferred or default state toward which conditions or systems tend to move. In other words, people become attracted to states according to their frequency of occurrence. As the brain strengthens repeated neural networks over time, these attractor states become habitual. Soon these states become comfort zones" (39).

It sounds odd that apathy, anger, or frustration would become a comfort zone. Think of someone you would describe as an angry person. They get angry quickly, argue with everything, and see every event that happens to them as the world working against them. This is where they are most comfortable operating. It's their attractor state, and where their thought patterns go time and time again. It is true for our students as well. Many of them have been reacting to their environment for years and have developed thought patterns to help them survive and process the world around them. They bring those thought patterns into school and use them to process what is happening in our classrooms.

So what do we do? There is so little in our students' lives we can control. We can't change their home lives, and we can't force them to forget their stressors when they walk through the school doors. What we can do, however, is to create an environment that allows our students to relax, take risks, and experience positive emotions. We need to shape their mind-body states within our classroom, the one environment we can control.

What our students need is a place to belong. When our students walk into our schools in the mornings, and then into our individual classrooms they need to feel like they are part of a family. They need to trust us and their classmates, feel safe to take risks, and feel like they are important to their community. They need to feel so strongly connected with us that when they walk in our doors they feel like they don’t have to carry their burdens alone. They need a place to experience and practice a positive mind-body state. A place to feel what it is like to have hope.

Our relationships matter. We aren't just teaching a series of facts or academic strategies, but instead teaching students that it is possible to thrive when the world seems stacked against them.


Rayanne Pirozzi said...

Thank you for articulating what I see in my classroom every day. Relationships, community, belonging, all these are key for just being and THEN the learning can happen. I wrote about my frustrations lately when I was told that our kids don't have time for these things they need to learn to read. Your post gives me more to think about and build my case for why it is essential that we take the time to make these children feel that they belong, the are important and they are safe when they come to school.

You can read about my experiences with my students at

The post I am referring to is These Kids Don't Have Time for Kumbabya Crap

organized chaos said...

Thank you for sharing your blog- I love it and am excited to add it to my feedly list. I think one of my take away from Jensen's book is that while many kids can be successful with the "no time for relationships, just focus on academics" the kids we can't otherwise reach- the ones we often feel like we can't connect with and wonder why our normal strategies aren't working- those are the kids who desperately need the relationships in order to be available for learning.

Rayanne Pirozzi said...

This makes me wonder how much growth we would see from the kids who can be successful without relationships if they had relationships with their teachers. I think of my own daughter who is 15. She is one of those kids who can be "successful" without the relationship component. I don't want her to be successful. I want her to THRIVE.

organized chaos said...

Rayanne- that's so true. Relationships really can be the key to everything. And what is success if our students aren't thriving. It's such a good reminder to stop and take the time to form connections with all of our students.