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.