Children from poor neighborhoods have a harder time transitioning to adulthood than children from wealthier ones. That’s the finding from a decade-long study published this month by a trio of sociologists from Johns Hopkins and St. Joseph’s universities. In Coming of Age in the Other America, Stefanie DeLuca, Susan Clampet-Lundquist and Kathryn Edin followed 150 young men and women living in Baltimore from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. They looked at the circumstances affecting the successes and failures of those who grew up in some of the most poverty-stricken areas of Baltimore – the public housing projects – “amid startling violence” as Emily Badger of the Washington Post wrote.
The results suggest that while many of their middle- and upper-class counterparts are often allowed time to figure out their adulthood trajectories and make inconsequential mistakes along the way, teens living in poverty “launch into adulthood haphazardly.”
The study’s results, while important, are not surprising, according to Karen Webber, director of OSI’s Education and Youth Development program, who spent more than a decade in Baltimore City schools, first as a teacher and principal then directing the Office of Student Support and Safety for the district.
“Being part of the middle class is a prophylactic against some of the pain and suffering poor Americans face,” she said. “When middle class children hear a loud bang, they don’t automatically think it’s a gunshot.” And while, according to a profile in the Johns Hopkins HUB, the study authors suggest mobility programs like Moving Opportunity are important to ensure children don’t grow up under the same circumstances their parents did, Webber thinks that the key to sustainable success lies in rebuilding our school practices — for all children, but especially for poor children.
Students who live in communities where mass incarceration, gun violence, and mental and other health concerns are prevalent are less likely to succeed in school. A major reason for the achievement gap between the haves and have nots has to do with the education system’s historic inflexibility in educating students of diverse experiences and backgrounds, said Webber. Research provides clear and convincing evidence that techniques such as mindfulness and restorative practices provide poor children with needed tools to manage their often chaotic lives and connect with peers and caring adults in meaningful ways. There is also a strong correlation between these practices and academic success among poor children, yet school systems across the country have been slow to adopt them, remaining instead entrenched in more punitive and restrictive means of interacting with poor children. The race and gender of a child further compounds the treatment received at school – with African American, poor, and male children being the most at risk.
Young people growing up poor in Baltimore face an array of difficult circumstances from living in overcrowded homes to taking on the responsibilities of child care and wage-earning when parents aren’t able or aren’t around. They suffer physical, verbal, emotional and sexual abuse. They are surrounded by crime and blight. They’ve seen relatives die of overdoses. They’ve seen friends murdered. All of which results in trauma. And all of which colludes to drag even the most gifted and ambitious students away from their goals. Teens from poor urban neighborhoods want the same things kids from the wealthier suburbs want – good jobs, a nice place to live and raise a family – but poverty and all the circumstances that surround it claw at them, as one young woman put it “like crabs in a bucket.”
As Webber wrote previously for OSI, we already know trauma can produce anxiety, depression, and impulsivity as well as disruptive and/or aggressive behavior in students. Yet despite this understanding, teachers and administrators do not have the tools needed to deal with those symptoms.
Webber said that when educators are able to reach out to a child and find out what’s really motivating certain behaviors, their perspective changes. They stop assuming unresponsive or disruptive behaviors happen just because a kid is “bad” and start understanding that most of these children are dealing with unimaginable traumas. Educators need to be leaders and advocates. They must understand poverty; what’s more, they must understand what it means to be a child in poverty going to school.
That’s only part of the process, however, according to Webber. Educators also need to develop ways to maintain conditions for children to be in a position to learn. That includes involving everyone in the development of caring relationships, from the CEO to administrators to teachers.
Of the study, Webber said, “It reaffirms what so many of us in the field know from experience, but the next step in the process is to bring this information to the people who have the most contact with children.”
She said that in general, the prevailing educator mindset is not sufficiently empathetic and doesn’t take into account the circumstances that poor urban children find themselves in.
She is hopeful, however that the findings in Coming of Age in the Other America can help educators make the shift from a punitive to a restorative way of responding to children.
“These children are not disposable,” she said. “We cannot afford to lose them.”
Photo courtesy the Washington Post/Getty Images