Fear, poverty, and the school environment

In addition to hunger, many students’ experiences of poverty are marked by fear2 – a rational response to stressors including “unsafe neighborhoods,” “community or domestic violence,” “the loss of family members,” and experiences of “financial strain, forced mobility, or material deprivation.”3 In addition to “chronic stress” – which is “ongoing and persistent” – many students from low-income households must also cope with “discrete traumatic events”, “life transition[s]”, and “daily hassles”4 which can inhibit self-regulation and affect “attention control, working memory, inhibitory control, delay of gratification, and planning.”5 Stress is also a “principal pathway for how poverty influences physical disease” by increasing blood pressure, cortisol levels, metabolic activity, and inflammation.6

Students’ stress levels are also influenced by the socioeconomic conditions of their communities. For example, “neighborhood disadvantage” – characterized by “the presence of a number of community-level stressors such as poverty, unemployment or underemployment, limited resources, substandard housing, and high crime rates” – has been associated with “exposure to violence” as well as “aggression.”7 Furthermore, when students are exposed to “a combination of stressors” – across the home, community, and school environments – “the effect is not additive, but multiplicative”8:

Disadvantaged children are more likely to have to to deal with multiple, suboptimal physical and psychosocial conditions. The accumulation of multiple stressors brought on by childhood poverty pressures response systems to marshal resources to meet the numerous environmental demands that threaten body equilibrium.9

As a result of these conditions, students from low-income households are more likely to feel physically unsafe at home and at school.10 In some cases, this fear can lead to increases in violence as students “learn that being tough and aggressive both minimizes the emotional impact of persistent stressors and maximizes their ability to survive under difficult and extreme environmental conditions.”11

At school, differences in power are expressed through a discipline system that is more likely to retain, suspend, or expel students from low-income households.12 Even though behavioral issues are associated with fear, depression, and anxiety,13 nearly 80 percent of students who need mental health services – especially Latinos and the uninsured – are not receiving them.14 Moreover, as a result of a “knowledge gap” regarding “how to best manage and mitigate mental health disorders,”15 students from low-income households are more likely referred to law enforcement, as “zero-tolerance policies” perpetuate a “school-to-prison pipeline.”16 In schools where police officers are a regular presence, students are more likely to be arrested for violent and nonviolent behavioral infractions.17 At the same time, roughly 70 percent of students involved in the juvenile justice system “meet criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis”18 while approximately 70 percent of inmates struggle with literacy and “experience difficulty in performing tasks that require them to integrate or synthesize information.”19

In addition, “[f]ear has been shown to be an important contributor to student conduct” and is correlated with “impeding the learning process” as well as “absence,” “cutting class,” and “avoiding specific areas of the school.”20 Fear is reinforced by unsafe conditions: Three-quarters of public schools report “one or more violent incidents of crime” each year,21 and many schools employ a range of strategies designed to enhance safety including “metal detectors, security guards, drug-, gun-, or bomb-sniffing dogs, and surveillance cameras.” Yet these efforts may result in unintended consequences: In addition to “producing less positive school climate and lower levels of student-teacher bonding,” such policies may actually communicate to students that “the school expects violence.”22

While enhanced school surveillance is ostensibly designed to increase safety and stability, these practices often conflict with the goal of “giving students a voice or a space in which to be valued or respected for their experiences.”23 Meanwhile, “tightly regulated” security practices – often designed without student input – can codify power structures, encouraging students from low-income households to

monitor themselves, hold back their opinions, and defer to authority. These are very different skills than the ones middle-class kids learn—to take initiative, be assertive, and negotiate with authority.24

As the result, many students from low-income households experience a “pedagogy of poverty” that limits creative expression by “reward[ing] them for being docile and punish[ing] them for being overly vocal or expressive.”25

Use, student voice, and edtech equity

2. Phaneuf, 2006
3. Jensen, 2009, para. 28
4. Attar et al, 1994, p. 391
5. Evans & Kim, 2013, p. 45
6. ibid, p. 44
7. Attar et al, 1994, pp. 391-392
8. ibid
9. Evans & Kim, 2013, p. 46
10. Jensen, 2009
11. Attar et al, 1994, p. 398
12. Wood, 2003
13. Child Mind Institute, 2016
14. Kataoka et al, 2002
15. Child Mind Institute, 2016, p. 6
16. ibid, p. 1
17. Nance, 2016
18. Child Mind Institute, 2016, p. 4
19. Riley et al, 1994, p. xviii
20. Phaneuf, 2006, p. 2
21. Robers et al, 2015, p. 28
22. Phaneuf, 2006, pp. 2-3
23. Emdin, 2016, p. 66
24. Golann, J., 2016, as cited in Berkshire, 2016, para. 2
25. Emdin, 2016, p. 66