Can Poverty Hurt Young Brains? You Decide!

Posted by 96f on June 14, 2016 · Flag

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I recently came upon a New York Times article illustrating how cortisol levels increase when the human body experiences “flight or fight” reactions in response to potential harm or threat.  These are natural instincts we all possess, but what happens when those cortisol levels never subside and you remain in a constant state of hyperarousal or acute stress response?  The article likened it to playing football without a helmet!  Imagine the damage one would sustain were they to consistently play this aggressive and combative sport without the proper defense and protective gear.  Medical professionals first began exploring the damage the sport of boxing causes on the brain with what is now diagnosed as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), subsequently witnessing how this affects players in other sports, like football, the result of repeated trauma to the brain.   

 

Not surprising, researchers are now considering how this phenomena affects kids growing up in poverty who daily experience trauma as a result of the trappings associated with living in impoverished communities. According to the article: For some children, living in poverty is like playing football without a helmet; everyday life causes social concussions. The developing brain gets hammered not by linebackers, but by the stresses often present in homes where people are poor. Brute force is not required to cause physical changes in the brain, emerging science shows.” In light of the recent economic mobility study conducted by Harvard researchers showing that kids born into poor families in Charlotte are less likely to escape poverty, second only to Baltimore, out of 50 of the largest U.S. cities, we should consider all possible interventions to break this harmful and perpetual cycle!  There is an emerging national interest about the role social and emotional intelligence plays in helping young minds better deal with complicated situations both at school and home that is rising to the surface in many public schools across the country, including North Carolina.

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This is welcoming news for WINGS for kids since we have, over the course of 20 years, inoculated well over 7,000 elementary age students in Title 1 schools with emotional intelligence, fortifying them with skills and techniques to regulate their responses to situations occurring beyond their control.  If we place a closer lens on the emotional turbulence occurring in the lives of kids living in impoverished situations you will see they encounter numerous life stressors, including domestic dysfunction, depression, anger, emotional and physical neglect, crime and many other situations that keep their cortisol levels at persistently high levels.  This can unequivocally impact a child’s ability to be a well-rounded and academically successful student.  Think about it?  The human brain plays a significant role in executive functioning, the skills that help us negotiate, distinguish between good and bad, use critical thinking and have strong social behaviors.   Consistent duress can compromise these skills making it far more difficult for kids to organize thoughts, remember things, pay attention, experience anger, solve problems not to mention interfere with their ability to make right choices.  

 

Approaching our third year in Charlotte, WINGS is dramatically and strategically changing the odds for kids at Bruns Academy and soon our newest site later this fall, Walter G. Byers Elementary School by using social and emotional learning as a buffer to mitigate high cortisol levels, improve executive functioning and build their emotional quotient.  Our comprehensive curriculum focused on the five core aspects of emotional intelligence: 1) Self-awareness, 2) Social Awareness; 3) Self-Management, 4) Responsible Decision-Making and 5) Building Healthy Relationships fortifies students with the strategies necessary to block distractions that could otherwise lead to unwise consequences.   For example, one objective reinforces techniques kids can use to handle their emotions, and in particular, identifying and naming the experiences that cause worry, fear, anger or other stressful emotions. Let's face it, stressful situations occur in all of our lives, but at WINGS we provide an empathetic, supportive culture that encourages kids to build their emotional vocabulary and expressions beyond simple words such as “mad, sad, or happy,” thereby unleashing the power of their own voice of expression in a healthy way.   This empathetic, supportive culture breeds positive feedback for students who are then motivated to crave more affirmative and not negative feedback.

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One of my favorite techniques, which I now use with my own son, is how to avoid a “YES MESS!”  It’s simple and you can do it yourself.  Kids are taught if they can answer yes to any one of the following questions they are probably facing a “YES MESS”:  1) could me or anyone else get hurt if I choose this?; 2) Could I get into trouble if I get caught doing this?; and 3) Can anything bad happen if I make this choice?  WINGS kids understand this strategy, other behavior modification techniques, and the consequences of bad choices during teachable moments in our program.  Therefore, it comes as no surprise that WINGS Charlotte is witnessing the same national results as its sister sites in other cities.  For example, 89% of WINGS kids at Bruns recurrently displayed positive behavior by following the example of a positive role model, helping others, and attracting positive attention from peers.  Moreover, surveys from teachers at Bruns showed that 92% of their WINGS kids frequently displayed positive social and emotional behavior in the classroom by taking an active role when learning, working hard on projects and offering to help others.  Parents were also surveyed and results showed that 95% of them reported their kids as dealing better with people and situations that were formerly problematic.  And more importantly, the academic performance for these students excelled; and according to a University of Virginia study, executive functioning skills of WINGS kids improved 21 percentile points.  I believe our interventions leave an indelible mark on our WINGS kids, parents, and teachers by introducing to them skills that are not traditionally taught during the school day.  This is what I consider the missing piece in the K-12 educational trajectory!

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When recently attending with an advisory board member the end-of-year ceremony at Bruns, what we refer to as our WINGS Creed Concert, we were both amazed by the number of parents, teachers and others who showed up to watch our WINGS scholars perform.  With standing room only, we were mesmerized by the showcase of performances kids gave using lyrics and songs demonstrating how their WINGS experience impacted their lives.  They held each other to high standards as they performed their rendition of popular songs with transposed lyrics reflecting the emotional quotient and the night was sheer magic!   We were all silently captivated by the energy and invisibly connected by 144 young kids who owned the evening!  

 

What an amazing opportunity for them to Soar and show their WINGS!

 

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