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Poverty In Our Area: Emotional Poverty and Schools

Posted May 18, 2022 9:19 AM
By Patricia Jones, Alliance Poverty Task Force

Last June, following the Bridges Out of Poverty program in Alliance, Educational Service Unit 13 offered a class for teachers to learn how to better deal with children who are experiencing poverty. Since I’m a retired teacher and on the Board of ESU 13, I signed up.

As part of the class, we were each given a copy of Emotional Poverty by Ruby K. Payne, published by the aha!Process, the parent company of Bridges Out of Poverty. The class and the book address the problems teachers face every day when their children cannot control their anger, outbursts, anxiety, even avoidance; in other words, children with emotional poverty. These children feel “less than” or “separate from” others. Schools are now challenged with adding Social and Emotional Learning to their lessons.

A quote from Dr. Payne’s book: “There is an emotional dance that goes on every day in the classroom between the educator and the students. It is a dance between safety and belonging, between relationships and structure, between discipline and learning.”

Dr. Payne’s book covers brain functions and development. She explains what happens when a child has a melt-down and techniques to calm and diffuse the situation. These techniques might include having the child drink a glass of water. Or holding a child’s hand. A teacher might ask a child to look up at the ceiling for several seconds. These simple acts shift the brain away from using the parts of the brain that control emotions and feelings. Of course, there are strategies for behaviors that are more serious. Understanding the reason for the inappropriate behavior is the first step in modifying the behavior.

A great deal of research has been done on child development, both physical and mental. Babies first learn to trust. They learn to process sensory information. They gradually develop autonomy, which includes such things as crawling, walking, toilet training, learning to dress themselves. Around age four they notice more about their environment and become curious. They begin to play with other children (not just beside them). They continue to learn new skills and develop mental, emotional, and social skills at every age. They gradually assert independence until they are finally ready to move into adulthood and take care of themselves.

But what happens when their development isn’t reinforced by their caregivers? They may not develop the emotional resources they need to become happy human beings with a strong inner self. Then they are experiencing emotional poverty.

Sometimes trauma happens to children. Children might be neglected or abused. Maybe a parent died. Or their family was torn apart by an illness, divorce, or a job loss. Then the child might become stuck; their level of mental and emotional development isn’t keeping up with their physical development.

COVID created isolation and barriers we still haven’t completely overcome. Our students lost several months of interaction with their classmates, time normally spent developing those social and emotional skills. Teachers, now more than ever, are dealing with their students’ emotional issues.

In the ESU class we talked about the language barriers that children from poverty households face. They’ve learned to communicate through gestures and reactions, which may not be appropriate in school. They haven’t developed the vocabulary they need for their school work or to communicate what they are thinking or feeling. All of this leads to frustration, and teachers work hard to prevent or contain their behavior problems.

Teachers have always had the responsibility of teaching formal language to their students. This includes reading, vocabulary, grammar, writing skills, and speaking skills. In recent years we added the requirement of financial skills. Our students learn to create budgets, calculate wages, get a loan, buy insurance, make rental agreements, get a mortgage, save money in a variety of investments – skills that will help them create a bridge to a secure financial future. Teachers work on physical, mental, emotional, and creative development. Of course, they also teach lessons in their core subjects.

Ruby Payne and her colleagues continue to research different types of poverty and the resources we need to be successful. Bridges Out of Poverty programs are designed to help professionals and communities develop strategies for dealing with the issues that separate social and economic classes.

Bridges: Community Lens will be held in the Alliance High School commons area on Thursday, June 9, 9:00-3:00. Register at The $45 registration fee includes refreshments and lunch. If you are requesting a scholarship or paying for a group of people, please email and ask Connor to handle your registration.

Please join us as we work to apply this research in our area.