Neurons and Neighborhoods: Bringing Brain-Based Education Into Inner-City Schools

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

When talking about the American public school system, it seems inevitable that the topic of inner-city schools will come up — whether it be as a starting point for the best way to reform education or held up as a sign of the failures of public schools to serve their students’ individual needs. What cannot be ignored, however, is that the achievement gap between students at inner-city schools and suburban schools is notorious. On the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, average math and reading scores at inner-city schools were 20 points below the national average, an average that is already below grade level expectations. This difference is equivalent to being two full grade levels behind the norm.

Many blame difficult socioeconomic conditions for the disparity, while others fault either parents or teachers. But looking for the cause or assigning blame does not always provide the most effective answers for change. Perhaps it would be best to look instead at the students themselves, not to assign culpability, but to see how this unique group can best be served. One thing we know for sure about these kids — learning happens in their brains, just like it does for all kids. Thus, neuroscience might offer some insights for effective brain-based educational models in these neighborhoods.

Inner-city kids’ brains experience a lot of stress, typically more than their suburban counterparts. Their parents are often burdened by financial scarcity, and violent crime rates are typically high in these neighborhoods. A study published in the journal Health & Social Work suggests a direct link between the stresses of inner-city living and poor educational outcomes. Stress is well known to undermine cognitive development and functioning, and excessive stress can lead to severe mental health issues, such as prolonged clinical depression, which may promote the cycle of poverty through generations. In areas that are beset with high rates of crime and violence, 12 percent of students suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which makes learning nearly impossible. Many of these students may fit the description of high-risk kids, those strongly vulnerable to leading self-destructive lifestyles as adults.

Since mental health services are often lacking in these communities, programs that promote psychological well-being and stress management might be the key to educational improvement. Unfortunately, as the situation currently stands, youth in these areas rarely receive any sort of psychological intervention, unless they have been incarcerated by the juvenile justice system, which usually means too little, too late.

Intervention programs focusing on mindfulness at schools may be a good way to start helping kids with stress regulation. In a study published in the Journal of Applied School Psychology, researchers administered a yoga-based social-emotional wellness program called “Transformative Life Skills” to inner-city youth considered to be at high risk. The researchers’ program offered conflict resolution skills in addition to traditional yoga. They found significant reductions in anxiety, depression, and hostility among participants. Other similar stress-reduction programs have worked to develop social skills, to promote emotional self-regulation, and create deeper connection to the school environment, which can sometimes be safer and more supportive than home environments.

Mindfulness programs may also be able to resolve a phenomenon called “stereotype threat.” This phenomenon has been well documented, and it occurs when people know that a negative stereotype exists about their gender, race, or any other characteristic regarding their cultural group. Under those conditions, an individual’s brain potential is wasted by the emotional “threat” that the stereotype presents. For example, one study showed that women scored significantly lower on a math test when taking it among a group of men (scoring 55 percent) than when taking it among a group of women (scoring 70 percent). It seems that the old stereotype of “girls aren’t good at math” got the better of the female test subjects. Neuroscientists theorize that the cognitive pressure of the “threat” drains the working memory resources needed for the cognitive task.

It stands to reason that inner-city kids are affected by stereotypes since they predominantly belong to minority groups that have suffered negative stereotyping for centuries. In terms of educational performance, this can create a vicious cycle. Poor educational performance reinforces negative stereotypes and negative stereotypes reinforce poor educational performance. For example, many negative stereotypes exist around the ability of African-American children to do well in school, either about their intellect or ability to succeed — that they are less intelligent than their white or Asian-American peers, or that they should not aspire to a career in law or academics. These youths are aware that such prejudices exist, and consequently, tend to score much lower than those who are not held under the same negative expectations. For this reason, some educators complain that the current focus on testing, from achievement tests to high-stakes college entrance exams, makes the situation for inner-city schools worse. A study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition noted, however, that stereotype threat was largely mitigated when a short, five-minute mindfulness exercise was performed prior to testing.

Child psychologists theorize that these children often fail to thrive because they lack adequate “control beliefs” — the belief that one can change their own circumstances in life. Some of the most successful intervention programs focus on developing a more positive, can-do spirit. In these programs, educators shift attention away from grades and tests toward overall growth. In this way, the overall trajectory of a student’s learning is the focus, and failures are redefined as learning opportunities.

Educators would also be well advised to look for non-traditional ways to offset deficits in student learning and to maximize the brain’s potential. One such program, The Harmony Project, was featured in an episode of PBS’s “NewsHour.” The project is an after-school program reaching out to 2,000 inner-city kids in Los Angeles, giving them the opportunity to learn a musical instrument and play in an ensemble. The students showed extraordinary academic improvement, especially in reading.

That’s impressive, since 80 percent of inner-city kids are behind their grade levels in reading. Dr. Nina Kraus, a neurobiologist at Northwestern University who investigated the Harmony Project, believes that rhythm and sound are integral to language development. She says that inner-city kids do not always get the same kinds of early verbal interaction, such as bedtime stories and dinner table conversations that other kids do. This kind of program could help activate parts of the brain needed for true language fluency. In addition, learning to play an instrument is a wonderful overall exercise for the brain, developing fine motor skills and aiding emotional and behavioral maturation. In fact, neuroscientists have observed on brain scans that musical training accelerates cortical organization, increasing the brain’s ability to pay attention, manage anxiety, as well as to control emotions.

As we learn more about how the brain works, it is becoming clearer that fully functioning brains need more than just a pile of correct facts and figures to develop fully. Everything about our world makes a difference in determining whether or not we will fulfill our brain’s potential. For inner-city kids, a little brain awareness might go a long way in helping them become the best possible versions of themselves.

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

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