Neurons and Neighborhoods: Brain Awareness in Inner-City Schools

inner-city schools

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 a recent report of the 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.

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