Working with students who come from high-trauma and low-income families and communities adds a different stressor to students, a classroom and teachers. As educators, we can support families by letting them know about resources in their communities. This might include assistance programs, free services for families, and more from public resources like libraries. For students, we can work to make a classroom community where they feel safe to learn. This includes one where students can take space to calm down, get a snack to keep their energy up, talk out their issues, and learn in a quiet, respectful environment. These take time to build, and with each student, which can add an extra responsibility to a teachers’ workload. Without each of these supports, and a child feeling safe, the student cannot take in extra knowledge.
I had a student once come into class, late, and he just was not focusing. He was disrupting the class, being disrespectful to other students, and in general, not being a scholar according to our classroom and school norms. I held him in during recess, and I checked in with him and asked him why he was acting out. He said, “I didn’t sleep because the guys outside were fighting (gangs), then I had to get my sister ready (who is 5), take BART to the city, and take 2 busses to get to school. And I didn’t eat breakfast. So I don’t care about math.” He was 8 years old. And it all made sense.
A child’s brain is stimulated so much by nurture. This doesn’t only mean being held in a loving way by a parent. This means having quality interactions, both emotionally and physically, at home, in school, and in transition. This means knowing that your basic needs for survival are being managed, and that the child is not the sole-provider for those basic needs. Someone once related this to my hand. It’s like looking at your own hand, and making a fist. That fist is your whole brain working. Each finger is a different need that you need to have met before you are able to use your whole brain. If your thumb is out, your whole brain isn’t ready to work. That might be your need for nutrition and safety in being full and not hungry.
As educators, we can work to make sure those basic needs for safety and security are being met, by providing families with food bank information, safe housing options, and nonviolent communication workshops. But in all reality, we don’t have control over their home. We have control over our classroom home, of which we can provide the same basic needs that a student needs to learn, even if only for 6 hours of the day.