Stress. We all know what that feels like. At home, at work, at school – it’s that feeling that we are losing control resulting from a situation or relationship that is adverse or negative. Our bodies are hardwired to deal with stress in one of two ways. Fight or flight, a commonly referred to term, is how the body physiologically responds when under stress. The choice to stay and deal with the threat verses to run to safety, is a process which the body’s nervous system activates instantaneously in situations which trigger serious threat. Stress is a threat that on occasion, is a positive thing. It can be a motivator or a resilience builder. It can give you that extra boost of energy to increase your performance or it can trigger a reaction to dangerous situations.

But prolonged stress, what is commonly known as chronic (as opposed to acute) stress, is detrimental to emotional, physical, and social well-being. These chronic stressors subsequently affect behavior, as symptoms begin to compromise the body.

Poverty is a chronic stressor. The stress of poverty on a child in school is one which is well documented.

Here are 5 (out of many) reasons why poverty affects both behavior and cognitive functioning in an academic setting:

  1. Prolonged stress affects the ability of the immune system to function adequately. Weakened immune systems compromise the bodies mode of defense. Children with low immune system function tend to get sick more often, having more tardiness and absences than their middle to higher class peers. Being late or absent results in missed material and added stress of making up work.
  2. Parents of children in low-income families have a significantly higher rate of stress. People living on low incomes tend to be materially disadvantaged, worrying about necessities to ensure survival (food, shelter, clothing). Parents have less money to spend on recreation, social activities, vacation, leaving no time for de-stressing. Nurture leaves these children exposed to an environment of stress and understandably so, such stress becomes integrated into these children’s personalities and behaviors.
  3. Poor children are exposed to substandard environmental conditions, poor housing, poor neighborhood sanitation or maintenance, increased levels of crime, water or air pollution. These adverse conditions often correlate with risky decision-making amongst teens, causing the rate of delinquency and exposure to additional stress to be increased.
  4. Research has proven time and time again that positive parenting improves academic achievement. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Parents struggling to make ends meet often work in low-income jobs, being out of the home on shift work, at times when children are home. Parents return home exhausted, having less patience or energy to devote to their child’s emotional needs. Positive attention is often neglected and quality relationship building, like set dinner time, homework help, or behavior modeling, fall between the cracks.
  5. As with many other boundaries, children in low-income families, tend to have poor sleep. This is characterized by shorter duration of sleep, more variability in sleep time, poorer sleeping conditions, and subsequently, higher sleep disorders. Lower academic achievement is an obvious consequence. Cognition, memory, analytical skills are all impaired when patterns of poor sleep are established, and unfortunately, these patterns endure through childhood to adulthood.

At Yad Ezra V’Shulamit, we know the effects of poverty on schooling. With food baskets, baby product care, homework help, and job guidance, we make every attempt to mitigate the effects of poverty on children, and subsequently, poverty’s effect on academics and behavior in school. When thinking of back to school prep, don’t forget these children! Consider donating to help us help them.