Darin's brain on poverty

            The majority of students in the United States are in poverty (Suitts et al., 2015), and the implications for the nation’s public schools are immense.

            Mule et al. (2014) list several impacts low-income has on students.  Beside physical health, students from low-income families develop socioemotional and behavioral problems at a much higher rate than their advantaged peers: One in five of these students between ages six and 17 will develop such problems, and half of them have trouble accessing mental health care (Mule et al., 2014).  Oftentimes, the free services received in a public school setting are the only services accessed by low-income students.  Even then, the publically funded services received by low-income students are often underfunded and inadequate, because most states fund their school districts through property taxes, which are then allocated locally (Newton, 2014), so low-income students attend low-income schools (Mule et al., 2014).

            Beside attending schools that are underfunded, low-income impacts students academically in numerous ways, including: poor school attendance, grade retention, learning disabilities, school dropout, suspension or expulsion, frequent school transfers that result in moves throughout the school year, and excessive absences, all leading to difficulty mastering curricula and forming relationships with peers and teachers (Mule et al., 2014).  (Billings, 2016, p. 3)

            I see this in my work with “Darin.”  He has no positive relationship with school.  He reenacts and projects his miserable relationship with his alcoholic father, with whom he no longer lives, onto the new principal and assistant principal at his rural New Hampshire high school where he is a freshman.  Darin’s suspensions have come hard and fast in his first two months of high school, mostly for swearing at or threatening others and refusal for a range of reasons.  And the school doesn’t know what to do with him.

            The district has nothing.  The school has nothing.  The assistant principal does what he can for Darin by checking on him throughout the day.  At least he cares.  He may not after a decade working in public schools.  When I visited with Darin during his lunch period, his assistant principal reported it was the first time he had seen Darin smile in recent memory.

            I have, for a long time now, taken for granted my program’s long-term relationship building emphasis, and from knowing Darin for four-and-a-half years now, I was troubled to learn that he doesn’t read anymore.  When I knew Darin as a camper in 2012 and 2013, he could read most of a young adult book before the 7:30 a.m. wake-up bell.  This is only another warning sign that makes Darin appear more and more like a statistic.

            What I most appreciated during my visit with Darin was the assistant principal’s request for advice how best to reach Darin.  And in these awkward moments, I see the writing on the wall: There is very little the school can feasibly do within their constraints to help Darin.  The simply are unable to repair the damaged relationship he has with school.  If “we are primarily the products of thinking that happens below the level of awareness” (Brooks, 2011, p. x), then Darin doesn’t have a clue.

            I think what must have happened, and what is still happening, to the way Darin perceives the world that is his high school.  I imagine and wonder, if “the brain looks like an ecosystem” (Brooks, 2011, p. 21), how much the Agent Orange of poverty has damaged his neural forestry.  I remember now that one of the first visits I had with Darin back in 2012 was when he had lunch detention as a fifth grader.  We know that the brain is wired to be flexible (Medina, 2008), that the brain can adapt.  But I imagine Darin’s, and many youth in poverty, have pathways through their neural forests that are eroded, corrupt, and unmaintained.  The paths they travel to function are well establish but poorly kept.

            So if unhindered by the reality of poverty, what would I tell Darin’s assistant principal?  Give him a chance to regrow and rehabilitate his neural forest.  The ecosystem metaphor is apt in this case.  Starting with the biological needs, Darin needs to see a doctor.  Once his knee problems have been addressed, he’ll be in a better position to be active on a regular basis.  And Darin needs to be active.  Like so many other students in public schools, he has no business being force-fed unmotivated reading, disconnected writing, irrelevant math, obscure science, and uninteresting social science.  Daring can, and certainly should be pushed intellectually.  But that does not mean he has to read Harper Lee and memorize the dates of European revolutions.  Yes, we can argue these may “better” him in some sort of French-Enlightenment sort of way.  But really, Darin needs to work.  Better yet, place him in a position of acting like a big brother whereby he needs to role model.  Integration needs to be his new education.  He needs adult figures with whom he can interact on a daily basis.  He needs more adult mentors than peer mentors: Mentors who will confront his disengagement when they spot it…  I could go on.

            And I’m supposed to tell this to an assistant principal?  “Socialization is the most intellectually demanding and morally important thing [Darin] will do in high school” (Brooks, 2011, p. 75), and he is passing with flying colors: He knows how to avoid work; he can turn the eyes of any cheaply perfumed girl who looks to someone else for the deviance she can’t enact; he can get what he wants.  These are all useful social skills.  Defiant, deviant, and destructive.  But useful.

            I don’t know what Darin needs.  “People have a tendency to conceive decision making as a point in time.  [But really,] you amass the facts and circumstances and evidence and then make a call” (Brooks, 2011, p. 22).  So I have no silver bullet.  But I do recognize that the school can’t control Darin’s home life, but they are inexorably tied to the manifestations of that life when he comes into school everyday.  The school needs to change before Darin.  The school needs to take the lead, because they have the knowledge and emotional and mental resources that Darin doesn’t.  And find his strengths.  And build them up.  Find one thing.  And make it more.


Billings, B.  (2016).  The school psychologist’s role and relationship with low-income, adolescent students: A brief summary.  Plymouth: Plymouth State University.

Brooks, D.  (2011).  The social animal: The hidden sources of love, character, and achievement.  New York: Random House.

Medina, J.  (2008).  Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school.  Seattle: Pear Press.

Mule, C., Briggs, A., & Song, S.  (2014).  Best practices in working with children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.  In In P. L. Harrison & A. Thomas (Eds.), Best Practices in School Psychology: Foundations (pp. 129-142).  Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Newton, K. S.  (2014).  Social class and classism.  In D. G. Hays & B. T. Erford (Eds.), Developing multicultural counseling competencies: A systems approach (pp. 159-188).  Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Suitts, S., Barba, P., & Dunn, K.  (2015).  A new majority: Low income students now a majority in the nation’s public schools.  Southern Education Foundation.  Retrieved from http://www.southerneducation.org/Our-Strategies/Research-and-Publications/New-Majority-Diverse-Majority-Report-Series/A-New-Majority-2015-Update-Low-Income-Students-Now.aspx

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