A sign protesting Howard County school redistricting plan. Photo by Scott Ewart

Opinion: What students from low-income homes really need

By Shobhit Negi, M.D., Shobhit Negi, M.D., is a board-certified child and adolescent, adult and forensic psychiatrist

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the nation’s main education law for all public schools.  ESSA was enacted into law by President Obama on December 10, 2015.

It includes provisions, such as advancing equity by upholding critical protections for America’s disadvantaged and high-need students, requiring that all students in America be taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers, increasing access to high-quality preschool, expanding personalized learning, etc.

Howard County School Superintendent Michael Martirano’s recommended Attendance Area Adjustment Plan aims to advance educational equity by distributing students participating in the Free and Reduced-price Meals (FARM) program across schools.

From my perspective, Dr. Martirano’s proposal is missing the forest for the trees.

Hierarchy of needs

Based on psychologist A. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the most basic needs, such as food, water, safety, and security needs must be satisfied before an individual can attend to needs higher up, such as prestige, feeling of accomplishment, creativity, etc.

Children who have secure housing, plenty of food in the refrigerator and several books at home will always have a titanic advantage over children who have unstable housing, food insecurity and an iota of books on their shelves.  Kids in low-income communities face significantly more adverse experiences than children from a higher socioeconomic status.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and household challenges and later-life health and well-being.

The impact of ACEs on children can manifest in difficulties focusing, self-regulating, trusting others, and can lead to negative cognitive effects. Studies indicate that a student with three or more ACEs is 32 times more likely to struggle in school and two and a half times more likely to fail a grade.  Furthermore, students with an ACE score of three or higher were noted having the following: 48% reported low engagement in school; 44% had trouble staying calm and controlled in the classroom; 49% had difficulties finishing tasks, and 23% were diagnosed with a learning disability.

Educate staff about trauma

Instead of spending close to $3 million dollars as that is the projected transportation cost associated with Dr. Martirano’s proposal, a prudent way to spend this money would be educating school staff about trauma. No curriculum or instruction provided by the best Howard County teachers will succeed if a student is under chronic stress.

Chronic stress is defined as a long-term form of stress, derived from unending feelings of despair/hopelessness, as a result of factors such as poverty, family dysfunction, feelings of helplessness, and/or traumatic early childhood experiences.

A school can be an optimal place to heal the traumas from poverty and traumatic events.  The positivity of the school and the neuroplasticity of the brain have a tremendous capacity to reduce or eliminate the negativity of the traumas children sometimes bring with them to class.

The trauma-informed school movement aims to train teachers and staff to help children self-regulate, and to help families that are having problems that result in children’s normal response to trauma.  It also seeks to provide behavioral consequences that will not re-traumatize a child.

Risk factors that make adolescents vulnerable to emotional problems include physiological changes, conflicts surrounding greater autonomy and pressure to conform with peers, exploration of sexual identity, increased access to and use of technology, exposure to poverty, abuse, or violence, etc.

Adolescents with mental health conditions are in turn particularly vulnerable to social exclusion, discrimination, stigma (affecting readiness to seek help), educational difficulties, risk-taking behaviors, and physical ill-health.

Preschool helps

Providing access to high-quality preschools as alluded in ESSA is a viable way to better prepare our students facing adversity early on in their lives for the future.  Preschool provides an environment for children to explore, gain a sense of self, play with peers and build self-confidence.  The goal of a preschool is creating a well-rounded child who wants to explore and question their surroundings, leading to creativity and giving the child the confidence to be a capable and independent learner.

Simply shuffling students from one school to another, without addressing factors contributing to chronic stress is detrimental to the physical and psychological wellbeing of all Howard County students.

Unless our elected officials are willing to advocate for fiscal equity and use their political influence and authority to allocate resources for closing opportunity gaps, no plan, however well-intentioned, is going to address the issue that has plagued our society for years.


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