Every day, in each of my classes, there is a moment, after we sit down, after the academic warm up, after stretching, jogging in place, after the fidgeting, the last sneaky check of the phone and the giggles. In our west side classroom, surrounded by desolation and the lingering specter of social unrest, we are quiet. And we are still. We are breathing. And we are ready.
"It calms us down," the students said. "It helps me through stress." These were typical comments after a six-week study in which my team of high school teachers implemented daily exercise and mindfulness activities in our inner city Baltimore classrooms. All across America, educators are engaging in similar activities designed to increase emotional and cognitive regulation as we recognize the importance of addressing the needs of the "whole child."
Now, with the replacement of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) we have a new opportunity to thoroughly acknowledge the relationship of academic and future life success to factors beyond the classroom. Research into the environmental, physiological and psychological effects of poverty along with our new understanding of the neuroscience of learning lend new evidence to the urgency of readdressing the link between socio-economics and education. The pendulum is swinging toward a more holistic approach to education, and it is now possible to create partnerships that will acknowledge public education as a matter of public health.
Our bodies and minds are inextricably connected. We now know that poverty exposes our students disproportionately to excessive violence, poor living conditions, environmental pathogens such as lead, poor access to quality food, drug use and tremendous amounts of psychological and physiological stress. We now know that economic differences contribute to an achievement gap that exists in preschool and can grow exponentially throughout the school years. We now know that the extended state of fight-or-flight brought about by living in poverty has long lasting detrimental effects on the ability of a child to learn, to thrive and to focus. And we now know that the ability to focus, to regulate thoughts and emotions, is the most deterministic factor of success in school and in life, greater than even I.Q.
Fighting the effects of poverty may seem daunting but there are steps we can all take within our spheres of influence. Educators have the ability to foster self-regulation through a variety of research-based means including the visual arts, music education and comprehensive fitness. Perhaps most encouragingly, mindfulness interventions are helping students regulate their emotions and impulses in all aspects of their lives.
For years, the worlds of public health and K-12 education have been working toward a common understanding of the relationship of poverty to learning. Yet, educators have been unable to fully acknowledge biological factors on student outcomes as they have been charged with fighting the ills of society primarily with the weapon of standardized testing. The pieces are in place for increased partnerships.
The Family League of Baltimore has helped to develop over 50 community schools focusing on increasing student well-being and academic outcomes. And the city's health department is working to fight the effects of poverty on student success while creating partnerships of stakeholders through the Baltimore Youth Health and Wellness Strategy.
"We at the Baltimore City Health Department absolutely agree that public education has to be understood as a matter of public health," Dr. Leana Wen's office told me.
The pieces are in place, and the time is right. Let's make the connections.
Morgan Showalter is a high school special educator in the Baltimore City Public Schools and is 2016 cohort member In the American Federation of Teachers' Teacher Leader Program. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.