Breaking the Link between Neighborhood Poverty and Poor Educational Outcomes

By: Tina Cormier

Chicago and many other urban areas have experienced meaningful declines in violent crimes and gun violence. Despite this improvement, rates remain unacceptably high, as evidenced by the more than 250 shootings and 55 homicides that have happened since the start of the year. Chicago’s systemic racial and socioeconomic segregation means that the childhoods of too many black and brown children are constrained by a chronic loss of safety, while others get the benefit of a safe and protected childhood.

Twenty-one youth under age 17 have been shot so far this year, two fatally, as of February 16, 2018. These events leave the victim and their peers afraid, confused, and struggling to return to ‘normal.’ These tragic, traumatic events serve as a reminder of some of the most basic requirements for children to function at school – at the very top of that list is safety. Under constant exposure to high levels of traumatic stress, their primary focus becomes self preservation, leaving them easily agitated, overly aggressive, disruptive, and hypervigilant, with little capacity left for learning.

In schools where not one or two students, but many – sometimes entire classrooms of students – are trying to navigate the impacts of repeated exposure to traumatic stress, classes can quickly become unmanageable and ineffective with a traditional approach. Conventional classroom management most often means removing disruptive students from class. But for traumatized children, traditional methods can be harmful, counterproductive, and re-traumatizing, ultimately leaving them further behind academically.

Micere Keels, an associate professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago, says “This is not a necessary outcome; research shows that when teachers are well trained in classroom management practices they are significantly more likely to keep students exhibiting challenging behaviors in the classroom.”

Keels founded a program called the Trauma Responsive Educational Practices (TREP) Project, which is aimed at developing educator capacity for serving children growing up in areas where poverty, housing instability, crime, and violence rates are unacceptably high. The program is a natural evolution of her years of research on issues of race, poverty, and inequality within the context of neighborhoods, schools, and families.

Keels earned her Ph.D. in Human Development and Social Policy from Northwestern University in 2004, where she studied the long-term effects of a residential mobility program designed to move lower-income public housing families into low-poverty “opportunity neighborhoods.” She joined the University of Chicago as an assistant professor 14 years ago and continues her research within several Chicago neighborhoods and public schools.

Today, she leads a group of graduate students and staff, all of whom are former educators, who both develop novel approaches to bring the consequences of inequality into public awareness and work toward solutions. One such awareness project is a story map that uses a compelling series of maps, images, and statistics to illustrate the connections between geography, inequality, crime, and trauma in Chicago.

“By not building affordable housing in middle-class neighborhoods, poor and working poor families have been contained and concentrated on the South and West sides of Chicago, creating low-resource, high-crime neighborhoods,” says Keels. “And projects like this one expose the true extent of the fear, stress, and danger that people – especially children – living in these neighborhoods endure on a daily basis.”

Going a step beyond raising awareness to advancing action, Keels launched the TREP Project in 2016 to address some of the educational challenges that result from the internal dysregulation children experience when attempting to cope with chronic traumatic stress. A research to translation and dissemination project, it is an effort to reduce the 7- to 17-year lag between consensus in the research community and when those research-supported insights influence people’s lives.

The program provides professional development for educators in trauma responsive techniques that keep children feeling safe, understood, and engaged in their studies. “Traditional, discipline-first methods remove children from the classroom and leave them behind academically, punishing them for their inability to cope with overwhelmingly stressful life experiences within the classroom context,” says Keels.

Educators participating in the TREP Project learn how traumatic experiences affect neurobiological development and learning, as well as how to search for the underlying causes of challenging classroom behaviors. Transitioning from a reactive, punitive school environment to a more proactive, positive one can help reduce stress and reactivate the areas of the brain responsible for conceptual thinking and problem solving.

“I look forward to a world where programs like the TREP project, which is a response to systemic racial and economic inequality, are unnecessary because as a society, we’ve addressed the core problems,” says Keels. Until then, she will continue to work with members of marginalized communities to build supportive institutions through community engaged research.