The Physical and Emotional Development of Camden’s Youth: Benefits of Youth-focused Programs in Schools

By Marissa Britton

The environment of Camden, a city well-known for poverty and crime, has been hindering attempts for future success among students.  Many children in the Camden area are deprived of basic necessities that will eventually be detrimental to their academic career.  Programs concentrated on extra guidance and educational resources will help provide some sustenance for children growing up in this dangerous city.  Youth-focused support programs that are instituted in inner-city schools will help counteract students affected by trauma, by addressing negative home environments and the overwhelming burden on teachers that affects their pursuit to help students learn effectively.

Camden is now one of the most poverty-stricken cities in the United States.  With this devastating acknowledgment come many effects that will factor in on the personal and emotional development of children.  Most families suffer from malnutrition which can have many permanent side effects for young children.  Dr. Deborah Frank, who facilitates the Grow Clinic states, “Even when you re-feed the kids and get them going again physically growing, you find deficits in their learning and behavior all the way into high school” (1).   The way one eats can seriously influence the welfare of the brain.  One begins to see a sort of chain reaction: the lack of healthy and nutritious food affects a child’s cognitive capabilities which in turn impedes on his or her performance in school.  Studies from the Virtual Medical Centre have shown that “the effects of poor diet on sleeping patterns, energy and mood all indirectly affect day to day functioning of the brain at work or school” (2).  Ms. Brown, a guidance counselor at Cramer Hill Elementary in Camden, mentions that the school provides breakfast and lunch however she would not be too surprised if that was all the child can consume.  She also says that school meals like pizza do not make up for the lack of nutrients the child should receive at home, and often when families do eat out, they get more pizza or Chinese food.  How can children concentrate in class and do well on assessments to further their educational career if they are starving?

Another factor that affects students’ performance in schools is lack of sleep.  Po Bronson, a writer for the New York, comments on sleep deprivation in his article “Snooze or Lose,” saying “There are many causes for this lost hour of sleep” (2).  Some of the causes that he lists are lax bedtimes and parents working later shifts at a job, both very relatable to the families of Camden.  Sleep is so important in the development of the child because as Mr. Bronson mentions, the child’s brain is still developing until the age of twenty-one therefore just one missed hour of sleep can significantly alter his or her cognitive ability.  Those two or three extra hours a child might stay up at night spending time with a parent could possibly be the only time the child gets to see their mother or father.  Camden is rated by Citytoplists for having the highest percentage of single-parent households in the country.  With this statistic in mind, it may be hard to have a strict bedtime regime when the single parent has a fluctuating work schedule and the child solely relies on his mother or father.  Perhaps the student stays up later to wait for their one parent to get home to help them with their homework.  Televisions and cell phones in the bedroom also are a concern.  Watching T.V reduces the number of hours of sleep the child can possibly obtain.  When there is the temptation of T.V in the bedroom the child will most likely choose the T.V over a goodnight’s rest.

Ms. Brown has witnessed the impacts of sleep deprivation with some children at the school.  She knows of children that fall asleep in class and when their parents are called, they state their child would not listen to them.  Her belief is that the children seem to make up their own bedtimes; there are no rules in the house the children have to adhere by.  She states that the overall problem seems to be this lack of structure in the household.  The children are raising themselves.  The freedom to do whatever they want at home influences the way they act in the classroom.  She says this becomes a major problem in classrooms.  Ms. Brown commented that most kids seem to have a T.V in their bedroom which keeps the child awake at night.

Po Bronson gains further insight about the significance of sleep from Dr. Avi Sadeh of Tel Aviv University.  Dr Sadeh completed a study on sleep deprivation in relation to academic performance.  He asked seventy-seven students from fourth grade and sixth grade to either stay up later or go to bed on the earlier side for three consecutive nights.  Bronson complies saying, “The effect was indeed measurable- and sizable.  The performance gap caused by an hour’s difference in sleep was bigger than the normal gap between a fourth-grader and a sixth-grader” (1).  Doctor Sadeh equates this simply to one lost hour of sleep is equal to two lost years of mental accumulation.  If a young child is waiting for their parent to get home from work or perhaps they need to stay up late to wait for that single parent to help them with their homework they are slowly but surely decreasing their cognitive ability.

Physical and verbal abuse is prevalent in inner-cities like Camden.  Physical abuse of course has a horrible overall impact on a child’s life.  However what needs to really be addressed is something referred by many as the “invisible scar,” verbal abuse.  Ms. Brown noticed that there are two side effects of verbal abuse.  The first is that the child is immune to the derogative tone and the name calling.  She describes it as “normalcy.”  The second more radical effect is that the child is scared to death of their parent.  Emotional and verbal abuse “conveys that the child is worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, and endangered” (1).  Feeling worthless has to have some impact on a child’s performance in school.  Dr. Arthur Becker-Weidman, a licensed professional in psychotherapy and clinical social work, has done studies on child abuse in relation to neurobiological evolvement.  He says, “Abuse and neglected children have a smaller corpus callosum than non-abused children” (1).  The ideal state should consist of a balance between the right and left hemisphere of the brain.  The corpus callosum has the function to make the connections between the two hemispheres; therefore having a small corpus callosum creates a setback for learning.  Dr. Becker-Weidman further explains,

This poor integration of hemispheres and underdevelopment of the orbitofrontal cortex is the basis for such symptoms as difficultly regulating emotion, lack of cause-effect thinking, inability to accurately recognize emotions in others, inability of the child to articulate the child’s own emotions, and incoherent sense of self and autobiographical history, and a lack of conscience. (1)

     Martha Farah, a researcher at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania set out to find why children of poverty-stricken families are at a disadvantage in the educational system compared to middle-class children.  Farah took a survey of children from Philadelphia and New York and came to the conclusion that poorer children were weak in language, working memory, long-term memory, and cognitive control.  She noticed that these four abilities correlated and were influenced by two main categories: cognitive stimulation and emotional upbringing.  She deduced that children who were coddled scored better on memory tests.  Children who were raised by reclusive yet intellectual parent scored higher on language tests than memory tests.  Martha Farah “was able to ascertain exactly which systems in a child’s brain are affected by which parental behaviors” (Tough 47).  The academic gap among inner-city children “is a physical, mechanistic process in which specific inputs lead to specific outputs.  Parental nurturance, Farah found, doesn’t affect children in a vague, unknowable way- it stimulates the medial temporal lobe, near the base of the brain, which in turn aids to the development of memory skills” (Tough 47-48).  Certain types of parenting styles have various negative effects on the child’s ability to learn.

Teachers have become not only educators but psychologists, nurses, and parents.  Inner-city teachers have now become emotionally drained and lack the moral that children at risk need to succeed.  Like Ms. Brown stated these children have no structure in the household.  She says that when the teacher is reprimanding a student by shouting at them there will be most likely no change in bad behavior.  The kids are so immune to their parents yelling at them therefore the teacher cannot make a dent in modifying the behavior.  Ms.Brown suggests that beside teachers being pleasant and patient with the student they should also practice the concept of accountability.  She found that when she held a child accountable for something as simple as handing in his or her homework on time, the child began to make a habit of it.

Many inner-city schools are composed of many different students of color that are usually taught by white educators.  Racism also seems to be an issue in these schools.  Skinner found that,

children who experienced teachers as unsupportive were more likely to develop beliefs that emphasized external causes; these profiles of control predicted escalating disaffection and lower scholastic achievement; in turn, these poor performance led children to increasingly doubt their own capacities and to believe even more strongly in the power of luck and unknown causes. (1)

Some teachers, either because they have given up hope or regard minority students to learn at a lower level create a setback for these children.  If the teacher is not encouraging the child to do their best and if a parent does not find education to be of any importance then what chance does this child have at prospering in school?  Brophy and Good have pointed out that “low expectations are generally associated with minority group membership, low SES (socioeconomic status), male gender, nonconformity personality, physical unattractiveness, nonstandard speech patterns, and low achievement” (2).  It is important to realize these children are already at a disadvantage for living in one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in the United States.  Teachers need to make everyday a small triumph for the child towards a larger and greater goal.

It is obvious that this is not the type of problem that can be solved in a couple of weeks but perhaps there are solutions outside this black hole that can help the youth rectify a new Camden.  There needs to be a commitment of funds for food which provide a breakfast, lunch, and snack for the child.  A program called Feeding America should if not already be instituted in schools.  Ms. Hessert, a teacher at Cramer Hill Elementary, says this is a very important program for the school with a positive impact on the student’s life.  There are many specific programs Feeding America has that will work with schools and the community.  For example they even have a summer program that distributes food to the children when school is not in session.  A weekly checklist needs to be provided by the nurse with a list of indications that alert the nurse of physical or mental problems of students that are occurring within each teacher’s classroom.  This way the teacher and nurse can locate a pattern of behavior easily and respond accordingly for that child.  Half-hour naps should still exist in Kindergarten.  This will help reduce some amount of sleep deprivation and make the classroom a calmer place.  There needs to be more guidance counselors with more availability that extends into after school hours.  Camden schools should institute positive family substitute programs like a big brother/sister program.  After school tutoring programs will help students that are falling behind and need the extra help.  One teacher aid needs to be in every classroom to help each teacher throughout the day.  These are just a couple possible solutions that might help children of inner-cities.

If the parents, teachers, and children can work together to the best of each of their abilities for the welfare of Camden’s youth then perhaps there is hope for the city of Camden in the distant future.  Youth-focused support programs in schools aiming for education and psychological help for the children are little steps to help children succeed.  If we take these measures then perhaps we can make a difference for each child to show them that they have a future outside the struggling city.

 Works Cited

Bronson, Po. “Snooze or Lose.” New York Times and Features. New York Media LLC, 7

          October 2007. Web. 2 November 2012. http://nymag.com/news/features/38951/.

Feyerick, Deborah. “Childhood malnutrition has long lasting effects.” Eatocracy. CNN,

          26th September 2011. Web. 2 November 2012. <http://eatocracy.cnn.com/2011/09/

          26/childhood-malnutrition-has-long-lasting-effects/>.

Obiakor, Festus E., “Teacher’s Expectations of Minority Exceptional Learners: Impact on

          “Accuracy” on Self- Concepts.” Exceptional Children 66.1 (1999): n.p. FreePatents

          Online.com. Web. 2 November 2012. <http://www.freepatentonline.com/article

          /Exceptional-Children/55925113.html>.

Peterson, Pam. “Sticks and Stones and Hurtful Words.” Parenting the Preschooler. UW

          Extension, April 2009. Web. 2 November 2012. <http://parenting.uwex.edu/

          parenting-the-preschooler/documents/Sticks%20and%20Stones%20and%20

          Hurtful%20Words.pdf>.

Skinner, EA, MJ Zimmer-Gembeck, and JP Connell. “Individual differences and the

          development of perceived control.” Abstract. Monographs of the Society for

          Research in Child Development. (1998): 1-220. NCBL database. Web. 2

          November 2012. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9839459&gt;.

Tough, Paul. Whatever It Takes. Boston: Mariner Books Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

2008. Print.

“Nutrition and Brain Health.” virtualmedicalcentre.com. virtualmedicalcentre.com, 17

          December 2012. Web. 2 November 2012. <www.virtualmedicalcentre.com/health

          andlifestyle/nutrition-and-brain-health/281#c5>.

“Top 101 cities with the highest percentage of single-parent households, population

          50,000+.” Citytoplists. City-data.com, n.d. Web. 2 November 2012. <http://www.

          city-data.com/top2/h7.html>.

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