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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview: Enhancing the ‘Mental Bandwidth’ of Students

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 19, 2019 10 min read
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(This is Part Two of an interview with Cia Verschelden. You can see Part One here.)

Cia Verschelden agreed to answer a few questions about her book, Bandwidth Recovery: Helping Students Reclaim Cognitive Resources Lost to Poverty, Racism and Social Marginalization. You can see Part One of the interview here.

LF: One recommendation you make for how educators can help mitigate some of the damage caused to students’ mental bandwidth is by “decreasing stereotype threat and identity threat.” What do you mean by that, and why can it help with mental bandwidth?

Cia Verschelden:

Stereotype threat is the social phenomenon in which members of groups about whom there are negative stereotypes, when in performance situations that matter to them, use up some of their cognitive resources worrying that they will do poorly and, therefore, confirm the negative stereotype. Research shows that this bandwidth depletion actually results in lower performance for people in these groups. We know that certain actions can increase stereotype threat, like reminding students right before a test of their race/ethnic minority status or gender (girls in math and science, for instance).

We could potentially decrease stereotype threat by reminding students instead of what González and her colleagues (2005) call their “funds of knowledge,” what they know and understand based on life experience, culture, family, etc. There is a short intervention in which students are asked to identify the most important values that have guided them in their lives (family, love, community, spirituality, loyalty, respect, ... ) and then write about the ways in which those values have affected their behavior and choices. In several studies, when this was done during a semester or just before major exams, grades and scores were higher compared to students who didn’t do the exercise (Cohen, Garcia, Purdue-Vaughns, Apfel, & Brzustoski, 2009; Sherman et al., 2013; Cohen, Garcia, Apful, & Master, 2006). I think this exercise might act to expand bandwidth by affirming what students are bringing to the performance situation rather than focusing on negative stereotypes about their ability and intelligence.

Identity threat (Steele, 2010) happens when students are in learning environments in which they seldom see themselves in positions of authority, power, or respect. Students in schools where all the pictures on the walls are of people who don’t share an identity with them, whether it be race, ethnicity, age, body shape, or other salient aspects of personal identity, can experience identity threat. Brown and black students of all ages in most schools in the U.S. often have mostly white teachers. Children in primary school have mostly white female teachers (Gershenson & Jacinto, 2019). So, students who are not white almost never see themselves in the front of the classroom. This identity threat, which is related to the concept of belonging, can take up bandwidth that could be used for learning and development.

Identity-safe environments are ones in which students get consistent, affirming messages that, “Kids like me are valued and can succeed here,” and where students can bring their whole selves, including all of their various identities, into the classroom without fear. They see images on the walls and in their textbooks and in other media that reflect people who are like them. They see teachers and principals and school staff who share a common identity with them. Students don’t have to spend any of their precious bandwidth on worrying about not fitting in or being different from everyone else.

LF: The final suggestion you make relates to “institutional” issues that schools need to address. What are your thoughts on how that would apply to the K-12 environment?

Cia Verschelden:

An easy and inexpensive thing any school can do is to look at the imagery around the building and yard. Who is depicted there in positive ways? Who is invisible? Do the people in the images reflect the demographics of the students in the school? If there is a mismatch, take down the photographs and art and replace them with images that represent the current students and their families and cultures.

Hiring teachers and staff who reflect the student population is a longer-term project and should be a goal of every school. Students need to see successful adults who share their identities. Until this is accomplished, schools can be intentional about bringing adults into schools and classrooms to interact with students and communicate to them that “People like me can be successful.” This can be done through the involvement of parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other family members. Appropriate role models can be found through collaborations with community groups and businesses, local community colleges and universities, sports teams, recreation programs, and many other organizations. Getting students out of school buildings and into the community to do service work or attend cultural events are also excellent ways to expose them to a greater variety of people, some of whom may share more aspects of their identities than the teachers and staff in the school.

Schools can pay more attention to the science of learning and create environments and practices that help students maximize their brain power. Although we can try to influence family behavior with parent education and public health information, we can’t, ultimately, control what happens to children and youth when they are not at school. However, schools can do their best to create environments within the school that allow students to use their brains effectively for learning. We know, for instance, that our brains learn best when our bodies are active, we have nutritious food, we stay well-hydrated, and we get a good night’s sleep. We also know that material that is compelling, presented in an engaging way, and actively involves multiple senses in the student, is more likely to be learned well than material that seems irrelevant, boring, and “delivered” to students by the teacher (Doyle & Zakrajsek, 2019). Of all of these factors, the only one we can’t affect is how much sleep students (and teachers for that matter) get at night. The rest of these critical indicators for effective learning environments we can control at the school level—and many of them at little or no cost.

In all but the very most-poorly-resourced schools, teachers can make sure students have access to and are encouraged to drink clean water throughout the school day. Most schools can figure out how to have some healthy snacks available for students, especially those who come from food-insecure households. They can incorporate movement into lessons at every level, whether at recess or in classrooms by taking intentional breaks for standing up, stretching, moving around the room, getting some fresh air, etc. Teachers can create lessons that engage students in articulating what they already know and the ways in which that knowledge informs the learning of new information. They can involve students in every step of the learning process, including peer-to-peer teaching, lesson design, critical thinking and problem-solving related to “real-life” situations and challenges. Teachers can use multimedia, bring in local experts, and experiences outside the classroom (field trips) to bring to life the material that they want students to learn. All of these things enhance the bandwidth of students by growing their brain power and adding to their sense of themselves in interaction with the world.

Most importantly, schools can make policies and shape their treatment of students from an understanding that children and youth—and their parents—are sometimes operating with severely limited mental bandwidth due to the negative effects of economic insecurity, racism, classism, homophobia, and other “differentisms.” This attitude shift can result in responses to students that are characterized not by blame and criticism but by compassion and offers of help and support.

LF: What role do teachers and their schools have in taking public action to help change the broader society-wide problems of “poverty, racism, and social marginalization” and in equipping and supporting their students to do the same?

Cia Verschelden:

This is an excellent question. The first step in taking public action is to realize that the condition of poverty, the negative effects of stereotypes, and the hostility that comes with racism, classism, heterosexism, and other “differentisms,” deplete cognitive resources and, therefore, decrease the ability of students to succeed in school. This realization helps us to move away from blaming and shaming students and their families and turn our attention to the societal conditions that are stealing their bandwidth. It’s the critical difference between questions like, “Why don’t parents care about their children’s education?” and “Why aren’t some students motivated enough to work hard at school?” and ones that ask, “What can we do as a community and state to be accountable for the education and development all of our children and youth?”

Of course, we know the best way out of poverty is education, so anything teachers and schools can do to help students regain bandwidth and succeed increases significantly the chance that their students will be able to finish high school, go on to college or university, and change the trajectory of their lives and the lives of their children. Teachers and schools need to renew their commitment to stand up for their students and demand that communities work for equity in educational funding, which means that high-poverty schools should get proportionately more funding from state and local sources compared to schools in which most students come from families that can afford to provide educational enrichment.

Teachers and parents need to join together and support each other in advocating for their students and children. Parents who are living with persistent economic insecurity may not have much time, social capital, or bandwidth to devote to political activism, but teachers can engage with them and encourage them to contribute at whatever level is possible. It is in the best interest of politicians who want to decrease school funding to pit teachers and parents against each other in a cycle of blame and talk of accountability, when it is public neglect of the most vulnerable children that is the culprit. Teachers and parents (and middle and high school students) can present a united front in which they emphasize that what is at stake is the future of our democracy, which depends on an educated citizenry. The key, of course, is to help students recover bandwidth so they can learn and grow and become adult citizens who can themselves create a more just society for all children.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?

Cia Verschelden:

Parents, for the same reasons as their children—poverty, racism, classism, heterosexism, nativism, and other “differentisms"—are often operating with limited bandwidth themselves. They may also not have opportunities to talk about their frustrations and fears, not wanting to burden their children with their own worries. This is especially true of parents who are single heads of households. I have heard comments from colleagues that “those parents don’t care enough to come to school and support their children’s education.” In my experience, most parents care deeply about their children and their learning, but if they are themselves bandwidth depleted, they may not have the wherewithal to provide what their children need (adding on to their worries that might include the very most basic things like food, shelter, and safety). To the extent that schools can reach out to families and show them respect and caring, students will benefit.

In addition, schools need to recognize and acknowledge that teachers also have depleted bandwidth in schools in which students are dealing with many life challenges that result in their not being able to learn and perform to their potential. There is ample research that shows that when teachers are stressed by increasing class sizes, inadequate facilities and supplies, children who have multiple basic needs that are not being met, where violence and chaos are common, and where the emphasis on high-stakes (for the children and for the teachers and the school) tests have become the focus of the classroom, [they] are more likely to use harsh discipline, disproportionately punish brown and black children—especially boys—and show lower levels of caring toward their students (Jones & Sheffield, 2018; Winn, 2018; Santoro, 2018). Schools can try to support the bandwidth recovery of teachers by affirming and respecting them, providing relevant and timely professional development, breaks during the day, safe places to process both positive and challenging parts of their work, paraprofessional assistance in the classroom, and other needs as expressed by teachers.

LF: Thanks, Cia!

Editor’s Note: References for this interview can be found here.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.