I am a clinical psychologist with a focus on children's learning and emotions. I am particularly interested in how poverty and oppression influence children and families, and how we might best help individuals, as well as work for social change.
I remember when I first realized the impact of beliefs and emotions on student learning. As a grad student psychology intern, I administered a test to a child who had lived with several different foster families before arriving at his present residential facility for boys. I realized that he did not believe he could control anything in his life, including academic outcomes, and that his hopelessness interfered with his persistence in the face of challenge. This experience motivated my research on how poverty-related instability influences childre's approaches to learning; and grounded my philosophy of undergraduate teaching. I focus on the students. How will they respond to academic challenges? How will my course prepare them for future challenges they will face? How can I instill in them belief and passion enough to carry them through these challenges? My answers to these questions lead me to a focus on learning process, and a daily schedule that begins at a bustling Head Start preschool where I supervise undergraduate students to serve low-income children, and ends in a university classroom where I stay with students after class talking about psychological theories and daily realities for families facing economic stress.
Research on responses to academic challenges suggests that focus on process and effort encourages persistence in the face of challenge, whereas focus on ability alone, may lead students to disengage. This idea shapes the process-oriented approach I take in all of my courses, and influenced my decision to develop a new course: Field Experience in Psychology: Diverse Communities. In this course, students use psychological tools to serve low-income children and families in collaboration with Head Start preschools, and I have the chance to focus on process and reinforce students' efforts by working with them one-to-one as they apply theory to practice. This course also reflects what research tells us about the influence of motivation on persistence in the face of academic challenge. The sense of fulfillment students achieve, through helping children and families, motivates them to pursue future scholarship and civic engagement.
I feel encouraged when students extend themselves beyond their assigned work. After conducting interviews with low-income parents, the students often go to great lengths to connect these parents with needed resources. One student helped to organize a support group for immigrant families at a Head Start preschool we work with, and another organized a food drive to provide Thanksgiving meals. Other students have joined community groups that address issues of racism and related intolerance. I know I'm not the only instructor who is making a difference in a way that carries beyond the classroom. That's why I've invested time in helping to develop assessment measures for the Service Learning and Women's Studies committees I serve on. I know that, by collaborating, we can promote teaching methods that give students the knowledge, tools, and passion to engage effectively with the challenges of our 21st century world.
The present era brings new challenges for education, including those related to economic and racial/ethnic disparities. We need scholars who can engage thoughtfully with these issues and conduct rigorous research to inform policy and practice. The students who work with me at the Head Start preschools conduct research on questions like how poverty-related stress influences children's approach to learning, and how parents' efforts to help children cope might matter. Poverty stress may influence responses to challenge via disruptions to sleep, and one student recently examined how parent-child talk time before bed might promote children's sleep. These studies bring us small steps closer to understanding how we might close the achievement gap.
Today, one of my students told me that a four-year-old girl came to preschool in tears. Her mom disappeared last week and is now incarcerated. My students will give her extra support through this difficult time. Interestingly, this child reminds me of the one who sparked my interest in how emotions influence learning. Maybe we will reach this child in time to help her stay hopeful in the face of learning challenges. I know my students will try. I know they will feel satisfaction for the ways they help, and that, in the places their efforts fall short, they'll be motivated to continue their studies and civic engagement. My undergraduate students don't face the same challenges as our preschoolers. But, these undergraduates, too, have life stressors. They, too, are learners who benefit when teachers take the time to engage them and encourage them to take on challenges.
Nearly a quarter of children in the United States live below or near poverty thresholds. The risks are clear. Poverty relates to negative outcomes, including emotional difficulties, and school failures. What is not clear is how to conceptualize relations between poverty and child outcomes.
A question of key importance to me is how we might close the achievement gap. My doctoral research documented that the strong relationship between income and early childhood achievement is insufficient to account for the diverse pathways that economically disadvantaged children follow across the school years. Of those low-income children who begin school at an academic disadvantage, some benefit from opportunities available in formal schooling and catch up to their middle-income peers, whereas others fall further behind, resulting in a widening gap.
My work as a psychologist has allowed me to see firsthand the impact of student emotions on student learning. I have realized that poverty places children at risk for achievement problems in part, because of its impact on emotions and self concept. I have also realized that this impact begins early, and that although most researchers have long understood that socioeconomic status strongly predicts child outcomes, few have studied the impact of the poverty ecology on emotions and learning in early childhood. Beginning with my dissertation research at the University of Delaware, and continuing with research at Brown University, and at the Early Childhood Cognition and Emotions Lab (ECCEL) at WCU, I have collaborated with Head Start preschools serving economically disadvantaged children to examine how poverty factors relate to children's emotions and learning. I have also examined how innovative programs, like an arts enriched Head Start, might offer opportunities for children at risk to build emotional and academic competence, including persistence in the face of challenge. My research has contributed to understanding how we might provide all children with chances for emotional well being, and school success.
My specific goal of understanding developmental risk and preventing negative child outcomes associated with growing up poor may be understood in the context of a broad goal of promoting the use of scientific method as a tool for moving beyond personal or societal biases and uncovering basic truths about the world. Psychological research is at once a product of the current social structure and a tool for overcoming current social prejudices. My research program focuses on the use of scientific method to surmount a traditional view of poor people as deficient and promote equality of opportunity in terms of children's learning and emotional well being. As a mentor, I focus on teaching students a behavioral science approach and a methodological skill set that will allow them to step beyond current biases and advance social progress through the discovery of basic truths about the world, both as investigators and consumers of research.
I believe strongly in the value of student research, and enthusiastically mentor students on my research team. My mentorship involves a collaborative process of examining specific research questions with students while helping them to develop broader methodological skills. In the weekly meetings I hold with members of my research team, for example, I devote half of our time to training in our specific research techniques and the other half to discussion of research ethics. I focus particular attention on ethical questions related to classism, racism, and research with vulnerable populations, such as poor children. I share with my students a passion for scientific inquiry as well as an understanding of the power of research and the importance of rigorous methods. I offer students unique opportunities to conduct research with young children. The opportunities give them an important advantage as they apply for competitive graduate programs and psychology-related jobs.
Growing up, I saw how income poverty and related factors like violence and substance abuse influenced my relatives' lives. It was clear to me that solving problems of poverty, and creating a better world, would mean working to end oppressions like classism and racism, and helping individuals of all backgrounds tackle emotional distress and irrational behavior patterns. I pursued psychology because it offered useful tools for the challenge.
For all children to have the chance to develop to their full potential.
I agree with Urie Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems Theory. This theory frames child development in terms of interactions between a child's own biology, their family and community, and the broader society they live in. I believe we must address all levels of the ecological system–from individual to societal–to promote children's positive development.
If you're here, you're smart enough for the challenges you will face. Take charge, and always assume more is possible for you than you can tell.