I interned this summer with the Kanawha County Extension Office in West Virginia. I worked with the 4-H Positive Youth Development Program and Education Elevators, an organization founded in the area. These organizations strive to provide a positive and safe learning environment for children of all backgrounds. I had the privilege of being a camp counselor for children ages 5 to 21 while researching aspects of positive youth development and using that knowledge to design activities to teach children life skills. This experience has taught me invaluable lessons about children; how they form friendships, how they view adults, how their environment can influence their lives, and so much more.
When it comes to solving the issues of society, we have all heard the adage in one form or another: “It starts with the children.” This sounds easy – teach children to break the cycle, whatever that cycle may be. What if the cycle is designed not to be broken? What do we do then?
Facing the issue of poverty’s influence on children is tough. The influences poverty has on children are out of their control. For example, children ages birth to three years who live in lower SES households hear an average of 30 million fewer words than more affluent peers (Hart & Risley, 2003). This is called the Word Gap. The reasons may be the level of education of parents, the available time that the parents have with their child, quality of community resources, or the type of childcare the family can afford. Poverty creates cyclical problems for families. If a family cannot afford to spend adequate time with children due to work constraints, their children are not cognitively stimulated and emotionally nurtured. This may cause the child to suffer later on in school. These deficits may then lead to decreased academic performance and lower paying jobs. Nevertheless, children living in poverty are not doomed! In fact, there is a factor that can make all the difference – a developmental relationship.
A developmental relationship is an adult who provides a safe and loving environment in order to support children’s skills in education and in life in general (Developmental Relationships). Extensive research supports this conclusion. Children of all ages, even into adulthood, thrive from having someone genuinely invested in their lives, to mentor them, listen to them, cultivate their strengths, motivate them, challenge them, and encourage them. Although children may be facing great challenges from living in poverty, a relationship with a parent, church member, sports coach, or teacher can act as a buffer and a beacon of hope for them.
Through my work as a mentor with Education Elevators, I was able to see the impact of a developmental relationship with the children and their mentors. Elevators is a program in which children with limited economic resources enroll in a summer activity in which they do lessons similar to those in school. They do crafts, games, field trips, and much more! Although I was not involved long enough to develop this type of relationship with the kids, I was able to see the relationships they had formed with the permanent mentors. The children looked up to them as familial figures and respected them. I noticed some children who had a lot of anger open up to these mentors and gained calmness just by finding comfort in relation to their mentors.
Children living in poverty are not destined to be behind. They face many more struggles than their peers, but that does not mean they will be behind forever. With intentional and goal-directed intervention, such as that provided by Education Elevators, the effects of the Word Gap tend to diminish as they progress through school – the children who were once behind catch up. What really matters is helping children get to this point and continue to succeed! Developmental relationships motivate children to work and aspire for something greater. A child living in poverty may have a million things other than cognitive and emotional education on his or her mind, for example, where the next meal is coming from. Mentoring relationships can help children focus on what types of classes they want to take in high school or what they want to do after graduation. Being the safe place for children to express themselves and grow with a motivating adult can make all the difference.
Developmental Relationships, (n.d.). Retrieved January 02, 2017, from http://www.search-institute.org/what-we-study/developmental-relationships
Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. (2003). The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap by age 3.American Educator, 4-9.