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Another Study Finds That Poverty Helps Create Lack Of Self-Control – Not The Other Way Around

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I’m obviously a big believer in Social Emotional Learning (see The Best Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Resources).

At the same time, however, teaching SEL skills to students isn’t enough because of broader soci-economic issues (see The Best Articles About The Study Showing Social Emotional Learning Isn’t Enough).

We also need to recognize that many of our students actually have a lot of the skills traditionally considered in Social Emotional Learning, such as “grit,” in other aspects of their lives, and the challenge to us teachers is to help students feel that school is important enough to them that they want to apply those skills there.

Part of SEL is helping students develop the ability to control themselves (see The Best Posts About Helping Students Develop Their Capacity For Self-Control). And previous studies, and a new one, have found that it might be a skill that some in low-income communities might not demonstrate because they just haven’t found it in their self-interest to do so.

Here’s what I wrote about one research paper in 2013:

The research paper, Poverty and Self Control, takes issue with a common belief that many low-income people are poor because they don’t have traits like self-control. Instead, it finds that that poverty causes a loss of self control:

“…the chain of causality is circular, and poverty is itself responsible for the low self-control that perpetuates poverty….policies that help the poor begin to accumulate assets may be highly effective…”

Even though a large portion of the paper is highly technical, and not particularly accessible to a layperson like myself (and its PowerPoint presentation is not that much better), here’s my understanding of what they found….

If you don’t have many assets, and you’re used to the environment of living on the edge, then self-control really doesn’t offer that many benefits — as Janis Joplin sang “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” — you might as well give in to your whims because not giving into them doesn’t really pay off based on your experience (instead of Joplin, the researchers quote Bob Dylan, ” When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.”)

Now a new study has just come out with similar findings.

Researchers-from-the11

The use of the word “maladapted” seems a bit weird to me just because I’ve never seen that used to describe students who don’t show self-control. But the broader conclusion of the study does make sense, and seems to reinforce the earlier study.

I don’t think it negates the importance of doing whatever we can to support our students to develop more self-control (though let’s not grade them, please).  It does seem to me, though, to possibly alter the lens we use to look at the issue.

What do you think?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

2 Comments

  1. I think our society tends to place labels on others, including students. I also think we should try to help students believe they can do or learn whatever they put their mind to, and rise above said labels. Maybe some students living in poverty do not display self-control, but I do believe with help, they can be taught self-control, or anything else for that matter.

  2. A good example: young (and some not so young) foster children may hoard food in their rooms because they are afraid they will not get any more or what they do get will not be enough. I call it a “survival” skill. Would you punish a child for doing this?
    Is the child stealing?
    Conversely. the parent who never pays for his/her child’s lunches at school (not talking those eligible for free or reduced payment): how has she learned to do that? Should she be punished or fined? Or is she merely taking advantage of a reluctant-to-single out school system?

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