Neighborhood Pressure: The Neighborhood’s Impact on a Child’s Decision-Making

ImageRecently, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a group of fifth graders.  Over time, we’ve developed quite a relationship where they feel comfortable opening up to me about things happening in their lives.  Often, we adults do not ask children what situations they face.  Maybe it’s because we tend to be in denial or maybe we don’t want to tackle those problems head on or maybe we just get so busy that we don’t ask children these real life questions.  Nevertheless, children are being pressured into deviant behavior whether we want to admit it or prioritize discussing it with them.

As the children I spoke to opened up, they told informed me that their peers were encouraging them to participate in illegal activities, and that sometimes they were equally as guilty for pressuring one of their friends or siblings to do the wrong thing.  For them, it is part of what they do in childhood.  You go to the store on the corner before or after school and stuff packs of gum and Now &  Laters and Hot Cheetos in your pockets.  When questioned by store staff, you blatantly lie so that now it just feels comfortable to be dishonest.  “Sometimes you do tell the truth,” said one child.  He then recalled a time he was accused of theft.  “The store cashier told me to be honest or else he would call the cops.  So I told him, ‘Yes, I did steal, but it’s because I’m poor and I cannot afford it.'”

As I listened intently to these real life accounts, it brought me back to my childhood.  I never had to shoplift for clothes at Old Navy in the local mini-mall in my county, but I absolutely remember people in my peer group doing it.  In an attempt to keep up with the changing trends and their parents lack of income, they risked getting arrested for a “best dressed” reputation.  I also remember instances where people would steal from the 711 and get into verbal spats with the employees.  More importantly, I remember where some of my peers ended up, and as my fifth graders share their lives with me, I wonder just how can I combat the neighborhood’s influence on their decision-making?

In schools across America, we teach character building through scenarios that happen on the school grounds such as playing fair on the playground, learning how to share materials during centers, or not pushing in line.  But I’m afraid we miss the perfect opportunity to bring up decisions our children face outside of school walls.

How are we preparing them to face their older brother or cousin who pressures them to smoke weed?  What about drinking a parent’s alcoholic beverage that was left unopened in the refrigerator?  These are also example of negative choices that the children I’m getting to know brought up.  Our children are constantly asked or pressured to make poor life choices on their block.  These choices can serve as gateways into even more negative behavior that could happen later in life.

Furthermore, in middle school I was involved in S.N.A.A.P (Students Notifying Adolescents About Prevention), and in elementary, middle and high school I participated in Youth to Youth.  Both of these programs helped me to combat the neighborhood and media’s influence on my decision-making.

Today, while chatting with the fifth graders, I was able to spew facts I learned about cigarette smoke and underage drinking at a young age.  They had no idea smoking cigarettes fills lungs with tar or that alcohol is a poison that can make them extremely sick, and that when adult gives them alcohol, it’s a crime.  Kids should receive all this information early on–in age appropriate doses–but definitely not sugar-coated.  On the streets, it’s not sugar-coated, and they certainly are not skipped over peer pressure because of their age.  It’s time we have this conversations or else deal with the consequences of having their peers or media lead them down the wrong path.

My questions to you:

  1. How do we get this information back into schools?
  2. Is this even being taught in health class at the late elementary level?
  3. What role do schools play in helping children make the right decisions, not just in school, but in life?
  4. How can schools address the type of pressure our kids face when they leave the grounds?  What has your school done to bring up these types of issues?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Mississippi’s School to Prison Pipeline

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Colorlines recently published “The Shocking Details of a Mississippi School-to-Prison Pipeline,” which gives readers a peak into the serious injustice happening in the state. Check out an excerpt below:

Among the infractions that landed Green, who is black, in juvenile detention were talking back to a teacher, wearing long socks and coming to school without wearing a belt. He was behind bars for stretches of time as long as two weeks, and the real rub, his mother Gloria said, is that weekends didn’t count as days served. A 10-day suspension stretched to 14 actual days; time for Meridian juvenile justice officials apparently stopped on weekends. All that back and forth out of school and in juvenile took a real toll on Green’s education, and he was held back from the eighth grade.

“It was mind-boggling,” Gloria Green said. “My son loved school and to be kicked out as much as he was, one year he just couldn’t catch up.”

“We did everything we know to do. I went over to the school and got make-up work, and he still failed two subjects and at that point I didn’t know which way what my child was going to go.”

“We talk about the school to prison pipeline and it’s often an abstract thing,” said Shakti Belway, an attorney who worked closely with families on the Meridian case for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “But here it is literally happening over ridiculous, minor charges.” Indeed, children as young as elementary school students have been taken directly from school and forced to serve school suspensions inside a jail cell. In its complaint, the DOJ charged the city’s police department with operating a de facto “taxi service” shuttling students away from school and into youth jails.

In parts of Mississippi, the extreme measures to curb minor infractions in schools are labeling youth and putting them on a path to confinement. As educators, we must be thoughtful in how we invest children in school policies in order to create a positive learning environment.

Reading the stories highlighted in this piece bring me back to my childhood experiences in school. I’ve had family members and peers become victims of the judicial system at early ages. We must support children, not use excessive force to encourage them to want to learn at school. Effective relationship building by partnering with mentorship organizations, an appropriate ladder of consequences, strong school wide culture initiatives and student support staff are just a few ways schools can meet the needs of all students.

In my experience, I learned that my most challenging students are the ones who need the most love and guidance. Their disobedience is a cry for help. Spend more time with them and steer them in the right direction because shoving students into the judicial system is a sign that we’ve given up on them. We cannot give up on our kids. The kids are our future.

Read more about what’s happening in Mississippi http://m.colorlines.com/archives/2012/11/school_prison_pipeline_meridian.html.