Last week I wrote about my excitement as an educator to be working and collaborating with Little Ripples. However, another part of who I am and why I choose this work is my identity as a parent. When I first became a mother, I worried that having children would divide my attention or perhaps take away from what I had to offer my students. It took me about a year to realize that, in fact, exactly the opposite had happened – that having a child of my own expanded my heart, and made it a bigger and better place than it was before. It also made me a better teacher.
Before I became a parent, my focus was primarily on my students’ academics. Now, in loco parentis has a whole new meaning. In addition to ensuring that my students know how to use a comma correctly, I find myself making sure that they have coats in the winter and long sleeves in the fall. I look out for them on the playground: Are they happy? Are they playing? Who are their friends? One of my toughest high school students said once, “You know the problem with this school? It’s like having about 10 different moms all at once!” His tone made it clear that he did not intend this to be a compliment and he couldn’t quite figure out why we teachers all took it as one.
Most days, I am also “the lunch police,” patrolling the cafeteria to see that everyone has at least something to eat. Some days this may be Doritos and blue Gatorade, but at least they are eating, I tell myself. I do it partly in self-defense – after all, I teach these kids in the afternoon! And I know that a hungry kid is less likely to be engaged in learning and is more likely to have trouble focusing, to struggle with self-regulation, to make poor choices and end up in trouble.
The effects of hunger on cognition and learning in children are huge, as we learned from teacher training. The body does its own triage when calories are scarce, directing most of its resources to basics like heart and lung function, then to growth and repair of bone and muscle tissue. Supporting learning and social activity comes in last. Undernutrition has been linked to developmental delays, neurological issues, and impaired learning ability.
While I worry about the students I see at our school, severe food insecurity is a constant in the lives of the children and families of the Little Ripples program. An i-ACT assessment team recently returned from completing its first-year evaluation and the findings were startling to me. Of the households served by the school (approximately 170 students ages 3-6), 100% reported having at least one day in the past two weeks in which there was no food in the home; 91% said that they had gone at least one day in the same amount of time having eaten nothing. For many of the children in the Little Ripples program, the snack that they get at Little Ripples is the only reliable source of food or energy that they have that day. The parents of the camp community report high stress levels from simply worrying from one day, to the next day worrying about how to obtain food for their families. Being a mom or dad unable to provide for your child is a heart-breaking experience; I cannot imagine facing that day after day.
As a teacher, I think about how many times I struggle to get a student in my classroom to focus or engage in learning when all he or she can think about is food. As a parent, when I am packing a lunch for my kids or worrying because I just went to the store and brought home a carload of groceries and still can’t figure out what we are having for dinner, I remember in the same breath how very lucky I am. In some ways, working with Little Ripples is the equivalent of those apples and granola bars that I am handing out in the cafeteria or throughout the school day to my own students. I act because … I am a mom.
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