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Running Head: POVERTY AND BEHAVIOR

Effects of Poverty on Behaviorism and Social Learning


Madeline Sharpe
The University of Memphis

POVERTY AND BEHAVIOR

Effects of Poverty on Behaviorism and Social Learning


Behaviorisms primary focus when it comes to understanding behavior
is to observe
human actions rather than human thought process. The social learning
theory is very similar to behaviorism except it looks at the interaction
between individuals and their peers, this certain theory believes that most
learning comes from observing others (Winsor, Murrell, & Magun-Jackson,
2015). Memphis and Guatemala are going to be the main subjects of this
paper and how the poverty in each effect the behavior of the children living
there. Although there are numerous similarities and differences of poverty in
each place, the behavior exhibited by the children is completely opposite.
Referring to my observations and the studies of researchers, I hope to
provide the readers with a different outlook on why some children living in
poverty behave the way they do.
A few years ago my mom and I started to volunteer at an apartment
complex in inner
city Memphis and I fell in love with the community. Now a group of students
from the University of Memphis, including myself, tutor many of the
elementary school children who live at the apartment complex on Tuesdays
and Thursdays. The students specifically in this program have the lowest
grades in the school or their grades have improved but it is to dangerous for
them to go home. This certain apartment complex is the most dangerous in
the Memphis area and surrounding. Housing some of the most dangerous

POVERTY AND BEHAVIOR

gang members, drug lords, and prostitutes its not surprising that these
children have no business being home. Even at such a young age many of
these certain behaviors are already prevalent in each student such as gang
banging, violence, drug abuse, and theft. How did eight year olds get to the
point where they become gang members, beat each other in the bathroom,
do drugs in the classroom and steal things from their own family members?
All of these actions are learned behaviors they see at home from
parents and older
siblings, so many students feel like there is no other life out of poverty. A
2007 Memphis City school survey said, 40 percent of students reported
being in a physical fight one or more times in the previous year. Close to one
in 11 did not go to school because they felt unsafe (Memphis Youth Make
Progress on Risky Behavior, 2008). There was an incident like this in
tutoring so we asked the bully why he beat the other student and he said its
what his mom does. That same week a few students were suspended for
bringing drugs to school and taking them while on campus, which they stole
from their mother. One big part of the behaviorism theory is reinforcement
and punishment in order to stop bad behavior or encourage good behavior.
Vicarious learning is apart of the social learning theory and is when others
observe the actions of others to learn from their mistakes and the
punishments they endure (Winsor, Murrell, & Magun-Jackson, 2015, p.M3).
When I first related vicarious learning back to the children and how
they still mimic

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their parents behavior even though they see parents in jail and so high they
dont know what day it is I considered that maybe this learning style didnt
exist in this society. There are too many children following in their parents
footsteps that there is no way they can be comprehending these mistakes. It
was until I read a study about Albert Bandura and his social learning theory
by Joan Grusec that I saw a whole new perspective on this theory. Grusec
cited Bandura in her writing saying, Actions that measure up to internal
standards are judged positively, and those that fall short of these standards
are judged negatively (as cited in Grusec, 1992, P.782). Grusec simply
explained it by saying each adult has different responses to childrens
behavior and so the children build their ideas of what is and what is not
punishable (Grusec, 1992). We dont all have the same standards for what is
wrong and right because each and every person comes from a different
culture. Here in the suburbs going to jail is a huge deal and we dont hear
about it as much but in inner city it happens everyday to family members
and friends. Its the norm and many of these kids have parents in jail so even
though in our eyes that person is a criminal, to that child its daddy and
mommy. What child doesnt want to be like mom and dad?
The summer of my sophomore and junior year of high school I had the
amazing
opportunity to do mission work in Chimaltenango, Guatemala. We spent our
days building houses, traveling to schools, and just loving on the families.
Many of us thought the poverty in Memphis was bad but as soon as we

POVERTY AND BEHAVIOR

stepped out of the airport the need was so overwhelming, it felt like there
was no escaping it. The place we stayed was right down the street from a
village full of poverty but was considered more wealthy and right next door
to that was a brothel. Some of the families I had the opportunity to work
alongside were some of the nicest people I have ever met and the children
are hard workers. The day of a Guatemalan child consist of waking up fairly
early, getting ready for school (if the parents can afford it) and walking long
distances just to learn. For children who cant afford school they stay home
and help mom or dad do their daily work and thats about it.
In a study aimed at evaluating social skills of poor and rich preschool
children in
Guatemala, a group of researchers conducted interviews with 100
Guatemalan children to see how well the students gain social emotional
learning in everyday life. They conducted this study with such young children
because they believe young childhood is a very important stage to begin
encouraging social competence to avoid having aggression at a later part in
life (Clinton, Edstrom, Mildon, & Davila, 2014). All the children we worked
with were attending or did attend school at one point and had fantastic
behavior and social skills. There were a lot of neighbors we got to meet and
some of their children did not attend school, lets just say their social skills
were not as impressive. Many of them hid from us and barely came outside
to talk or even let us say hello. While the other children are at school
learning with a class, they are at home with mom or dad all day doing work

POVERTY AND BEHAVIOR

not having any form of communication with others their age. Like here in the
U.S. many children who are on free and reduced lunches at school get
ridiculed and treated differently by their peers and in Guatemala the same
thing happens to children who cant afford school. Having to endure ridicule,
especially at such a young age really has an effect on whether the children
will have the necessary social skills.
For the students who do not attend school, vicarious learning is a big
part of how each
of them learn to work in the fields, gather food and water, and for girls how
to make clothing and cook. Carefully observing what their parents do to
make a living and modeling their behavior is a determining factor of whether
they make money or eat that week. Although some children do have
behavioral issues with their peers, there is no misbehaving around the
parents. Respecting elders is an important part of Guatemalan culture and
has a big effect on how the children behave around their parents. Many of
the parents want their children to succeed in whatever they go on to do
because they dont want their child to face the hardships they face everyday.
How do children in Guatemala who live in more poverty than children
in Memphis have
such better behavior? If children in Memphis City Schools behavior is bad
then most suspect Guatemala has to be even worse, right? Memphis
students have school so readily available that most take it for granted while
Guatemalans can barley afford school and some cant even send their

POVERTY AND BEHAVIOR

children to school. A group of researches found that behaviors exhibited


toward gaining knowledge all varies on the presence of behavior and support
from parents (Parra-Fernandez et al. 2013). I am in no way saying that every
parent in inner city does drugs, is a gang member, or doesnt support their
kid but from what I see at tutoring many of the kids dont have any support.
They all get so frustrated at school because they cant read or write and
have no one at home to help them. Children in Guatemala most of the time
cant read or write either but when they get home their parents are ecstatic
that they are trying.
Poverty has a big effect on how a culture works but each person has
the choice to
rise above it and I have seen it. I know a past gang member who left the life
and is now trying to show inner city children its possible to live a different
life. The first step was a behavior change which lead to leaving the gang and
drug life. He had to start behaving like he was worth more than the statistics
he was put into as a child growing up in poverty. The Guatemalan children
who dont go to school and the ones who will most likely need to drop out of
school need to see that even though their living conditions are horrible that
they were blessed with one thing which is the support of a family. They are a
community which means they need to socialize and support each other
whether one kid is plowing the fields and the other is learning. We as a whole
need to take the behaviors of others as a deeper look into whats really going
on inside and how we as a society can get to the root of the problem.

POVERTY AND BEHAVIOR

References:
(2008, December 1). Memphis youth make progress on risky behavior. Commercial
Appeal, The (Memphis, TN).

Clinton, A. B., Edstrom, L., Mildon, H. A., & Davila, L. (2015). Social emotional learning
in a Guatemalan preschool sample: Does socioeconomic status moderate the
effects of a school-based prevention program? School Psychology International,
36(1), 18-35.

Grusec, J. E. (1992). Social learning theory and developmental psychology: The


legacies of Robert Sears and Albert Bandura. Developmental Psychology, 28(5), 776786. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.28.5.776

M., Fernndez-Parra, A., Lpez-Rubio, S., Carles, R., Mata, S., Vives, M. C., & ...
Mrquez, J. (2013). Variables involved in personal, social and school adjustment in a
sample of preschool-aged children from different cultural backgrounds. European
Journal of Psychology of Education - EJPE (Springer Science & Business Media
B.V.), 28(1), 133. doi:10.1007/s10212-012-0107-8

Winsor, D.L., Murrell, V.S., & Magun- Jackson,S. (2015). Lifespan development: An

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educational psychology perspective. Boston, MA: Pearson Learning Solutions.