I began my teaching career in St. Paul, Minnesota, at a magnet school for gifted students. My first thought about my first teaching assignment was that it would be one of the easiest jobs in the field. However, the diversity of the students I ended up working with was almost beyond my comprehension. My students weren’t all middle class and of the majority—they came from an array of backgrounds, both culturally and economically. I learned quickly about the impact of poverty on learning.
There are six major issues related to poverty that I see affecting the learning process:
- The ever-increasing number of students in poverty
- Varied social responsiveness
- Differing social and emotional needs
- Truancy and attendance
- Status inequity
In this blog post, I’d like to give you ideas on how to address these issues to improve our students’ chances for success.
The ever-increasing number
There are two types of poverty: situational and generational. Situational poverty is relatively short in duration. A parent may have lost a job or maybe going through a series of jobs in which wages are not sufficient to make ends meet. Generational poverty, on the other hand, carries over from one generation to the next and seems to have a never-ending outcome. Granted, situational poverty can be hard on families. But generational poverty takes a much greater toll on each and every member of the family, emotionally, physically, and psychologically.
Developing a greater awareness of the issues of poverty in your community can help you understand the stresses these families go through every day. Also, learn about the cultures of families you work with. Try to go beyond just the surface (of foods and holidays) to the value systems, religious beliefs, and relationship structures.
Keep in mind that families in poverty should never be shamed or blamed. Your job is to ensure that the child has the tools to break the effects of the cycle of poverty and achieve a better future.
Varied social responsiveness
Students living in poverty may have different acceptable social behaviors at home compared to what is acceptable in school, such as being loud or highly verbal. To ensure kids are successful in “code switching” (knowing what behaviors are acceptable in which location), set very clear expectations or norms of behavior. Have the students practice them on a routine basis and recite them often. The norms should also be consistent from room to room or building-wide. Keep the norms phrased in the affirmative (such as “We will treat each other the way we would like to be treated”). Also, keep the norms (not rules) to a short list—too many norms can be overwhelming and hard to remember.
Families in poverty may move a lot based on housing affordability or job locations. To help students stay on track for the next grade level, districts should have a consistent curricular scope and sequence from building to building and from grade level to grade level. This can ensure that children, in moving from one place to another, don’t miss out on learning. I am not suggesting a tight pacing guide in which every teacher must teach a particular lesson on a particular day, but a consistency of content standards and assessments throughout the district.
Curricular consistency works well in large school districts when children move from one side of town to the other. However, sometimes students move to different districts. To ensure students develop effective learning skills no matter where they’re headed, make sure you are teaching the tools of thinking. Regardless of whether a district teaches Civil War history in fourth or fifth grade, students with quality thinking tools will be able to catch on to the content quickly.
Differing social and emotional needs
We are all born with a certain set of emotional responses such as anger, fear, surprise, and joy. Other emotional responses, such as optimism, empathy, and compassion, are considered learned behaviors. Students from poverty may not develop a full complement of learned emotional responses. Again, NO SHAME AND BLAME HERE. When parents are absent due to working multiple jobs or other reasons, they may not be demonstrating the learned emotional responses. Therefore, teaching appropriate emotional responses embedded within the curriculum can assist your students in developing the full complement of learned responses. Additionally, modeling these responses for your students is also an effective way of helping them build emotional strength and resilience.
Students with different social and emotional needs also require reliable relationships. This means they can count on knowing their teachers and classmates. Fewer teachers and transitions are necessary for them to feel safe, secure, and connected.
Truancy and attendance
In some cases, when parents work multiple jobs or are absent, an elder sibling may have to stay home to take care of a sick child. Also, there may be no one monitoring whether a student gets up in the morning or attends school. As a classroom teacher, you can prepare for these absences by creating a “make-up center.” The center should provide packets of materials from daily lessons, videos of lessons, or websites that can bring the absent child up to speed. You also may consider having the material available in a community center, library, or place of worship where your students go. Also, build your capacity to differentiate for students who have spotty attendance, compacting lessons or units to get to the essentials.
Students who do not live in poverty may not be aware of its difficulties and challenges. In this case, they may shun, socially isolate, or bully children in poverty. To ensure all students are respected and acknowledged for their unique qualities, build a learning environment that nurtures a community spirit. Focus on community service and citizenship. Students need to feel accepted and respected for who they are. There should be an air of inclusiveness, making sure that every student feels like a part of the whole with something to offer.
Poverty has many dimensions. As teachers, knowing its issues and working toward breaking the cycle through education helps us be effective change agents in children’s lives.
Which of these issues affect students in your classrooms? How are you supporting these students?
Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally. His most recent book is Differentiation for Gifted Learners, coauthored with Diane Heacox, Ed.D. He is also author of Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century.
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