[Editor’s note: This is part one of a four-part series on poverty and the educational process. Links to the previous blog posts will be included in each succeeding part.]
In 2015, approximately about 20 percent of children under the age of 18 (about 14.7 million) came from families living in poverty, and 10 percent lived in households where the parent, if only one, or the parents, if both were present, had not completed high school. Prior research has indicated that these factors are associated with poor educational outcomes such as low achievement scores, having to repeat a grade, and dropping out of high school. This raises two fundamental questions: 1) Why do low-income students struggle in the classroom?, and 2) What can be done to improve engagement and long-term success?
Poverty has a multifaceted impact on both student engagement and student success in the classroom. In this post, we are going to address one aspect of poverty that has wide-ranging repercussions for classroom performance – Health and Nutrition.
Health and Nutrition – The Problems
Poor people, with less access to quality health care that allows for appropriate and timely interventions and/or medications, as well as less information available about effective or preventative health regimens they can practice on their own, tend to suffer from overall poorer health than their middle-class peers. They are also less likely to exercise. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports on studies that show intelligence is linked to quality of health, with the poor having a greater number of untreated ear infections and subsequent hearing loss issues; greater exposure to lead from substandard living conditions; and a higher incidence of asthma. All of these health-related factors can affect attention, reasoning, learning, and memory.
Nutrition is also a major factor in educational performance. Children in poor families tend to have less food available, and the food they do consume is lower in nutritional value. This puts them at a disadvantage starting as early as in the womb. The NCES refers to studies that show poor nutrition at breakfast affects gray matter mass in children’s brains, and skipping breakfast, common among urban minorities, negatively affects students’ academic achievement by impairing cognition and raising absenteeism. That’s part of the reason why it is so important for schools to provide subsidized breakfast and lunch.
With a combination of poor nutrition and inadequate health practices, it becomes harder for students to listen, concentrate, and learn. Exposure to lead is correlated with both a poor working memory and a weaker ability to link cause and effect. Kids with ear infections have difficulties with sound discrimination, impairing their ability to follow directions, do highly demanding auditory processing, and even simply understand the teacher as she talks. Poor diets also affect behavior, causing the children to appear either listless or hyperactive.
The two primary foods that feed the brain are oxygen and glucose; the oxygen reacts with glucose, producing energy that allows the cells to function. Schools can provide students with these two nutrients at absolutely no cost. Slow stretching with deep breathing helps the students increase their oxygenation levels, and studies have also shown that yoga training increases an individual’s control over breathing and metabolic rate, a combination the children can learn to better manage themselves.
The NCES also reports on studies that show recess and physical education contribute to greater oxygen intake and better learning and that children need physical education programs at every grade level to perform well academically. (Also look at our blog post Physical Education and Learning here.) Games, movement, and even dramatic performance all trigger the release of glucose, which stored in the body as glycogen – proper glucose levels are associated with stronger memory and better cognitive function. Physical activity, therefore, is able to reduce some of the issues associated with poor nutrition and will help improve poor students’ overall health.
Health and nutrition is only one aspect of how students from impoverished families struggle with the educational process. In our next post, we will look at some additional areas that warrant attention.
 National Center for Education Statistics. (May 2017). The Condition of Education. Retrieved from: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cce.asp
 Pungello, E., Kainz, K., Burchinal, M., Wasik, B., Sparling, J.J., Ramey, C.T., and Campbell, F.A. (2010, January). In Jenson, Eric. (May 2013). How Poverty Affects Classroom Engagement. ACSD. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/may13/vol70/num08/How-Poverty-Affects-Classroom-Engagement.aspx
 Ross, T., Kena, G., Rathbun, A., KewalRamani, A., Zhang, J., Kristapovich, P., and Manning, E. (2012). Higher Education: Gaps in Access and Persistence Study (NCES 2012-046). U.S. Department of Education. In Jenson, Eric. (May 2013). How Poverty Affects Classroom Engagement. ACSD. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/may13/vol70/num08/How-Poverty-Affects-Classroom-Engagement.aspx