[Editor’s note: This is part two of a four-part series on poverty and the educational process. Links to the previous blog posts will be included in each part.]
Poverty has a multifaceted impact on both student engagement and student success in the classroom. Last week, we looked at Health and Nutrition. In this post, we are going to address two aspects of poverty that also have wide-ranging repercussions for classroom performance – Effort and the Growth Mindset.
To read Part 1 on Health and Nutrition, click here.
Effort – The Problems
Many teachers who observe that poor children often slouch, slump, or show little effort in class may conclude that it’s because they – or their parents – are lazy. However, in its 2002 report, the Economic Policy Institute suggests that parents from poor families work just as hard as parents in middle- or upper-class families do. There is therefore no “inherited laziness” passed down from these parents to their children.
One reason poor students seem (or are) unmotivated is because their lives lack both hope and optimism. Research has demonstrated that low socioeconomic status and the financial hardships that go with it are correlated with depressive symptoms, and that passiveness in the classroom, or elsewhere, may actually be learned helplessness stemming from stress and depression. However, a study of 60 high-poverty schools demonstrated that the primary factor in student motivation and success isn’t the student’s home environment at all – it comes from the school and the teacher, which means that effort can be taught, and strong teachers can help create strong students.
Learning is a process that goes two ways. Students who show little effort are telling you that you are expending little effort to motivate them to work harder. When you put out more effort and challenge your students to achieve more, to become more, then you will see a corresponding increase in the amount of work they put into the class and into their assignments. Studies have also shown that school engagement is a key factor for whether a student remains in school and for whether they graduate; teachers can help push the students on to the path of success.
There are a number of ways that you can increase effort among your students. The first step is simply to establish a relationship and get to know them better. Invest part of yourself in them and their success. When they know you care about them, they are more apt to care about what you ask them to do.
Second, involve the students, at least in part, in the decision making about their learning. Provide them with different options about how to complete an assignment and let them figure out which way is the best to proceed – this also has the advantage of increasing critical thinking skills, which will be required throughout their school careers and the rest of their lives. Also give them incentives to complete the assignments, such as earning a “mystery prize” or engaging them in a friendly competition with other students in the class.
Third, make connections to the students’ worlds in ways that help them see a concrete reason to invest themselves in academics. How does the topic you’re teaching connect to the real world? You can use things like shopping, technology, and relationships with family members to make the learning more relevant. Without clear links between home and school, students often experience a demotivating disconnect, and they simply give up.
Fourth, set high goals for the students and show them they are achievable by providing real-world success stories of people who came from backgrounds like theirs and managed to overcome obstacles and succeed. Seeing actual success is a great motivator.
Lastly, provide daily feedback on both effort and success so the students see that 1) you are paying attention to them, and 2) they have the opportunity to make course corrections to achieve greater success. Provide constructive criticism, but keep in mind that positive comments boost morale and help affirm effort, as well. Challenged and affirmed students tend to put in more effort and see greater success in school and in life as a result.
The Growth Mindset – The Problems
The Growth Mindset is akin to hope, and hope is a powerful thing. Research suggests that low socioeconomic status may be associated with viewing the future as being more negative than positive. As a result, students from this background have lowered expectations about their futures than higher-income students do.
The student’s attitude about learning – also referred to as the mindset – is a predictive factor of his or her future success. Taken together, hope and mindset can either be significant assets or serious liabilities. If students are not hopeful about their futures, or if they think they won’t be able to do the classroom work or that it has no relevance to their lives, they probably won’t bother to put in the effort. This is true, also, if they have the opinion that they’re not smart enough to succeed. It is up to the teacher to help students overcome these obstacles and demonstrate that achievement is not only possible, but that it’s also probable.
If students believe that they are “stuck” at a certain level of intelligence, they will not put in the effort to do better. It’s important to teach students that everyone’s brain can change and grow, and that, with work, they can even raise their IQ scores. It’s also important to provide good feedback, comments and suggestions that are prompt, actionable, and task-specific so that the students can make the necessary course corrections to improve their performance. Push students to stay with a task, even if they’re having trouble; your confidence in their abilities will make it much more likely that they will put in the effort and eventually succeed. Focusing on affirming and reinforcing effort may make all the different in a child’s world.
Check back next week for Part 3 of this series, where we will look at the issues of Vocabulary and Cognition.
 As described 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
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