[Editor’s note: This is the last part of a four-part series on poverty and the educational process. Links to the previous blog posts are included below.]
Poverty has a multifaceted impact on both student engagement and student success in the classroom. Last week we looked at Effort and the Growth Mindset. In this post, we are going to address two more aspects of poverty that have wide-ranging repercussions for classroom performance – Relationships and Distress.
To read Part 1 on Health and Nutrition, click here.
To read Part 2 on Effort and the Growth Mindset, click here.
To read Part 3 on Vocabulary and Cognition, click here.
Relationships – The Problems
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2015, some 63 percent of children under age 18 lived in married-couple households, 27 percent lived in mother-only households, and 8 percent lived in father-only households. This was true for all racial/ethnic groups except for African Americans, where 57 percent lived in a mother-only household, compared with 32 percent who lived in a married-couple household and 9 percent who lived in a father-only household. In addition, three-quarters of all children living in poverty had a single-parent caregiver. These numbers are important since single-parent households can make these children’s early experiences more chaotic or negative than their two-parent peers, and the developing brain may become insecure and stressed as a result.
For example, if a single parent is stressed about health care, housing, and food, they’re less likely to offer positive comments to their kids than if they aren’t stressed. Risley & Hart (2006) found that children in low-SES homes commonly get twice as many reprimands as positive comments, compared with a 3:1 ratio of positives to negatives in middle-class homes.
In addition, the longer children are exposed to confrontational or absent parents, the greater the probabilities of school failure and school dropout. Having only a single parent or other caregiver in the home creates both instability and uncertainty because the children are missing a role model. If two caregivers are present, when one is at work, busy, or overly stressed, the other can provide a stabilizing force. Relationships can be challenging for children who lack role models and sufficient supports.
Low-income parents are also generally less able than middle-class parents to adjust their parenting to the demands of their higher-needs children, such as those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), those who are oppositional, or those who are dyslexic, and steps for remediation may be absent or beyond the knowledge/reach of these parents.
Another problem that translates from home to school is that students with disruptive home relationships are often mistrustful of adults – since adults have often failed them at home, the children can assume that those within the school will fail them, too. These students are more likely to be impulsive, use inappropriate language, and act disrespectfully, and they won’t have developed the necessary social-emotional responses to behave otherwise. Fortunately, though, appropriate responses can be learned, and strong teachers can provide the kind of support the children lack outside the school environment.
The path toward positive intervention is not easy, but the more you demonstrate you care about the student, the more likely it will be that he will learn how to behave appropriately. Learn each of your students’ names, and ask about their family, their hobbies, and what kinds of things are important to them. Don’t tell them what to do; instead, teach them how to do it.
Never embarrass a student in front of his or her peers. After class, pull them aside and speak as equal partners in a relationship. Demonstrate behaviors, including posture, facial expressions, and statements, and indicate when a given response is appropriate. Remind them to respect teachers and other students as they wish to be respected, and end by affirming common goals and interests (“We’re in this together, and we can make this work, but we each have to do our part.”).
Distress – The Problems
Small amounts of stress are healthy, and we all experience stress on a daily basis. However, acute and chronic stress – also known as distress – is toxic. Children living in poverty experience greater chronic stress than do their more affluent counterparts. Low-income parents’ chronic stress can be transferred to their kids through chronic activation of the immune systems. Distress affects brain development, academic success, and social competence . It also impairs behaviors; reduces attentional control; and impairs working memory.
Distressed children typically exhibit one of two behaviors: angry assertiveness or disconnected isolationist passivity. Both affect classroom engagement. Aggressive behaviors include talking back to the teacher, getting in the teacher’s face, using inappropriate body language, and making inappropriate facial expressions. Passive behaviors include not responding to questions or requests, slumping or slouching, failing to interact with peers, and failing to participate in academic work.
The key to eliminating – or at least reducing – inappropriate behaviors is to treat the distress that causes them. Add an element of fun to class work, perhaps dividing into teams to “compete” for a small prize or playing a game where you pose a “mystery” and have the students strategize to come up with the correct solution. You can also add a physical element, such as stretching or yoga at spaced intervals, to help the students get the extra glucose and oxygen they need. Better physical conditioning leads to greater academic success. [Review the reasoning behind this in Part 1.]
Trying to control a student’s life in the classroom will only create continued issues with inappropriate behavior and lack of engagement. Instead, give students more control over their own lives. Encourage responsibility and leadership by offering choices and making sure the students follow through. You can also have the students engage in projects, encouraging teamwork and supporting classroom decision making.
Finally, teach the students the coping skills they will need both in and out of the school environment so they can better deal with stressors on their own. For example, teach them an “If this, then that” strategy for solving problems using new skills. A great way to do this is by telling the students about your own daily stressors, allowing them to brainstorm solutions for you, and then sharing how you addressed the problems and which solution(s) worked for you and why. And by opening yourself up to them a bit, you give the students a connection that will reinforce the importance of sharing and engagement.
 U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, American Community Survey (ACS). (2015). 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
 In National Center for Education Statistics. (May 2017). The Condition of Education. Retrieved from: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cce.asp
 Spilt, Hughes, Wu, & Kwok. (2012). 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
 Evans, Kim, Ting, Tesher, & Shannis. (2007). 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
 Liston, McEwen, & Casey. (2009). and Evans & Schamberg. (2009). 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