When it comes to poverty and education, many children face difficult situations. According to Carlos Lee in his doctoral dissertation, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Supplemental Educational Services in Large Texas School Districts, “Poverty, regardless of level, is robustly linked to reduced academic achievement.” Students who live in poverty come to school every day without the proper tools for success. As a result, they are commonly behind their classmates physically, socially, emotionally or cognitively.
There are three ways poverty affects physical development. The first is the role of nutrition. The diets of students who live in poverty are rarely balanced or nutritious. Fresh foods are more expensive than pre-packaged alternatives, and inexpensive fast food is readily available. The hectic working conditions involved with two parents holding multiple jobs to pay the bills results in hurried, unhealthy meals. Children in these families must often look after themselves, meaning there is no adult supervision of their eating habits.
Secondly, improper nutrition leads to poor health. When children do not eat regular, well-balanced meals, their bodies are more susceptible to a variety of illnesses, like untreated ear infections and asthma. Students who suffer from these chronic health issues are absent more often than other students, which causes them to fall behind.
Thirdly, the lack of physical activity in students who live in poverty affects their concentration. Some families of students who live in poorer neighborhoods do not believe it is safe for their young children to play outside; even if there is a playground or park nearby, the violence associated with these neighborhoods keeps families indoors. So students’ only physical activity occurs during the school’s physical education program or during a short recess at lunch.
It is also important to consider how emotions relate to poverty and education. Students who live in poverty-stricken families encounter many situations that can seriously affect them socially and emotionally. Studies show that many of these students live in single-parent households. When only one adult provides for a child’s needs, that parent suffers a great deal of stress; they struggle financially, and they often get inadequate rest. Eric Jensen, writing for ASCD, says, “If caregivers are stressed about health care, housing, and food, they’re more likely to be grumpy and less likely to offer positive comments to their kids.”
The effects of negative and unstable environments manifest in children’s behavior at school. They may act out in different ways. Some students are more aggressive and talk back to teachers using inappropriate language. Other students disconnect themselves and become passive — they do not respond to questions or requests.
Without stress relief, these students will struggle at school. Whether they act out or check out, poverty will have an effect on their development. Students who believe that their station in life will never change may go to little or no effort to succeed. The influence of an encouraging teacher can offset this negative impact.
The relationship between poverty and education shows in the students’ levels of cognitive readiness. The physical and social-emotional factors of living in poverty have a detrimental effect on students’ cognitive performance. Some children have short attention spans, some are highly distractible, and some cannot effectively monitor the quality of their own work.
Poor nutrition and health also influence how children learn. Exposure to lead, most commonly found in the paint in older, run-down homes and buildings, has been linked to poor working memory and an inability to make cause-and-effect connections. Chronic ear infections cause hearing loss, which makes it more difficult to follow directions.
Vocabulary plays a major part in cognitive development and student success in the classroom. Children living in poverty do not participate in lively conversations like their middle-class counterparts. By the time students enter kindergarten, children from poor families have heard only half as many words as their middle-class counterparts. The disparity increases in comparison to upper-income families. This lack of exposure to a rich and interesting vocabulary can leave students behind in academic conversations.
Many students who cannot understand the words in their texts will resist reading altogether. In addition, students will refuse to participate in discussions they do not understand simply because they do not want to ask for clarification. According to ldonline.org, it is not uncommon that children who struggle with academics would “rather look naughty than stupid.”
Funding for Education
So, how can educators narrow the performance gap? One answer is better funding of early childhood opportunities for at-risk students. The Early Learning Initiative provides funding to support children from birth to third grade across the country, specifically targeting children with special needs.
Another answer is meeting some of the children’s basic needs, like food and healthcare support at school. Title I is a government program that provides financial assistance to support schools in neighborhoods where families live below the poverty line. This program gives school districts substantial latitude, allowing them to use the funds in ways that best meet their needs.
Another national program, Promise Neighborhoods, provides funding to local community organizations, institutions of higher education and Native American tribes. According to their website, “The purpose of Promise Neighborhoods is to significantly improve the educational and developmental outcomes of children and youth in our most distressed communities, and to transform those communities.”
However, according to a study done by the Southern Education Foundation, “In 40 of the 50 states, low income students comprised no less than 40 percent of all public schoolchildren. In 21 states, children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches were a majority of the students in 2013.” These children do not enjoy books at home or regular trips to the library. They do not consistently experience interesting dinner-table conversation or educational vacations.
For these students, solutions for the effects of poverty on education may be available only at school. Increased funding will provide some solutions, including sufficient materials and appropriate curriculum and supplies. However, more help is still necessary.
One of the ways experienced teachers can make a difference in the lives of students living in poverty is by being prepared to lead. The LSU online graduate program in education prepares future leaders to anticipate the needs of at-risk students. A master’s degree in educational leadership develops the skills necessary to empower students from all backgrounds to succeed.