Helping Low Income Students Succeed

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Helping Low Income Students Succeed

Students will come into your classroom with an array of experiences, backgrounds, and skills. One factor that the research confirms is that poverty effects children’s academic success, and often schools located in low-income areas also suffer from diminished resources. Many students from low income families cannot afford the necessary classroom supplies for basic classroom functions.

Children living in poverty often come to school without having had enough sleep, and without having had breakfast.  They often experience family violence, abuse, secondhand smoke, neglect, and have poor clothing and shoes.  Even though they have limited experiences in the world, they may not be able to pay for field trips and cannot pay for extracurricular activities of any kind, which could expand their experience base.

In 2015, over 51% of public school students in the United States qualified for free or reduced lunch at school, according to federal income guidelines, therefore, it is a necessity that teachers be proficient in working with these children and are aware of the concerns affecting them, such as their home environments and food insecurity. When parents cannot adequately support their children, that responsibility often falls on the schools. To help low-income students succeed in K-12 classrooms, keep these key points in mind:

Physiological Considerations

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, students must have their physical needs met before they can learn. If a child is hungry, that is all they will be able to focus on and they won’t have the ability to focus on school or homework. Federal law allows schools to provide breakfast and lunch for students whose families meet the federal poverty guidelines.

Two primary foods for the brain are oxygen and glucose; oxygen reacts with glucose to produce energy for cell function.  Having students engage in slow stretching while taking slow deep breaths can increase their oxygenation. Yoga training has been shown to increase metabolic functioning, so children can better manage themselves.  CE Credits Online’s new course, Developing Students’ Mindfulness Practice to Support Engagement, Self-Regulation and Achievement, teaches how to weave simple and effective mindfulness activities into the classroom on a daily basis.

Recess and physical education contribute to greater oxygen intake and better learning (Winter et al., 2007). Never withhold recess from students for a disciplinary issue; there are countless other ways to let them know they behaved inappropriately. Children need physical education programs at every level to perform well academically. 

Safety Considerations

All students need to feel at ease and safe in their learning space. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, children in low income areas and families are at higher risk for child maltreatment. When teachers become licensed to teach, they become authorized reporters of child abuse. If a teacher suspects abuse in the home they are obligated by law to report this information, using the correct protocols. The job of schools is to deliver efficient instruction to their students, so they can succeed. When a child feels that they are safe, they are free to learn in the classroom.

The Comer Process

James P. Comer, a child psychiatrist, developed the Comer Process which focuses on child development in urban schools. The Comer Process targets connected paths that lead to healthy development and academic success. These paths are: physical, cognitive, psychological, language, social, and ethical. Comer pushed that if these needs were not addressed, students would have difficulties achieving any meaningful success in and out of the classroom. For example, a child may be very smart, but unable to be socially successful. Comer wanted teachers to help their students learn how to navigate life both inside and outside the classroom. According to Comer, if a child is intelligent but cannot socially interact, then the school did not adequately prepare the child for the world. This theory pushes teachers to make sure that students are developing emotionally, physically, and socially so that before the child can learn at their full potential. Comer proposed that children especially in low-income areas need a fundamental caring social network to be supported and be more successful in school.

Stay Positive and Focused

Samuel Freedman, the author of “Small Victories”, wrote about a teacher in one of New York City’s most challenging schools. Students dealt with poverty as well as language barriers, and the educational level at home was very low. In this school teachers did not give up on these students in need. They focused on what could be done on their part to help the student succeed. Some provided extra study sessions to get ready for the SATs or worked with the school to develop programs to help their students. They didn’t let anything get in the way of their dedication to the students. This attitude proved to be very powerful in their work and resulted in creating many successful students.

The Trauma-Informed Approach

In some cases, poverty conditions in a student’s life can lead to traumatic experiences or include traumatic experiences. Applying classroom approaches that recognize trauma can help students cope with stress. A blog by Concordia University in Portland Oregon has outlined tips for teachers who need help teaching traumatized students, such as: knowing the signs, providing structure, practicing social-emotional training, and restoring practice over zero-tolerance policies. If you are looking to get professional development courses on the matter, CE Credits Online has a course: Creating Compassionate Classrooms: Overcoming Adverse Childhood Experiences. This course provides teachers with an understanding of adverse childhood experiences and how to help students overcome physical and emotional stress and traumatic events.

Build a Relationship

James Comer said, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” Forming a relationship with students does not mean necessarily being their best friend. It means that you as the teacher require high quality work and you offer support. Some of the ways to build a respectful relationship with your student is to call the student by name, answer their questions, talk to them respectively, say “hi” when you notice them, and help them when you see they could use it. It is also important to be conscious of the nonverbal signals you show. Your student may shut down if your gestures and tone reflect a negative intent.

It’s also important to build a relationship with the parents. Many low-income parents are so busy with trying to meet their daily needs that they cannot dedicate time to their child’s schooling. Even if there is time, the parent may not know how to help their child with their education. It is so important to create a welcoming atmosphere not only for students, but for their parents also.  See CE Credits Online courses, Engaging Parents to Increase Student Achievement, and Conducting the Parent Conference for great ideas on how to successfully communicate with parents and make them your allies.

Teach Students How to Ask Questions

Questions are a key tool to gaining access to information and knowing how to ask questions leads to student achievement. In their research on reading, Palincsar and Brown found that students who couldn’t ask questions had many academic struggles. A good way to help students ask better questions is to make questioning everything your classroom motto. As long as the question is respectful, let them question away! Every lesson should include students asking questions of you, of one another, or of themselves. The more they ask questions the better they’ll get at it. You can also model the process. In the first week of school you can model types of questions that require deeper thinking. You can share examples of inadequate questions and ask the students how they could fix the question. Reducing a student’s fear of being ridiculed by other students or you for asking a “stupid” question is important. One way to help your students feel that it is okay to ask their questions is to admit that you don’t have all the answers. This helps them realize it’s okay for them to not have all the answers if their teacher doesn’t either.
The Gift of Education

Teachers can be a huge gift to students living in poverty. Education is the tool that gives a child control over where they can take their life. A teacher who establishes mutual respect, cares, and gives the necessary skills to survive in and out of school, provides students with a gift that will affect their lives and possibly the lives of their next generation.

It is important to realize that children living in poverty will face many challenges on the road to academic success. “Teaching with Poverty in Mind” by Eric Jensen does not shy away from the realities of impoverished students’ challenges and is a good resource for learning more about how to improve the academic success of your low income students. It is more important than ever to support the 15 million (21% of all children) students who live in poverty in the United States.

CE Credits Online has been providing accredited, online professional development courses to teachers in NYC, LAUSD, and across the country for almost 20 years.

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