How Poverty Affects Classroom Engagement

How Poverty Affects Classroom Engagement

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Poverty is a word that is saturated with a great amount of uneasiness.

What does it mean for a child to be in poverty and how does that relate to their education?  We understand that labels such as “middle class” does not offer much insight into who a person is & the same is applicable to the word “poverty.” Those who are considered “in poverty” still may possess the same characteristics that we all expect from students of a higher socioeconomic standard: an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, love of hard work, etc. Furthermore, the same teaching methods used for all students should yield the same academic results, if we are to assume that these children are the same cognitively, behaviorally and socially. However, they do not. Studies have shown that children who are from poverty are more likely to be disengaged from school activities as their other classmates are.  There are 7 discrepancies that, if recognized and addressed by teachers, can alleviate the negative impact of poverty.


The first one involves nutrition & health.

Lack of proper nutrition can hamper one’s brain development and academic performance, leading to skipping on classes. Not being able to receive proper medical care puts a child at risk for increased ear infections, hearing loss and asthma. The confluence of all these makes it challenging for a child to listen, concentrate and learn.  Teachers should allow these kids to be physically active during gym or recess, as the body utilizes glucose (sugar from food) that gets released from increased movement, as energy. Oxygen plays a key role in this process. This has been shown to improve memory, cognitive function & lead to overall better health.


Vocabulary is another difference.

It allows a child to use a variety of words to frame or structure information in such a way. It is a crucial part of learning, memory and cognition.  For low-income children, they are unable to understand the words a teacher uses in class or finds in a book & becomes put off from learning.  A couple of solutions involve teachers using flashcards with a word on the front & a sentence incorporating the word on the back so children can follow. Additionally, a word of the day can be posted on a board so if a student or teachers utters the word, a child who points it out, secures an award or credit.


Being lazy or displaying lack of effort is not an inherited trait.

It has been shown in various studies that lower socioeconomic families tend to deal with depression and higher levels of stress. Children will become conditioned to this and it is evident in their classroom environment.  Therefore, teachers must be able to invest themselves in having a dynamic curriculum, one that relates classroom studies to the real world using relatable examples. Having clear links such as money, shopping and technology, learning becomes more relevant. Additionally, the students can be asked key questions or given certain prompts that pique their interests and have them be more involved in the decision making process.


Having the hurdles of inactivity and laziness being cleared, it is important for students to have a positive outlook regarding the future. It has been found that low- income students visualize a bleaker outcome in their lives with fewer expectations. Additionally, if a proper mindset is not present, such students will most likely not demonstrate required effort needed in their studies & fall behind.  Teachers must reaffirm and reinforce effort. They should never discourage a student from any activity but urge (her or him) to preserve onwards. Guiding students into more positive strategy choices & cultivating a bright outlook will be very beneficial for them.


The fifth discrepancy involves cognition.

Low-income students score significantly less on aptitude tests when compared to higher income students.  They posses short attention spans & high levels of distractibility that ultimately wreaks havoc on their academic performance.  Thus, school becomes a major challenge for them. It is crucial for teachers to constantly reexamine how they instruct students as cognition is a teachable concept similar to effort. Students show be directed towards how to take proper notes, establish organizational and prioritization skills & understand key ideas along with memory recall. Starting small is essential and heavily buoyed with tons of encouragement & positive feedback should yield generous results.


The sixth difference involves the importance of relationships.

Children from low-income families generally deal with hectic circumstances in the family that cause their developing brain to be over stressed. They do not usually receive positive comments spoken by parents, instead hearing more reprimands than other children would so the combination of the two creates a mental state that hampers a child’s educational development. Having no reliable role model at home leads to disinterest & dispassion for school. Having been failed at home, they believe that school will fail them subsequently. Teachers need to invest themselves in understanding whom a student is, where do they come from, how is their family, what hobbies do they enjoy to do, etc.  They need some strong, caring adults to compensate for their lack of home stability. It is essential that teachers mold these students in such a way to have them understand what to say in a certain situation and how to comport oneself in the presence of others. Reaffirming the value of relationship is always the first step so there is no confusion.


While we know as human beings that stress is part of daily life, anything that becomes chronic is referred to as distress that is toxic. Those students in poverty deal with excessive levels of distress that can manifest signs such as talking back to a teacher, displaying bad body language, being assertive or even exhibiting passivity.  Teachers should be able to keep things light by having more physical activities & games for the children that stimulate sensory/motor skills. Having them be free without overprotection and giving opportunities for displaying leadership in projects & assuming class responsibilities is very helpful in lower stress levels. It is also good for educators to teach coping skills using real life examples in dealing with stress, giving methods to deal when encountering life obstacles.


Students in poverty are not damaged individuals. They need proper guidance & wise counsel to ensure a change in their mindset.  For teachers, addressing these seven issues will go a long way for such students to be on the right path in order to achieve their fullest academic potential.



Prepared By:

Krishan Jeyarajasingham, MD