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Volume XII Issue II

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Facing the Impact of Poverty

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


The Power of the Compassionate Educator 

U. S. Department of Education Budget – $67.1 billion
Cost of Annual Standardized Testing – $1.7 billion
Compassionate Educators – Priceless


The Southern Education Foundation issued a report in January 2015 showing that public schools “crossed a new significant threshold in 2013” when for the first time low income students became a majority in the nation’s public schools; nearly 50 million students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. 

Disquieting Data
Other alarming statistics have been reported by Dr. Glenn Flores and Bruce Lesley in their study on the impact of poverty. Some of their findings include the following:

  • Childhood poverty has reached its highest level in 20 years.
  • Child well-being in the United States has been in decline since the most recent recession.
  • 25% of children live in food-insecure households.
  • Seven million children lack health insurance.
  • A child is abused or neglected every 47 seconds.
  • 1 in 3 children is overweight or obese.
  • Five children are killed daily by firearms.
  • 1 in 5 children experiences a mental disorder.

Human Needs
In order to confront the issue of poverty in our schools, it is important to understand the basic human needs of all individuals. Therefore, it is appropriate to revisit the work of Abraham Maslow, a psychologist who studied human characteristics with an emphasis on exemplary people. In 1954, he presented the Hierarchy of Human Needs in his book Motivation and Personality. An examination of Maslow’s work reveals that it is as applicable today as it was when he first published it, especially in the lives of children in poverty. 



 Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs

Maslow believed that in order for a person to reach a level of self-actualization, the needs in the four other levels had to be met. The classroom teacher holds in his hands the power to help a child reach that all-important level.

Relationship Building
With an overriding emphasis on academic achievement in our schools, the importance of relationship building may be overlooked. As Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Professor Robert Blum has pointed out, lasting and meaningful relationships with at least one caring adult in the school is the essential building block for academic success. This caring adult is often the classroom teacher who understands that children from poverty cannot respond appropriately to classroom procedures until physiological needs are met. Specifically, children must have food, rest, clothing and shelter. As teachers get to know their children early in the school year, they quickly learn who their economically disadvantaged students are and begin building strong personal bonds with these children. Their connectedness cannot be underestimated and is the foundation for a lasting and meaningful relationship. Stories abound about teachers who set up a “food bank” in their classrooms for students who come to school hungry or keep extra clothing or hygiene supplies on hand for children who may need them. Teachers learn to key in on young people who are especially weary or stressed. From the outset, they reach out to their charges in trusting and believable ways. As teachers get to know their students and as students begin to open up, it is important to listen to their stories about their circumstances. In addition, teachers can begin to forge positive relationships with families so the trust extends into the home as well. In short, trust must occur in order for success to follow. Although some of these ideas may be common practice to some teachers, it is important to emphasize them for the benefit of other educators who may see the ranks of their children in poverty growing for the first time.

Safe Environment
The next step on the road to helping a child realize her full potential is to ensure that the classroom environment is a safe place for everyone. If harassment against any disadvantaged students, especially children in poverty, occurs, the teacher must act quickly to eliminate it. Students who live in poverty have not had some of the worldly experiences as other children nor have possessions that other children take for granted. Practitioners must be sensitive to these realities. Other practices that may help poor children feel comfortable in the classroom environment include the following suggestions:

  • Teachers should stand at the classroom door each day and cheerfully greet children as they enter. Children who come from difficult or stressful environments may not be used to this pleasant countenance.
  • Children from poor environments may have a different set of social rules in their homes; help these individuals understand the correct behaviors for school situations.
  • Keep a bank of extra school supplies for students to “borrow” if they cannot afford to purchase them.
  • Check to make sure that students who are qualified have access to free or reduced breakfast/lunch.
  • Provide access to computers and print materials that may not be available to children from poverty outside of school.
  • Build lessons based on information learned about children in the class.
  • Work to boost the self-esteem of children who live in poverty by praising their school success.
  • Through teacher words and actions, demonstrate that children’s characters and not their possessions are what is really important.
  • Remember that poverty is not synonymous with the inability to learn. Keep expectations high for all children.

Acceptance of Self and Others
As the comfort level and confidence of each child increases, the challenge for the teacher is to provide students with a strong multicultural setting that will promote awareness, acceptance and respect. When teachers create student-centered and culturally responsive learning experiences, it provides opportunities for students to get to know one another, appreciate each individual’s strengths, and provides settings where friendships can emerge. Although children become aware of social and economic differences at a very young age, the differences in their perceptions can soon disappear as they work and learn together. The caring and sensitivity that the teacher has demonstrated for all of her students serves as a model for how the children can and should interact with one another.

Academic Achievement
When teachers experience success as they combat the negative effects of poverty on their students, they should always keep in mind that the ultimate goal is student learning and academic achievement. In such classrooms, a “watered-down curriculum” is unacceptable. As well, teachers can make their content relevant by being knowledgeable about the cultures in which their students live. Former child of poverty and now a middle school principal and project leader, Cynthia Johnson resolutely believes that teachers must establish high consistent expectations and never equivocate from these practices. When speaking about children in poverty Ms. Johnson states, “The only part of a child’s life that an educator can control is in the school and in each classroom. What happens there often determines success or failure for these children. Classrooms where children who live in poverty can soar are welcoming and inviting and structured.  Instruction is engaging and culturally responsive. Data are constantly used to inform instructional changes. Each student is given multiple opportunities to success and is allowed to demonstrate mastery through learning style or intelligence.”  She summarizes her beliefs by sharing one of her favorite quotes: “Caring is nurturing; believing is strengthening. Caring is validating; believing is promising. Caring is responding; believing is empowering.” Paula Rutherford’s Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners and Active Learning and Engagement Strategies are excellent resources that can help teachers establish and maintain productive learning environments.

Reaching Potential
As teachers continue their work with children from poverty, they have reason to celebrate when they see the progress each child has made. Helping students reach the self-actualization level is only part of the victory; maintaining that level of achievement is an on-going effort that must be sustained. Cynthia Johnson has noted, “The crucial focus of 21st century educators must be to continuously find ways to help children who live in poverty build a bridge from a culture of despair to a future of hope.” Education advocate Kati Haycock has written, “Good teachers make good schools. Students who get several effective teachers in a row will soar no matter what their family backgrounds, while students who have even two ineffective teachers in a row rarely recover.” Our goal then must be to collaborate with our peers, to make each teacher an effective instrument in the war on poverty, and to ensure that children are never sentenced to a life of failure and desperation.




Resources and References


Annie E. Casey Foundation. “Thirty-five Largest U.S. Cities Saw Increase in Child Poverty Rate Between 2005 and 2013.” Posted September 22, 2014. Access the report at www.aecf.org/blog/thirty-five-largest-us-cities-saw-increase-in-child-poverty-rate-between/?gclid=COKl0Z2F28MCFSlo7AodISMAfQ.

Blum, Robert, MD, MPH, PhD. Best Practices: Building Blocks for Enhancing School Environment. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. 2005. Access monograph at www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/military-child-initiative/resources/Best_Practices_monograph.pdf.

DoSomething.org. “11 Facts about Education and Poverty in America.” Access at www.dosomething.org/facts/11-facts-about-education-and-poverty-america.

Flores, Glenn, MD and Bruce Lesley. “Children and US Federal Policy on Health and Health Care: Seen but Not Heard.” JAMA Pediatrics. December 2014 Vol 168, No. 12. Access report at archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1915533.

Gorski, Paul. Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity. New York, NY: Teachers College Press. 2013.

Haycock, Kati. “Good Teachers Create the Future.” The Huffington Post. Posted May 24, 2012. Access at www.huffingtonpost.com/kati-haycock/good-teachers-create-the-_b_1543698.html.

Jensen, Eric. Teaching With Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. 2009.

____________. Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind: Practical Strategies for Raising Achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. 2013.

Johnson, Cynthia “Mama J.” Leading Learning for Children from Poverty: Six effective practices can help teachers help students from poverty succeed.” AMLE Magazine. November/December 2013, pp 14-16.

Maslow, Abraham. Motivation and Personality. New York: NY: Harper, 1954.

Rutherford, Paula. Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners. Alexandria, VA: Just ASK Publications. 2010.

_________________, Active Learning and Engagement Strategies. Alexandria, VA: Just ASK Publications. 2011.

Southern Education Foundation. “A New Majority Research Bulletin: Low Income Students Now a Majority in the Nation’s Public Schools.” Access the report at www.southerneducation.org/Our-Strategies/Research-and-Publications/New-Majority-Diverse-Majority-Report-Series/A-New-Majority-2015-Update-Low-Income-Students-Now

Teach-nology.com. “The Effects of Poverty on Teaching and Learning “ Access report at www.teach-nology.com/tutorials/teaching/poverty.

Thompson, Julia. “How One School is Fighting Poverty.” Access at teaching.monster.com/benefits/articles/3049-how-one-school-is-fighting-poverty.



Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Facing the Impact Poverty.” Just for the ASKing! February 2015. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2015 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.