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How Poverty Affects

Classroom Engagement
By: Michelle Gable,
Emmalee Johnston

Students from low-income households are more likely to
struggle with engagement-for seven reasons.
By understanding these seven differences and how to
address them, teachers can help migrate some of the
negative effects of poverty.

Difference 1: Health and

Overall poor people are less likely to exercise, get proper diagnoses,
receive appropriate medical or be prescribed appropriate medication

Nutrition plays a crucial role and children who grow up in poor families are
exposed to foods with lower nutritional value.
Poor nutrition at breakfast affects gray matter mass in children's brains
When students experience poor nutrition and diminished health practice,
its harder for them to listen, concentrate and learn
Poor diets also affect behavior, students can appear listless (with low
energy) or hyperactive

What You Can Do

The two primary foods for the brain are oxygen and glucose, oxygen reacts with glucose to
produce energy for cell function. As a teacher you can provide these at no cost.

Have your students engage in slow stretching while taking slow deep breaths can increase their
oxygenation or Yoga

Recess and physical education contribute to greater oxygen intake and better learning

Never withhold recess from students for a disciplinary issue

The use of games, movement and drama will trigger the release of glucose

Proper glucose levels are associated with stronger memory and cognitive function

Physical activity will reduce some of the issues associated with poor nutrition and will build
student health

Difference 2: Vocabulary

Children who grow up in low socioeconomic conditions typically have a smaller

vocabulary than middle class children

Children from lower income families hear, on average, 13 million words by age 4,
middle class children hear about 26 million and upper income families hear about 46

Upper income children actually used more vocabulary talking to their parents than
low income parents used talking to their children

Children from lower income families are less likely to know some of the words that
the teacher uses in classes or words that appear in the reading material. This
makes children not want to read or participate in class

What You Can Do

Help build their vocabulary by introducing and using new words
Include vocabulary building engagement activities

Incorporate vocabulary practice into daily routines (Ex. Having a word of

the day)
Teachers must be relentless about introducing and using new vocabulary

Difference 3: Effort

One reason many students seem unmotivated is because of lack of hope an optimism

Low socioeconomic status and the accompanying financial hardships are correlated with
depressive symptoms

The I give up posture can actually be learned helplessness

Effort can be taught, when you like your teacher you work harder

When the learning got you excited and intrigued you put out more effort

Invest in students who are not putting out effort because in a study of 1,800 children from
poverty, school engagement was a key factor in whether the student stayed in school

What You Can Do

Strengthen your relationship with the student by revealing more about yourself and learning
more about the students

Use curiosity builders and competition in teaching

Make the learning more of the students idea by offering them choices and involve them in
decision making

Make connections to the real world

Affirm everyday effort in class

Give more positive than negative feedback and do it daily

Set goals

Difference 4: Hope and Growth

Mind Set
Low Socioeconomic status typically has more negative events than
Being poor has lower expectations of future
Thinks failure is likely = not bothering to try
Thinks they arent smart enough = no effort

What You Can Do

Teach students that their brain can change
Provide quality feedback
Dont use phrases that include the student having other strengths
Focus on affirming and reinforcing effort
Guide students in making smarter strategy choices
Guide students to develop a positive attitude

Difference 5: Cognition
Lower socioeconomic children often have low test scores of intelligence
Often show cognitive problems (short attention spans)
School is typically harder
Children struggling cognitively usually act out or shut down
Typically have a weak vocabulary, poor working memory, or poor
processing skills

What You Can Do

Focus on core academic skills that are needed most
Begin with the basics
o How to organize, study, take notes, prioritize, and remember key
Teach problem-solving, processing and working-memory skills
Recall words, phrases, then whole sentences repeatedly
Help to remember directions
Will take lots of encouragement, positive feedback and persistence

Difference 6: Relationships
In poverty homes, children typically get twice as many reprimands
compared to positive comments
o Caregivers are more likely to be stressed when worried about money
Dropping out of school increases due to feeling like a failure
Relationships are challenging for students who lack role models
Disruptive home relationships = mistrust
Adults at home often fail children, children then feel that adults at school
will also fail them
More likely to be impulsive, use in-appropriate language and act

What You Can Do

Children with unstable home lives are often in need of strong, positive and
caring adults.

Learn every students name.

Ask children about family, hobbies and whats important to them

Dont tell student what to do, teach them how to do it

The more you care, the better the foundation for interventions.

Difference 7: Distress
Poverty children experience greater stress
Distress affects brain development, academic success and social
Impairs behaviors, reduces attentional control, boosts impulsivity, hinders
working memory
Typically exhibits one of two behaviors:
1. Angry in you face assertiveness
2. Disconnected leave me alone passivity
Symptoms of stress disorders:
Out of control, attitude, or lazy

What You Can Do

Address the issue and will diminish over time
Build a strong relationship with the students
o Do they trust you?
Embed more classroom fun into academics
Temporary cognitive support
o Engage in sensory motor activities
Example: Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes song/game
o Will help support behavioral regulation
Dont try to exert control over the students life
Encourage responsibility and leadership
o Teamwork activities
Teach ongoing coping skills to better deal with their stressors

Remember . . .
Students in poverty are not broken/damaged

Human brains adapt to experiences by changing

o Your students brains will adapt and will change
o You can help them change by addressing these
differences with purposeful teaching

Do you agree with these 7 differences between low- socioeconomic

status and the middle class?

What types of activities can you use to help change the mindset of
the low-socioeconomic class from feeling like they are a failure to
feeling like they are succeeding?

What other help can you give the students who are living in