3 factors to focus on when teaching kids living in poverty

3 factors to focus on when teaching kids living in poverty

When school resumes in the fall, many changes will be made to arrival times, lunch periods, and breaks, among other things. How everything will look is not yet clear, but one thing is: the pandemic has changed the children who will walk through those doors and how they learn.

We have all felt the stress of life during coronavirus. We have had to think about things we normally took for granted, like whether the store would have toilet paper. Simple tasks—say, picking up milk—have become a complex mission requiring forethought, a face mask, and hand sanitizer. Many of us have had to juggle personal and professional obligations or, worse yet, have suffered job loss, illness, or the death of a loved one.

Students’ brains have been overloaded by the stress of the pandemic and all of its demands on them and their families. That stress will surely linger for them, especially if their classrooms are dramatically different in the fall. It will affect learning for many of them, especially those who have been thrust below the poverty line by COVID-related unemployment. And while poverty is a problem far too large for educators to address alone, there are things we can do to help affected students learn.

The effects of stress and poverty on the brain

Even as states begin to reopen, the pandemic has crowded out other priorities and clouded our picture of the future. Any large experience like this not only overloads the brain but also impairs its function. In their book Scarcity, authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir call this “tunneling.” Our mental focus narrows and pushes aside anything that does not fit into the tunnel. For example, the weekend before the first day of school, you may forget to walk your dog or even that you have dog.

If the demands of school do not recognize a student’s life situation and obstacles to learning, a student can learn that school is not a place for them to succeed.

Poverty itself changes a child’s brain. Studies show that growing up low income affects brain development. Poverty also seems to lead to attention difficulties: children in low-income families are nearly twice as likely to have moderate or severe attention deficit disorder than children in higher-income families.

Even if a child has healthy brain development and escapes ADD, the chronic stress of poverty crowds the brain, and a crowded brain works less effectively than it could. When the stress is relieved, brain function can be restored. A fascinating study of sugar cane farmers in India demonstrates this effect. Because the farmers are paid only once a year, they go from being poor—the majority pawn something just before the harvest—to (relatively) rich in a short period. Researchers who asked farmers to take the Stroop test, which measures fluid intelligence, just before and just after the harvest found that farmers got 25% more items correct when they tested after. This corresponds to about 10 IQ points.

Make room for kids to grow

Poverty is an ongoing stressor crowding and hampering the brain. And, unlike the pandemic, poverty does not always go away. While many people, including students, will have their mental stress ease as things slowly return to normal, those coping with poverty will still be burdened. In addition, more students will be in poverty than before the pandemic because of its impact on the economy. The fall classroom may have students in their seats, but only part of their brains will be present.

Crowding out hope for the future may very well be the most important loss for a student because school calls for an investment today—time, energy, focus—that can lead to a benefit in the future.

So, how can a school or classroom help children un-crowd their brain? How can we give children a “post-harvest” brain? Many scholars have written extensively on this. For this post, I’ll address three important factors that low-income students need to have addressed: bandwidth, power, and hope.

1. Bandwidth

You may have developed tricks during the pandemic to cope with the demands, like leaving a face mask in your car at all times. This relieved you from having to remember a mask whenever you did venture out. This kind of tactic eased your “bandwidth” load, opening up a tiny bit more space to remember other things.

Eric Jensen, in his book Teaching with Poverty in Mind, gives a few ideas on boosting bandwidth for students:

  • Post visual reminders of recent class content (e.g., vocabulary words) and key upcoming ideas around your classroom. Explore digital ways to do this as well.
  • Incorporate physical activity every 15 minutes or so. For example, have students vote on the correct answer to a question by moving to a different spot in the room. When teaching online, ask students to do jumping jacks to show they believe answer A is right, run in place if they think it’s answer B, etc.
  • Build students’ learning skill set, specifically by teaching them how to take notes, draw a mind map, or use mnemonics.
  • Review material in an unexpected way, like using a game. Kahoot! is a great platform for this.
  • End class with a preview of what the next class will cover.

2. Power

During the pandemic, one significant source of stress has been the powerlessness many of us have felt. The not knowing what will happen next and the conflicting guidance we’re receiving. The ability to make choices and act upon them can feel difficult.

Students, especially those from low-income families, experience powerlessness every day. They do not have control over their home environment, which is likely to be unpredictable. Consider, for example, that countless low-income families suffer a utility shutoff on any given year.

Classrooms can give students opportunities to exercise power. Here are two specific ideas on how, from Jensen:

  • Teach leadership skills by modeling them and by creating opportunities for students to teach their peers and share what they have learned.
  • Connect with real life to foster problem-solving skills. Lead class discussions—or turn the discussions entirely over to students—on how to solve problems. For example, those related to coronavirus affecting them and their learning, like limited access to technology, trouble focusing outside the classroom, or parents absent due to work.

3. Hope

A person whose mental bandwidth is consumed with survival cannot focus on the future. The definition of “hopelessness” is the absence of positive thoughts about the future.

Crowding out hope for the future may very well be the most important loss for a student because school calls for an investment today—time, energy, focus—that can lead to a benefit in the future. If the demands of school do not recognize a student’s life situation and obstacles to learning, a student can learn that school is not a place for them to succeed. Performing poorly or dropping out are the logical consequences.

Here are a few ideas from Jensen for engendering hope in the classroom:

  • Post affirmations and information on role models up on classroom walls or websites.
  • End class with affirmation, both of classmates and, through planning and visualizing, of success for the next class and week.
  • Know students’ strengths and interests. Ask them about their dreams for the future. Once you know these things, connect with students in a way that’s meaningful to them on a regular basis.
  • Allow for social time before class starts. This is a valuable way to learn what students are learning and struggling with, as well as for them to get to know each other.
  • Encourage putting action to their hopes, not just throwing them to the wind. Build assignments that allow for this. For example, try the Six Thinking Hats method. Or make goal setting a priority.

Look to the future

With more and more students coping with the stress of scarcity, now is the time for making sure school supports them to reach their full potential. During the pandemic, we have all experienced scarcity: of information, of certainty, of hope. Use your experience to help students succeed this fall.


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