Students from low-income households are more likely to struggle with engagement—for seven reasons.
Poverty is an uncomfortable word. I’m often asked, “What should I expect from kids from low-income households?” Typically, teachers are unsure what to do differently.
Just as the phrase middle class tells us little about a person, the word poverty typically tells us little about the students we serve. We know, for example, that the poor and middle classes have many overlapping values, including valuing education and the importance of hard work (Gorski, 2008). But if poor people were exactly the same cognitively, socially, emotionally, and behaviorally as those from the middle class, then the exact same teaching provided to both middle-class students and students from poverty would bring the exact same results.
But it doesn’t work that way. In one study of 81,000 students across the United States, the students not in Title I programs consistently reported higher levels of engagement than students who were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (Yazzie-Mintz, 2007). Are children from poverty more likely to struggle with engagement in school?
The answer is yes. Seven differences between middle-class and low-income students show up at school. By understanding those differences and how to address them, teachers can help mitigate some of the negative effects of poverty. The methodology for teaching students from an impoverished background can be honed by teachers through online masters in education courses.
Difference 1: Health and Nutrition
Overall, poor people are less likely to exercise, get proper diagnoses, receive appropriate and prompt medical attention, or be prescribed appropriate medications or interventions. A study by two prominent neuroscientists suggested that intelligence is linked to health (Gray & Thompson, 2004). The poor have more untreated ear infections and hearing loss issues (Menyuk, 1980); greater exposure to lead (Sargent et al., 1995); and a higher incidence of asthma (Gottlieb, Beiser, & O’Connor, 1995) than middle-class children. Each of these health-related factors can affect attention, reasoning, learning, and memory.
Nutrition plays a crucial role as well. Children who grow up in poor families are exposed to food with lower nutritional value. This can adversely affect them even in the womb (Antonow-Schlorke et al., 2011). Moreover, poor nutrition at breakfast affects gray matter mass in children’s brains (Taki et al., 2010). Skipping breakfast is highly prevalent among urban minority youth, and it negatively affects students’ academic achievement by adversely affecting cognition and raising absenteeism (Basch, 2011).
When students experience poor nutrition and diminished health practices, it’s harder for them to listen, concentrate, and learn. Exposure to lead is correlated with poor working memory and weaker ability to link cause and effect. Kids with ear infections may have trouble with sound discrimination, making it tough to follow directions, do highly demanding auditory processing, and understand the teacher. This can hurt reading ability and other skills. Poor diets also affect behavior. Students can often appear listless (with low energy) or hyperactive (on a sugar “high”).
What You Can Do?
Remember, the two primary foods for the brain are oxygen and glucose; oxygen reacts with glucose to produce energy for cell function. Schools can provide these at zero cost. Having students engage in slow stretching while taking slow deep breaths can increase their oxygenation. Yoga training has been shown to increase metabolic controls so children can better manage themselves.