A teacher helping a low-income student with an after-school study session
For Administrators Updated September 10, 2018

How Teachers Can Help Students from Low-Income Households

By Brian Gatens May 19, 2016

Students will come to your class with a variety of experiences, backgrounds, and skills. One factor we don’t seem to talk about enough is a child’s economic background.

And as our country keeps addressing these challenging economic times, the odds are pretty good that you’ll have students who come from an economically disadvantaged background so here are some key points to keep in mind.

Stay positive and focus on what can be done

In Small Victories, author Samuel Freedman chronicled the work of a teacher in one of New York City’s most challenging schools. Students dealt with more than poverty: Many came from immigrant families where English was a second language and the educational level at home was quite low.

Freedman noted that teachers at the school did not give up on these students. Instead, they focused on what could be done within the context of their work. Whether they were providing extra study sessions to get ready for the SATs, acting as parental figures for the students, or working with the school to develop student-specific programs, the teachers didn’t let big-picture problems get in the way of their dedication to the students. Attitude proved to be a very powerful tool in their work.

Advocate for impoverished students

Poverty is too complex for simplistic solutions or quick judgments. Yet many people say it’s laziness, lack of discipline, or weak character. In reality, poverty happens for dozens of reasons, which is why it’s so important that we understand the depths of the challenges faced by children from disadvantaged homes.

Occasionally, you’ll have colleagues who seem less understanding than you would hope. This presents an opportunity to remind them that blaming the child or, even worse, being indifferent to the child’s needs, is harming the child. Of course, practice tact so you don’t harm a professional relationship.

Take action

The best response to a challenge is to take helpful and appropriate action. This can include working with your school’s administration to offer specific help and guidance.

It can be something as simple as arranging for the donation of gifts around the holidays, creating study sessions after school to help with academics, or working with your district’s social worker to make sure the family is getting all possible help. Regardless of what you do, remember it’s best to be certain that a poor child, who is often uncomfortable with their situation, is treated with kindness and respect.

Show the path

My parents came from impoverished backgrounds, and my immigrant grandparents had to work long hours in difficult jobs to give my parents the opportunity for a better life. Fortunately, they passed that along to me. My cousins and I are the first generation in our family to graduate from college, so the reality of being poor is still fresh in my family’s collective memory.

If your experience is similar, and if you have a close enough relationship with your economically challenged students, share your story with them. Poverty is not inevitable and it can be overcome — especially if students have somebody showing them there’s a way out.

Build partnerships

We’re fortunate to live in a country that offers options for struggling families. This social safety net includes food and nutrition assistance, government aid and job training for out-of-work parents.

Aside from your individual work with students and their families, help your school’s counseling and guidance department become familiar with these options if they aren’t already, and pass them along to families, when appropriate.

Poverty and all of the complex dynamics that come along with it is isolating for children. Your presence, partnership, and active caring are essential to help your students and their families.

Apply the trauma-informed approach

Depending on circumstances, poverty conditions in a student’s life can equate to traumatic experiences. Applying classroom strategies that recognize trauma can help students cope with any associated stress. We’ve outlined tips for educators who need help teaching traumatized students. If you’re looking to become an education professional with the understanding and use of trauma-informed and resilience-building practices, our Trauma & Resilience MEd concentration can help you understand how to use the trauma-informed approach in education.

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