Twenty years ago, Dr. Betty Hart and Dr. Todd Risely found that there was a 30-million word gap between the children of wealthy families and the children from impoverished homes. Along with the word gap also comes differences in home lives, choices, time, entertainment, and safety – which can all impact a child’s success at school. As educators, we can use these limitations as springboards to success for students living in poverty. By recognizing these differences, we can prevent the achievement gaps that can cause children living in poverty to become adults living in poverty. Instead, let’s use them as springboards to success!
Springboards to Success for Students Living in Poverty
In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran wrote:
“No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep
in the dawning of your knowledge. The teacher who walks in the shadow
of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of
his faith and his lovingness. If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter
the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own
In this passage, Gibran is encouraging educators to lead students to the threshold of their own mind. One way we can do this is through intentional acts that serve as springboards to success for students, especially for those students living in poverty.
In Annette Lareau’s book, Unequal Childhoods, she found that children in poverty are given love, shelter, and nourishment, and parents expect that their children will grow up naturally. Adult interactions with children are not focused on achievement and performance analysis, but instead, they are focused on casual interactions. In contrast, middle-class children and adults frequently engage in discussions and analysis of performance, which is very similar to the school environment.
Try This: Create a school culture where all children will flourish no matter what their home life is like.
- Build and make available diverse classroom libraries filled with a variety of fiction and non-fiction books, magazines, graphic novels, and travelogues that are written at a variety of levels.
- Assume that all parents want what is best for their children and that they would love to learn how they can help their children at home. In your class newsletter, provide articles written to help parents bolster language and math skills at home.
Middle- and high-income families have stable incomes that allow them to make choices and have control over the direction of their life. For children in poverty, they often operate in crisis and might have to make a choice that is seen as positive at home and negative at school. For example, they might have to choose between helping their brother get ready for school or arriving to school on time.
Try This: Offer choices to your students that give them the chance to feel the responsibility that comes with choice-making; cope with the good and bad consequences; and learn and improve upon choices. In their study, Patall, Cooper and Wynn found that, “Providing choices may be the most concrete way for teachers to communicate to students that they view them as autonomous learners.” Autonomy puts students on the road to freedom. Try offering choices in these areas:
- Choice boards for classwork.
- End of unit celebrations.
For the middle class and wealthy, time is a commodity not to be wasted. For people in poverty, they are used to spending a lot of time waiting to get their needs addressed for housing, food, health, and transportation. In-School Suspension (ISS) mirrors these experiences; therefore, ISS is not a punishment. It is simply something to be tolerated, and if schools aren’t creative in supporting students with negative behaviors, schools are simply a place to be tolerated until their their release date.
Try This: Create an environment at your school where time is valued. Make sure that every minute is clearly defined and that transition times are short with clear instructions. Create time each day for read alouds. This will increase your students’ vocabulary, teaches varied sentence structures, creates a shared literary experience, gives students a common topic to discuss, and provides a model for fluency. Choose read-alouds that are written at a higher level than most of the students in the class and be sure to relate uncommon words and experiences to words and experiences that are common to your students.
Middle class and wealthy students know that they will have fun built into their schedule outside of school. Children in poverty have no such assurance, so they seek out fun on a daily basis as a matter of survival. Ruby Payne (2001) found that entertainment is a driving force for people in poverty, and storytellers and jokesters are stars in the community. If you were raised in a middle- or high-income family, then you might see students who are constantly seeking fun as irresponsible or lazy. However, in order for these students to be successful, they need the experience of looking forward to planned fun and then be able to trust you that the fun will occur.
Try This: Meet this need for entertainment by making school an enjoyable place to be. Pique students’ interest by giving them the opportunity to tell stories and lead discussions. Grab their attention by putting new words, phrases, and math problems in unexpected places, such as vocabulary words by the light switch, inspirational phrases above the door, poetry by the bathroom door, and math facts in the reading nook. Expose your students to language everywhere. Every bare spot is a learning opportunity.
Children in poverty are raised in an environment where the need for protection is a constant concern. They are not going to trust you immediately simply because you are their teacher.
Try This: Build a relationship with each student, for relationships help them survive in their neighborhoods and in their homes. Talk with each one of your students every day. Teach your students the art of conversation, and they will become hungry for it. Also, build teams within your school that support achievement and give students a positive identity.
As educators, we have the ability to influence the future story for each one of our students. By implementing the practices described here, you will be increasing the likelihood that your students’ stories will be motivating ones and that they will move from living in poverty to living inspired.
This blog was written by Katy Ridnouer, Leadership Coach, Speaker and Trainer with Leaders Building Leaders. If you found this content valuable, please share it. If you want to learn how you can more effectively reach and teach your student population, then reach out to me at Katy@Leaders-Building-Leaders.com for a complimentary discovery session.