Teaching Children in Poverty

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Children living in poverty face many barriers to accessing an education. Some are obvious — like not having a school to go to — while others are more subtle. Like the teacher at the school not having had the training needed to help children learn effectively.

Increasing access to education can improve the overall health and longevity of a society, grow economies, and even combat climate change. Yet in many developing countries, children’s access to education can be limited by numerous factors. Language barriers, gender roles, and reliance on child labor can all stall progress to provide quality education. The world’s most vulnerable children from disadvantaged communities are more likely to miss out on school. This includes young girls and children with disabilities.

It’s easy to think that the main difference between students who come from poverty and their more affluent peers is their exposure to learning opportunities. However, poverty manifests itself often in unexpected ways in the classroom, and there are specific strategies schools and families can use to help students succeed.

As educators, we come across a vast number of students from all walks of life. In Statistics On How Poverty Affects Children in Schools, author Jana Sosnowski shared, “Approximately one in five children in the United States live in poverty, according to the American Psychological Association, a status that affects more than housing status and food supply.” This is something that has triggered lots of talk about educational reform.

Gladly there are many ways for educators to help less privileged students but in order to manage their situation for the best results and outcomes, it is of vital importance that we understand the issues, what it looks like to be a poor student and in what ways it affects the ability to learn.

Following are some of the greatest challenges that students face with poverty. I’ll be discussing 8 of them.

1- There is a lack of funding.

Developing countries can’t rely solely on their own financing for education — there’s also a need for more foreign aid.

Only 20% of aid for education goes to low-income countries, according to the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).

2- Having no teacher, or having an untrained teacher

Teacher effectiveness has been found to be the most important predictor of student learning. GPE is determined to fight the global teacher crisis at hand.

There aren’t enough teachers to achieve universal primary or secondary education. And many of the teachers that are currently working are untrained. As a result, children aren’t receiving a proper education. There are 130 million children in school who are not learning basic skills like reading, writing and math.

3- They often get no classroom

A child cannot learn without the right environment. Children in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are often squeezed into overcrowded classrooms, classrooms that are falling apart, or are learning outside. They also lack textbooks, school supplies, and other tools they need to excel.

In Malawi, for example, there is an average of 130 children per classroom in first grade. It’s not just a lack of classrooms that’s the problem, but also all the basic facilities you would expect a school to have like running water and toilets.

4- A lack of learning materials

Outdated and worn-out textbooks are often shared by six or more students in many parts of the world. In Tanzania, for example, only 3.5% of all sixth-grade pupils had sole use of a reading textbook. In Cameroon, there are 11 primary school students for every reading textbook and 13 for every mathematics textbook in second grade. Workbooks, exercise sheets, readers, and other core materials to help students learn their lessons are in short supply. Teachers also need materials to help prepare their lessons, share with their students, and guide their lessons.

5- The exclusion of children with disabilities

Despite the fact that education is a universal human right, being denied access to school is common for the world’s 93 to 150 million children with disabilities. In some of the world’s poorest countries, up to 95% of children with disabilities are out of school.

Students with disabilities have lower attendance rates and are more likely to be out of school or leave school before completing primary education. They are suspended or expelled at a rate more than double the rate of their non-special education peers.

A combination of discrimination, lack of training in inclusive teaching methods among teachers, and a lack of accessible schools leave this group uniquely vulnerable to being denied their right to education.

6- Being the ‘wrong’ gender

Put simply, gender is one of the biggest reasons why children are denied an education. Despite recent advances in girls’ education, a generation of young women has been left behind. Over 130 million young women around the world are not currently enrolled in school. One in 3 girls in the developing world marries before the age of 18, and usually leaves school if they do.

7- Hunger and poor nutrition

The impact of hunger on education systems is gravely underreported. Being severely malnourished, to the point it impacts on brain development, can be the same as losing four grades of schooling. It is estimated that around 155 million children under the age of five are estimated to be stunted. Stunting –– impaired growth and development that children experience from poor infection, and inadequate stimulation –– can affect a child’s cognitive abilities as well as their focus and concentration in school. As a result, stunted children are 19% less likely to be able to read by age eight. Conversely, good nutrition can be crucial preparation for good learning.

8- The expense of education

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes clear that every child has the right to a free basic education, so that poverty and lack of money should not be a barrier to schooling. In many developing countries, over the last several decades, governments have announced the abolition of school fees and as a result, they have seen impressive increases in the number of children going to school. But for many of the poorest families, school remains too expensive, and children are forced to stay at home doing chores or work themselves. Families remain locked in a cycle of poverty that goes on for generations. In many countries throughout Africa education is theoretically free.

The lack of functioning public, government-supported schools means that parents have no choice but to send their children to private schools. Even if these schools are “low-fee,” they are unaffordable for the poorest families who risk making themselves destitute in their efforts to get their children better lives through education.

Now that we have discussed the primary and most common aspects of poverty and how it affects education, let us move forward to a combined solution in a few simple steps.

Many circumstances students living in poverty encounter are beyond their control. They can face many challenges that affect their brain development, emotional well-being, relationships with others, and school achievement. When serving in schools with students who are living in poverty, it is important to know how to do our best to help and empower our students. I will be talking about 4 ways that the teacher can help.

Number 1: You should have high expectations.

When you have students who are living in poverty, compassion is important. But it does students an injustice if you do not hold them to high expectations. As educators, we want our students to do their best and succeed in our class and in life. Holding students to high expectations allows them to work toward reachable goals that can empower them with intrinsic motivation. This is important because once a student leaves your class, hopefully, you have instilled in them the power to work hard toward their goals and rise to the occasion.

Here are some things you can try.

A. Give students the opportunity to set goals. Then, coach them to achieve their goals.

B. Hold students accountable for classroom expectations. Have conversations about why they are important to follow.

C. Expect the best out of students when it comes to their work.

D. Be a role model. Share your goals and high expectations for yourself with your students.

Number 2: Expose students to places outside of the classroom.

Many times, students’ experiences can be limited due to their means and their parents/caregivers experiences. It is integral to show students the world around them and open their eyes to what the world has to offer.

You can teach students about different career options and expose them to the arts.

Bring in artists and other career professionals to speak to your class.

Get students off school grounds and take a field trip to a local museum.

Use the web to take a virtual field trip through museum websites or videos.

Finally, be sure to connect learning in the classroom to real life experiences. This will truly enhance your students’ perspective as they learn and move through life.

Number 3: Build relationships with your students and their families.

Building relationships is a key aspect when it comes to a creating a positive learning environment. It also helps foster mutual respect and trust with your students and their families. One factor those living in poverty often face is high mobility due to unstable living situations. Be a source of consistency. Let your students and families know they can trust you and make them feel welcome.

  1. Teach them social-emotional learning strategies.

Students who live in poverty can have trouble focusing in school because of things troubling them in their personal lives. It’s important to teach positive social and emotional skills that can build trust, respect, community, and personal growth. These skills can also help students learn to regulate their feelings and transition to a mindset ready for learning. Before we wrap things up, I would like to talk about three techniques teachers can share with their students to manage their cool and focus on their studies, something that is in their control.

Number 1: Breathing Techniques

A great way to teach students how to regulate their emotions is to take a step back and do some breathing techniques. If your school does not already teach breathing techniques, you can easily do this in your classroom.

Beach Ball method:

Have students pretend they are holding an imaginary beach ball. When they inhale they pretend the ball is expanding. While they exhale they pretend the ball is squeezing inward.

Square technique:

This breathing technique simply has students take their finger and trace a square in front of them in the air. As students make the first line for the top of the square, they inhale. As students make the second line of the square going down, they exhale and so on. You can repeat this as many times as you want.

The Bunny Breath

This is a great breathing strategy, especially for your youngest students. Have your students pretend to be rabbits. They will need to take three quick sniffs in the nose, and one long exhale out the nose.

Number 2: Calm Down Corner

A Calm Down Corner is a space in your classroom that allows students who are not regulated or in the proper mindset to begin learning to go and regulate themselves. You can have students use a stress ball, glitter bottles, or breathing techniques to begin to calm down. You may also want to have a self-reflection sheet available to help students process their feelings.

Number 3: Classroom Circles

One way to build community is through classroom circles. This technique involves students getting in a circle and sharing based on a prompt given by the teacher.

Here is how you can practice classroom circles:

Students get in a circle with the teacher. Ground rules should be shared to promote trust, respect, and honesty.

The teacher shares a prompt for students to answer.

The only person talking must hold a “talking piece.” This practice allows each student to have a turn without interruption.

When everyone who wants to speak has spoken, the teacher can close the circle and thank the students for sharing.

In general ed circles, sometimes this technique is practiced daily. However, if you are a teacher who doesn’t see your students every day, you could try implementing it once or twice a month.

Steve Hiles

I am a retired military and elementary school teacher living in Tennessee. I am an avid reader and love to write. I am very passionate about helping teachers. I hope you find my educational tips and strategies useful,and enjoy hearing about my personal journey.



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Steve Hiles

I am a retired military and elementary school teacher living in Tennessee. I am an avid reader and love to write. I am very passionate about helping teachers. I hope you find my educational tips and strategies useful and enjoy hearing about my personal journey. Thanks for visiting!

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