How to Help Low-Income Students Succeed

By Matthew Lynch

Students from low-income homes hit the K-12 scene at a disadvantage. Materially, they often do not have the means for the resources they need for basic classroom functions. In non-tangible ways, they often do not have the same academic support as middle- or high-income peers and know less when they arrive in Kindergarten.When parents are unable to provide for their children, that responsibility then falls on the schools and the community. Ensuring that students from low income households succeed in K-12 classrooms is multi-faceted and must include:

Physiological considerations. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, students need to have physiological needs met before they are able to learn. If a child is hungry, he or she will focus on that fact and not on the schoolwork. Federal law allows schools to provide breakfast and lunch for students whose families meet federal poverty guidelines. The law was created in an effort to meet the biological needs of each student if the parent was unable or unwilling to provide the necessary provision. If children have all of their physical needs met, they will be more likely to succeed in school.

Safety considerations. Another need that must be met is the safety of the child. Students need to feel comfortable and safe enough to learn. Students will not be able to focus unless they feel safe in both the home and the school. When teachers become certified to teach, they become mandated reporters of child abuse. This means that a teacher who suspects abuse in the home of a student is compelled by law to report this information, using protocols established by the school and/or the district.

The main job of schools is to deliver effective instruction for student learning. If the school needs to provide some or all of the necessary physical/biological needs, it should do so. Schools should be concerned about the welfare and the safety of the children they serve. The school’s purpose in the community is to ensure that students have the support and resources they need to be successful.

It is important to realize that the schools are not required to provide said support. Schools not operating as full-service organizations should advocate for their students whenever necessary. Ruby K. Payne discusses support systems in her book A Framework for Understanding Poverty. Payne posits that students from poverty need support systems to succeed. She believes that students with the right resources and support systems can succeed even if they are living in poverty.

Why should the burden fall on schools?

Local schools are the only community-service organizations that come in contact with virtually all school-aged children in a given area. Educators and administrators are in a unique position to understand the needs of children and the communities in which they live. Teachers are among the few people who understand children’s hopes, aspirations, and impediments; however, only a small percentage of teachers take advantage of this fact.

With all the problems and the issues that our children face, we can ill afford to miss opportunities to connect with them. A strong student-teacher relationship will in turn help the teachers better educate their students. One of the keys to the teacher-student relationship is the creation of mutual trust and respect. Once students understand that their teacher trusts and respects them, they will do everything in their power to live up to the teacher’s expectations.

How to help low-income students succeed

James P. Comer, a child psychiatrist who studied students from low income neighborhoods In New Haven, Connecticut, developed the Comer Process which focuses on child development in urban schools. The Comer process is based on six interconnected pathways which lead to healthy child development and academic achievement. The pathways are physical, cognitive, psychological, language, social, and ethical.

Comer believed that the pathways should be considered a road map to a child’s successful development into adulthood. If a child’s needs are not met in one of the pathways, there will be likely difficulties in the child’s ability to achieve. Comer explained that a child could be smart, but unable to be socially successful. He wanted teachers to be aware that they should not teach for the sake of teaching, but rather to help the child learn how to negotiate life both inside and outside of the classroom.

According to Comer, if a child is intelligent but cannot socially interact, then the school system did not do its job of preparing the child for the world. The theory pushes teachers to make sure that children are developing emotionally, physically, and socially before the child can learn the school-related topics. Comer believed that children will not be functioning members of society if he or she is only successful in academic skills such as math and reading.

Comer proposed that children need a primary social network—one that includes parents, and people from the child’s school and community.  Comer emphasizes that the people in this network are concerns all needs that are part of the developmental pathways. Children who have this level of support will likely be more successful in school. This is the main premise behind Comer’s idea of letters home to the parent or caregiver. He wants to make sure that the parents and caregivers are aware of what is happening in their child’s school life so they are able to share in creating a positive experience at school.

Comer’s notion of developmental pathways is now practiced in many schools across America. In fact, there is such interest in his theory that a field guide is now available for creating school-wide interventions to help students achieve academic success. Comer’s theory is concerned with the ways in which the world is changing. He foresees children needing to have more skills and more “book smarts” than previous generations. The future adults of this society will need to be socially accepted while also being “book smart tech savvy” and multi-taskers.

Educators today should understand that when they become teachers, their duty is to advocate for not only the children in their class, but also the students in the entire school. Teachers are often the creators of grassroots advocacy organizations and coalitions. Advocacy is an essential part of a teacher’s profession. When teachers advocate for a student, their action conveys to children a message that the teacher cares about their well being and creates a positive bond between teacher and student.

photo credit: katerha via photopin cc

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