George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

How Does Poverty Influence Learning?

William Parrett and Kathleen Budge

Director Center for School Improvement and Policy Studies / Associate Professor Educational Leadership
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Editor's note: This piece was adapted from Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools by William H. Parrett and Kathleen M. Budge.

People in poverty are as diverse as people in any other socioeconomic class. They present, like other groups, a wide array of values, beliefs, dispositions, experiences, backgrounds, and life chances. As educators, in order to be responsive to the needs of our students, it is helpful to consider the constraints that poverty often places on people's lives, particularly children's, and how such conditions influence learning and academic achievement. Poverty affects intervening factors that, in turn, affect outcomes for people (Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 1997). These factors include students' health and well-being; literacy and language development; access to physical and material resources; and level of mobility.

Health and Well-Being

These factors are interrelated, and one factor can compound another. For instance, substandard housing, inadequate medical care, and poor nutrition can affect the rate of childhood disease, premature births, and low birth weights, all of which affect a child's physical and cognitive development. Such factors influence students' ability to benefit from schooling. Living in daily economic hardship can also adversely affect students' mental health (Winters & Cowie, 2009), self-efficacy (Conrath, 1988, 2001), self-image (Ciaccio, 2000a, 2000b), and motivation to do well in school (Beegle, 2006).

Language and Literacy Development

Children who live in poverty often come to school behind their more affluent peers in terms of literacy and language development. In Educating the Other America, Susan Neuman (2008) states that more than 50 years of research indicate that "children who are poor hear a smaller number of words with more limited syntactic complexity and fewer conversation-eliciting questions, making it difficult for them to quickly acquire new words and to discriminate among words" (p. 5). A significant body of literature also points to differences in access to reading materials by students from low-income families in comparison to their more affluent peers (Allington & McGill-Franzen, 2008).

Material Resources

Poverty often places constraints on the family's ability to provide other material resources for their children as well. For example, they may have limited access to high-quality day care, limited access to before- or after-school care, and limited physical space in their homes to create private or quiet environments conducive to study. They may not own a computer or have the fiscal resources necessary to complete out-of-class projects.


Poverty often places another kind of constraint on families -- the ability to provide stable housing. Students often move from one location to another because their parents are in search of work or are dealing with other issues that require them to move. Frequent moves almost always have a negative academic and social impact on students.

Much is known about the far-reaching influences of poverty on a student's learning. An understanding of these factors provides invaluable knowledge to educators in their efforts to support and teach students who live in poverty. In high-poverty, high-performing schools, this knowledge does not result in lowered expectations for students living in poverty. To the contrary, it leads to empathy and an understanding of the differentiation, scaffolding, and support that students may need to meet high expectations. Like high-poverty, high-performing schools, any school that enrolls students who live in poverty should seek to acquire as much understanding as possible about the life circumstances of their students.

When children and adolescents know that their teachers care about them and are trying their best to relate to the realities of their lives, they become far more inclined to trust and actively engage in learning.


  • Allington, R., & McGill-Franzen, A. (2008). "Got books?" Educational Leadership, 65(7), pp.20-23.
  • Beegle, D. M. (2006). See poverty . . . be the difference! Discover the missing pieces for helping people move out of poverty. Tigard, OR: Communication Across Barriers.
  • Ciaccio, J. (2000a). "Helping kids excel on state-mandated tests." Education Digest, 65(5), p.21.
  • Ciaccio, J. (2000b). "A teacher's chance for immortality." Education Digest, 65(6), pp.44-48.
  • Conrath, J. (1988). Full-year prevention curriculum: Secondary dropout prevention. Gig Harbor, WA: Author.
  • Conrath, J. (2001). "Changing the odds for young people: Next steps for alternative education." Phi Delta Kappan, 82(8), pp.585-587.
  • Duncan, G.J., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (1997). Consequences of growing up poor. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Neuman, S. B. (2008). Educating the other America: Top experts tackle poverty, literacy, and achievement in our schools. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
  • Winters, V. E., & Cowie, B. (2009). "Cross-cultural communications: Implications for social work practice and a departure from Payne." Journal of Educational Controversy.
Was this useful? (4)
Turning Around High-Poverty Schools
This series includes excerpts from "Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools" by William Parrett and Kathleen Budge, published by ASCD.

Comments (8) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (8) Sign in or register to comment

Joseph's picture

I suggest the following journals be used to support professional development at the EC / Elementarylevels:
*American Educator, The Magic of Words, vol.38, No. 21, Summer 2014
*American Educator, The Fourth Grade Plunge- The Cause. The Cure. Spring 2003
Also,included in the spring 2003 journal, find The Classic Study on Poor Children's Fourth Grade Slump by Jeanne S. Chall and Vicki A. Jacobs.
School leaders, Coaches and teachers who work with parents will find these resources very useful.

CarolTW's picture

If you, as an educator, take the time to build rapport, ensure that your lessons are engaging and have scaffolds in place to assist and to meet the needs of the student, have spare pens and books (or whatever is needed for the lesson) so that the students are able to complete the work; they will rise to the challenge. These students should never be punished nor made to feel like second class citizens because of their backgrounds mean they do not have what the other more affluent students have access to or support networks these students do not. Rapport, respect and genuine caring makes a huge difference. An understanding that for many of these students, their families will resist changes you make which mean their child is shining and progressing...resistance is largely due to them being able to leave their life of poverty behind and hence their family ( a very real fear because families living in poverty only truly have their family)...being aware of this doesn't mean you don't try, my mantra to my students' is, you can do anything achieve anything and the only person who can stop you is yourself... and I come from generational poverty, I have lived as these students and I am the first in my family to be University educated. I have fought the prejudices from both sides, encourage and support all to learn.

Rebekah Price's picture

Rapport building is key. Do not be fake. Students have the ability to know when a teacher is being fake. Throughout the school year, my kids seem to have a constant sickness/cough. I can't imagine what type of strain this places on their tiny bodies. I have to keep in mind that their lack of ability to access health/well being treatments takes a toll on their families.

TGeorge1181's picture

A big thing at the university I attend is teaching children of poverty so I am very familiar with this topic. Poverty means EVERYTHING and it affects EVERYTHING. Most teachers don't think about the detrimental effects it has on students. I know first hand from experience. However, as you said, "When children and adolescents know that their teachers care about them and are trying their best to relate to the realities of their lives, they become far more inclined to trust and actively engage in learning." I had plenty of teachers who cared and I am in route to become one today.

lissyrmz's picture

I honestly think that this topic is sometimes overlooked and should be recognized more often. I am a student and aspiring to be a teacher and this hasn't really been a topic of discussion in any of my classes but I am sure it will pop up soon. In the meantime, this article is a great way to start learning about this sensitive topic. First year teachers should know what to expect from children that come from low-income households and also how to help them in the best way possible.

MariaS25's picture

Without a doubt poverty affect every aspect of a child's life. A Child that is not eating and is always hungry can not focus in anything other than his hunger. Sadly many of us will be teaching in schools located in lower economic areas and it is up to use to help those families by providing them with information about were they can get help such as local community center or food banks. I know what sometime it is difficult to address parent about this sensitive topic but I believe that what ever we can do we should do it if it will help.

Husam Yaghi's picture
Husam Yaghi
Engineer - Ph.D. | Change Advocate | Investor | Consultant | Photographer | Chess Player | Multilingual

Unfortunately, those who write about the subject of poverty may not have ever experienced it or recall the experience. Therefore we see only theories (based on assumptions).

There is no doubt that poverty impacts the quality of life in general and the learning journey as well. Though where there's a will there's a way. There are countless examples of successful people who were poor or even without parents (one or both). Unfortunately we label people and feed them poison with negative energy (we put conclusions in front of people before giving them a chance to try their best).

Kids in a poor house where mother or father wastes much on alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes is not much different from their rich counterpart (scale of impact is not necessarily the same). Kids in a house with little money could be the much smarter ones compared to their well to do counterparts; they learn finance management and economics. Creativity and distinction is free to all.

I know people who grew up poor, yet they read plenty of second hand books and magazines, went to small neighborhood schools which had limited facilities, walked tens of miles to get to the public library, deprived themselves of silly street snacks, they did not mind torn shoes, yet they rose above all with distinction and pride of accomplishments. Failure was never an option; therefore they took good care of their bodies, health, brain, and knowledge. Nothing remains the same for long. Later on in college some achieved much higher than rich kids who drove sports cars while they either walked or took the bus. They graduated and worked with professors from Cornell, MIT, and Stanford. Poverty is ugly, yet should not be an obstacle, unless a person is looking for excuses.

Back when I was in the US, I taught a university where a large percentage of student where underprivileged. Many of them enjoyed the excuse of social prejudice, but few where determined to fight. The few distinguished students became high profile executives later on. One student with whom I still communicate, "Duke", is a serial entrepreneur who has built engineering companies and sold them for millions. Another one, Cleo Fields,, shined with distinction against all odds. Let's look at the glass of water as half full rather than being negative and focus on the empty half. Poverty is ugly no doubt, but it is not lethal. Hardship could make one stronger.

Ok, now I'm not poor and my kids might eat with a gold spoon, but do they have better education than I or they have more opportunities?

I can't deny that their school has a gazillion of things from music instruments to lab equipment. They could afford to go on field trips in Switzerland. They go on vacation more than once a year to far places to explore new cultures. They have money to venture into business without fear of failing.

One of my close relatives is a recognized world scholar, an inventor, a researcher, and an educator. How many lives has he impacted? This is a question we all should ask ourselves regularly. If your answer is "none" then your life is useless.

Guess what, no money is required in order for a person to have a strong personality nor to be a leader. Fancy life is not a prerequisite for entrepreneurship or excellence in life.

The bottom line, stop theorizing about poverty and start doing something about it. You rich guys out there, what have you done to empower the less fortunate in your own community or even family? Do you sometimes tell yourself "I'm not buying this expensive wine bottle today, rather I'll buy a ---- to my -----"?

Take note: one noble business man in Jordan took a small portion of his wealth to start a community empowerment organization to avail opportunities and teach skills to youth in communities at risk. If you're itching to know who he is, look up Ruwwad (a platform for civic engagement and integration). Imagine if all of you out there did the same, each according to his/her abilities?


Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.