George Lucas Educational Foundation

5 Ways to Help Students Affected by Generational Poverty

5 Ways to Help Students Affected by Generational Poverty

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Teacher and Student Talking

I work with students who are affected by generational poverty on a daily basis. I see many things. I see students whose shoes are held together by electrical tape. I see students who have perfect attendance because the only meals they receive are through the public school's cafeteria. I see pictures that students draw of their "pet rats" that live in their house. One thing I do not see a lot of is help for the educators trying to make a difference in these students' lives.

As I look at the new teachers in my school full of excitement and ready to take on the world, I am encouraged. However, sometimes I worry that the first year teaching in the climate we work in might cause them to give up on education and never return. For that reason, I have compiled a list of easy tips I have learned along the way to help encourage teachers working with students effected by generational poverty.

1. Love the Students

This seems easy enough, but it is actually much harder than you suspect. While working in my first grade classroom during my first year of teaching, there was a little boy in our grade-level whose father was in jail and whose mother was an alcoholic. Throughout the year, his teacher would come to me and complain about his "sneakiness" or his "disregard for authority." This same colleague often refused to allow the student to go to the restroom because of the claim that he was wasting time in the restroom. As the year progressed, the punishments for the student became much more severe. As a new teacher, I initially thought this was how the district I worked in disciplined the particular population of students we had. This colleague claimed that students from "this area" just didn't respond to anything but a firm hand.

Eventually, I could not keep silent anymore. I went to my principal and asked to switch the boy into my classroom. I just wanted to see if a positive behavior system would work. My colleague was happy to see the boy go, and I was happy to see him walk into my classroom. The effects of love transformed that young child. He began forming relationships with other students, working harder on his school work, and smiling more. Children who live in generational poverty do come to us with their own set of issues and bad experiences, but it is our job as educators to make their school experience a positive one. You can still have a consistent grasp on discipline, but just make sure that love is a factor when you are trying to help any student who walks through your door.

2. Expose Students to Experiences

Many students in generational poverty have a limited amount of experiences. Their schema has not developed enough for educators to truly build upon their prior knowledge. Most of the students living in this environment may not have ever left their county or town. When this is the case, it is your job to give them experiences. Read them books about exotic lands, show them pictures of your travels, let them watch videos about other parts of the world, invite guest speakers in to talk about their experiences, and take them on field trips.

Many teachers cringe when thinking about the planning that goes into a field trip, but these trips are so essential. In this day and time, there are so many grants and funding that can help a whole classroom of students see things they never thought they would see. Stop making excuses for why it can not be done and make it happen. The students in your classroom will only remember a portion of the content you taught them, but they will remember every bit of the field trips or special experiences you exposed them to.

3. Give Plenty of Praise

Praise is key to any relationship with a child. Students want you to recognize both their small and big successes. Too many times these students hear from others about all of the things they do not have. This negatively effects their self-esteem. Without a positive self-concept, it is impossible for these students to have the confidence they need in order to learn. This is where praise comes in. 

However, there is an art to praising a student. When praising a student for their accomplishments, make the praise specific. Do not just say "great job" or "wonderful." Instead take the time to look at what the child has done and tell them, "I am so proud of you for using this tool while trying to work out that math problem" or "I love how expressively you read that passage." Being specific lets the students know you are paying attention to their efforts.

4.  Do Not Ask for Money

We all wish that we lived in a place where parents fully supplied our classrooms and that our district gave us every piece of equipment we needed. However, this dream is not a reality in most districts. Each time you ask for money, you are risking embarrassing the children in your classroom. Instead of asking for lots of supplies at the beginning of the year or asking students to pay for various activities, set up an anonymous donation method that works for your classroom. Many times parents would rather give money than send in supplies with their students anyway. This allows those parents who can donate to contribute to the classroom, while not making it obvious that some students did not bring in their classroom supplies. Another way to gain supplies without putting a burden on your students is by making a donors choose page for yourself on

5. Keep Expectations High

Do not insult your students by watering down the curriculum. The students are poor, not ignorant. By keeping high expectations, you reinforce to the students that you believe in their abilities. You give them the chance to show-off what they can do. You also allow them the opportunity to soar high above the expectations society has for them.

This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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valcvt's picture

I grew up in poverty area and the school I graduated from had very resources such as books, calculators, and projectors. I do work for a school that has the majority of students have free reduced lunch and low socioeconomic status. Yet, I am extremely happy for the school that I work for because I can understand the issues parents face and the dilemmas at home. There was a teacher next door that would always place a student out of his classroom. The principal and instructional coaches suggested that he sends the student to my class. The time that he was sent to my class was his conference period. The student did not pass his Chemistry class but taught me a lesson on how to fix my classroom equipment. I had to supervise the chemistry storage area and was responsible for locating broken equipment. The student helped take inventory, fixed and greased my burets and had someone to talk to. I also find the asking for money at the schools to be over the top. I have become a hoarder. I am constantly searching for deals and things people do not use. At professional development workshops, I take pens, pencils and freebies. From the recycling bin, I use the back of paper for scratch paper. I leave enough space in my worksheets for students to produce work.
Some advice if you find yourself working in a poverty area: Do not allow the money issue to be a barrier in your teaching. Find cheap economical ways to supply your classroom such as using boxes for crates. Recently, we had a project for the last nine weeks. The students needed a sturdy poster board to display their project. I collected cardboard and cut poster-boards out of the panels. (ALL different sizes) I collected enough boxes from items people threw away for about 96 groups of students.

anivory's picture
Mathematics Consultant

Great ideas! And giving plenty of praise, specific to the child's performance is very beneficial. However saying "I am so proud of you for . . . " puts the control of good feeling outside the child and on the teacher. Recognize the good work of the child and say something that puts the satisfaction with the child - " You did this so well, you must be so proud of your work!" I am thinking of the ideas of Attribution Theory in Psychology.

Bob Sweeney's picture

Thanks for this article! I saw (to my surprise) the power of items 1 and 5 when I taught high school for one year. My teaching partner and I were given a bunch of the "trouble students" and we found that love, respect, and high expectations worked wonders. In fact, they were not trouble students for us, they just needed a different approach than most of the students in our classroom. We rarely needed to apply disciplinary actions during that year, as it seemed that the students were anxious to live up to our expectations.

Andrew Evans's picture

I'd also suggest one more thing, even if it breaks Rule No. 4 a bit: give your students a chance to give to others, whether it be their time or crafts you make together, reading with or helping younger kids or staff or putting on a play for the elderly, collecting pennies for a charity, et cetera. Giving is important and empowering, and your kids should be able to do it, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Cynthia Banks-Obinabo's picture

This is one of the best articles I have read in a long time. This teacher should be recognized for her sincere and well needed approach to teaching in these low socio-economic communities. I hope others will do the same.

Bridget Herod's picture

All ya need is LOVE. Show me a teacher who loves teaching and loves her students and that is success!

Mr.Perez's picture

MMcClain,I like the ways that you shared to us,Especially the number 1.This is so easy to do and the students will appreciates the effort of teachers.In that way the teacher and the students will have a good relationship and also the teacher help his/her student affected by Generational Poverty.

Sped62's picture

I teach a small group of students who have emotional disturbance. Students with other disabilities find their way into my class too. Part of their behavior plans is to have frequent breaks. They love cardboard boxes! They create shields, parking garages, masks, etc. during their free time.
The custodial staff saves cardboard for us, listens to me brag about our students, and always greets our students warmly. And our students always show appreciation in return. I use the word "our" because all staff are responsible for the education of our students. Who would have thought that cardboard boxes could lead to such positive outcomes?

Nymia Zennia's picture

Build a trusting relationship that your students can count on. Be clear and supportive, while you help them grow into responsible people. My students always know I will help them in any situation even if it includes helping them to see their wrong. But if they didn't trust me, I would never be able to help them understand right from wrong which we all know is a part of self growth.

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