It is hard for me to imagine being poor. I have never experienced true hunger or want of any kind. Boy, am I lucky–lucky by birth, for the most part. Of course, I can think about poverty in a rational or intellectual way, but I sure as hell can’t feel it or know it like some of my students do.
Teachers may discover that they have children in their classes or in their schools whose families are living at or below identified levels of poverty. A few years ago I started making some notes about what I observed about some of my poorer students. What does childhood poverty look like? What appear to be some of the effects of poverty on school-age children? I eventually developed this list after thinking about and observing many children in both city and suburban schools.
In April, 2009, I was asked to present at the Governor’s Summit on Child Poverty and Economic Opportunity. The event was sponsored in part by Kids Count and State Representative Terry Schooley, Chairperson of the Child Poverty Task Force and Director of Kids Count in Delaware.
As I prepared for the conference on children in poverty, I expanded the list to try to capture how poverty might be manifested in children in our public school system. I was part of a panel discussion with Lillian Lowery, Delaware Secretary of Education, Skip Schoenhals of Wilmington Savings Fund Society, and Denise Tolliver of Delaware Futures.
I shared the following list with the audience and chatted briefly about how each effect seems to play out in a number of children in our schools. The audience got it–they understood the message that childhood poverty can be an over-riding factor in childhood and in a child’s development, progress, and maturation. In the past 38 years, I have taught grades 3-6 in three different schools: suburban, inner city, and diverse mix of inner city and suburban students. I have had too many very poor students in my classes and in my schools.
Children in poverty may exhibit any of the following serious problems or combinations of problems. There may be other difficulties that you and your colleagues may observe and want to add to this list.
I think that it is helpful to consider the real meaning of severe poverty for a child–perhaps this is something that other education reformers could consider as they bring their “laser-like focus” on the problems we face in our schools.
- serious uncorrected vision problems
- various, serious unresolved health problems, including lack of dental care
- daily issues with hunger and basic nutrition deficiencies
- regular deficiencies in cleanliness (body and clothing)
- unspecified, general neglect
- lack of discipline and family support
- unidentified and unresolved learning disabilities
- lack of regular medication for diagnosed specific medical conditions, including behavior and learning problems
- significant low achievement in core school subjects like reading, writing, math, science, and social studies
- learned responses and behaviors that often allow children to avoid school work—if you fail for years, you develop ways of numbing the pain and embarrassment
- poor social skills—problems relating to both students and adults, even to their friends
- significant immaturity
- delayed emotional development
- developmental delays related to learning, understanding, and remembering
- difficulties in delaying gratification
- sleep deprivation and exhaustion
- tardiness—coming late to school on many days—missing critical class time
- serious long-term attendance problems—kids who year after year attend less than 50% of all days in school, or miss large chunks of time, or who regualrly miss 1-2 days each week
- frequent changes in schools—student may attend more than one or two schools in a single year, or may have attended multiple schools over a period of several years
- frequent uprooting and moving of family home
- dysfunctional families (general dysfunction)
- long-term, even generational, family histories of disengagement from the education system, including distrust and outright hostility to schools and teachers
- family history of alcohol and drug abuse
- family history of physical, psychological, or sexual abuse
- family history of mental illness
- family poverty—both generational and situational; generational is the worst—it can be crushing and difficult to overcome
- serious illness of a parent or guardian, with little or no other family support
- regular and long-term responsibility for the care of siblings
- responsibility for household chores and maintenance beyond a child’s years
- exposure to sex, drugs, or violence
- exposure to gang mentality, and possible gang involvement as students get older