If Childhood Poverty is Part of the Problem–What Does It Look Like? How Does It Affect Our Students?

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
  • depression
  • 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
  • homelessness
  • 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
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10 Responses to If Childhood Poverty is Part of the Problem–What Does It Look Like? How Does It Affect Our Students?

  1. John Young says:

    If only the others on the panel “got it” like your audience…..

    Why oh why are they at the forefront of foisting solutions to the “crisis” we are in with ideas and $$ that do not go to sufficiently address your eloquent post about the thins poverty “looks” like……

    These 4 intervention models to fix the lowest performing schools are simply doomed to perpetuate the failure:


    • fsjenner says:

      Ah, yes. And why might these plans be less than satisfactory? A couple of ideas right off the top of my head:
      > top down plans, with very little involvement of the folks who are the ones to make it happen
      > “plans” have no basis in practice or actual successful experience
      > accountability seems to be lacking, except for those at the bottom of the foodchain
      > transformation requires a charismatic leader–someone who inspires, motivates, LEADS (OMG!), understands, communicates, and draws the best people to him or her. I have known very few [people like this, one being Rachel Wood, former DE-DOE Associate in Science, who brought about the revolution in science education K-8 throughout the state of Delaware .
      > closing a school is hardly a “model” for reform–feels more like giving up
      > giving away the store to a new owner–in this case a charter school–seems pretty misguided. Heck, we already have plenty of charters and some of them aren’t doing so well.

  2. Pingback: If Childhood Poverty is Part of the Problem–What Does It Look Like? How Does It Affect Our Students? (via Does Experience Count?) « Transparent Christina

  3. jack says:

    Any system that excludes those responsible from the decision making process, {teachers} those with all the authority but have no responsibility, and those who have no authority have all the responsibility is doom to fail. What I just described is our Delaware’s decision making process, also those with all the power also control all the money and money is power.

  4. Bravo for this post and for your new blog, FSJenner. It is truly humbling to hear in you the voice for these kids spoken with so much authority and kindness. To imagine in 2009 that you were included with everyone in education reform at the table. That you spelled out the real deal there then just brings an agonizing sense of depression that it appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

    To read about the national education reform movement, one gets a sense that charter schools are supposed to answer these quesitons of children in poverty.

    Yet look at what the DDOE is doing to existing charters who serve highly concentrated populations of impoverished kids. Moyer for example: Moyer got no benefit of compassion or understanding from the state that this special needs poverty population demands so much extra from the greater community. Moyer ended up with a student body made up of mostly impoverished, minoriyty teenagers who had already exhausted their ‘luck’ in the suburban public schools. Moyer’s charter didn’t anticipate this overwhelming population. If they had the foresight to recognize that they’d be getting such a difficult challenging population then maybe they’d have had a differently articulated set of goals and expectations in their charter. There are obviously now public elementary schools that are serving a similar set of highly impoverished children and those schools are now in the state’s RTTT transformation mode. The minority proficiency achievement gap can’t be closed without consideration taken to lists such as yours and answers directly attuned to the realities you describe.

    Thanks to the Markell-Lowery scapegoating for RTTT, Moyer didn’t get much of a chance to follow through with the challenges before them as it became evident that they would be the city high school that accepted all comers of any income or ability. DDOE threw them under the bus. We can’t allow our teachers and students in our struggling city public schools to meet such an insensative, tone deaf fate.

  5. fsjenner says:

    Nancy: We have never met but we attend some of the same events. Call me Frederika. I’ll introduce myself the next time I see you out and about. Saw you this week at the Dem Convention. I am a committee person for RD 12.

    Seems strange to me that a charter school like Moyer with an inner city address did not “anticipate” the arrival of challenging students. Who were they expecting? Every one of the middle and high schools in Red Clay and Christina has these same kinds of kids with the same kinds of challenges–maybe even more. Maybe Moyer’s lack of success with kids like these is similar to our community public schools’ lack of success with kids who arrive at middle school already embodying failure to thrive during their past 5-6 years–grades K-5. Believe me, these kids are a challenge! Like the lost boys of Peter Pan.

    I understand your disappointment and frustration about a school like Moyer, but I have a different take on some of that story. Moyer had at least two years to get it together to better meet the needs of these kids, to set out new and innovative programs, to change courses mid-stream, to use the flexibilty and creativity allowed by the charter funding process (for example, money straight to the school and the principal in charge), and the ability to call upon new and different resources–I would imagine that Theo Gregory may have lots of human resources to bring to bear on the situation. But, if I recall correctly, Moyer was having trouble even keeping up with the basic standards set by DoE.

    Rule #1 in funding: Must meet standards and guidelines. Then, in this case, one must go above and beyond to try to find something else that works.

    The state is currently looking at ways to evaluate students, teachers, and schools. They will have test data from the new DCAS growth model, but they are also working to establish what they call “multiple measures” of student and teacher growth. What other measures could have been used to assess Moyer’s growth and development prior to the showdown between Moyer and DoE? What else did Moyer have to show for their efforts? What do they have to show for this year’s new model?

    As a professional classroom teacher, and at this point in time, I have little faith in on-line classes unless they have a face-to-face classroom component and extreme monitoring and intervention by the humans in charge. Don’t get me wrong. I think on-line coursework is great. I have completed several on-line courses in the past few years. BUT, I am an adult, already enculturated in the “learning to learn” process and highly motivated to succeed. Not so sure if I were a street-wise 9th grader with a chip on my shoulder and pretty low self-esteem as far as school goes, whether I would find this a successful pathway.

    Besides, it’s all about the relationships.

    Plus, if finding a way to work with “reluctant” or “resistant” learners was easy, someone would have already done it–and made money off of it!

  6. I wouldn’t characterize that Moyer didn’t ‘anticipate’ the arrival of challenging students. Rather what I was saying was that they didn’t formulate their charter based on what became a school with almost nothing but a ‘challenging’ student body. And these are the kids who once populated the regular schools of NCC from all districts, btw.

    I have more information that might surprise you about Moyer – stay tuned. You most certainly don’t have a balanced view.

  7. Frederika says:

    You may be right about my view not being completely balanced. Some of that may come from community public school teachers having charter schools thrown in their faces time and time again as the panacea for school reform, ending the achievement gap, lowering drop-out rates, increasing graduation rates, and world peace. However, it ain’t all that easy. Some of these kiddoes are tough nuts to crack.

  8. Pingback: Subject to Debate | Does Experience Count?

  9. Pingback: Childhood Poverty Can Be Bad for Kids | Does Experience Count?

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