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What Is Poverty and What Role Does It Play in Our Schools?

Considering an education degree? Learn more about the impact of poverty on students’ performance and achievements.

Poverty can result from unemployment, underemployment, or working for minimum wage with no benefits, and its consequences extend beyond the inability to afford basic necessities. It pervades multiple areas of life—and for parents whose income is below the poverty line, it often means sending their children to school hungry, along with other disadvantages, both academic and otherwise.

In 2000, 15% of school-aged children were living at or below the federal poverty line. By 2017, the percentage had increased to 18%.1 The profound implications of poverty are visible in areas such as:

What Is Poverty and What Role Does It Play in Our Schools?

  • Absenteeism—Students from impoverished families may be absent from school more often, for various reasons. Some need to work to help support their families or stay home to take care of relatives, while others may be homeless, lack reliable transportation, or experience other difficulties.
  • Concentration Issues—Children living at or below the poverty line often have a hard time concentrating on their schoolwork. They may come to school hungry or sleep-deprived, which can impede their ability understand and retain information. Additionally, research reveals that family incomes below the federal poverty level are associated with statistically higher levels of developmental disabilities, learning disabilities and disorders such as ADD, and intellectual disabilities. 2
  • Not Doing Homework—Low-income children may have parents who work long hours or are unable to help their child with homework and class assignments. This lack of parental assistance can result in students not turning in homework assignments and doing poorly on tests. Adolescents may need to spend their afterschool study time taking care of younger siblings while a parent is working, instead of focusing on their own education and studies. 
  • Behavioral Issues—Low-income children and teens are at a higher risk of abuse and neglect at home, which creates a pervasive state of fear and uncertainty. This kind of trauma impairs the normal development of the brain and nervous system, the immune system, and the body’s stress response systems. A traumatic childhood can cause extreme reactions to stress as well as behavioral problems such as acting out, aggression, and anger—or on the other end of the spectrum—withdrawal, depression, and self-harm.3
  • Failing Grades—The challenges children in poverty face can have a cumulative effect on their performance in school, causing them to fall farther and farther behind in their education. Each year that a student barely passes but still moves on to the next grade, it becomes more difficult for them to catch up.
  • Higher Dropout Rates—In 2012, the dropout rate of high school students from low-income families was 7.2%, versus 3.9% for students from higher-income families.4 

How Educators Can Help Low-Income Students Learn

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development recommends nine strategies proven to help educators raise the achievement levels of low-income students:5

  1. Build relationships based on respect.
  2. Make beginning learning relational.
  3. Teach students to speak in formal register.
  4. Assess each student’s resources.
  5. Teach the hidden rules of school.
  6. Monitor progress and plan interventions.
  7. Translate the concrete into the abstract.
  8. Teach students how to ask questions.
  9. Forge relationships with parents.

By implementing these practices, educators can help close the cognitive, behavioral, and social gaps that are common in students living below the federal poverty level.

Are you interested in becoming an educator equipped to help children overcome poverty-related issues and become more successful students? You may be able to obtain a Federal TEACH Grant to help fund your studies. Explore Walden University's full suite of online education degree programs for graduates and undergraduates and see which ones are eligible.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral education degree programs online. Expand your career options and earn your degree using a convenient, flexible learning platform that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission