A Brain-Based Approach to Helping Low-SES Students


Many students in the United States come to school with a low socioeconomic status (SES), according to federal guidelines. Recent data from the National School Lunch Program suggests that nearly 100,000 schools serve lunch to 30 million students each day. (Only students who are signed up for the lunch program are included in the organization’s statistics.) To be clear, qualifying for a free or reduced price lunch at school does not necessarily mean a student is poor, as the income guidelines apply to families living “at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level.” Still, the true number of children living in poverty in the U.S. is estimated to be around 21 percent, which is one of the highest rates of child poverty in the developed world.

What does the impact of low SES have on a student’s chances for success in school? Bruce Baker, who researches education policy and school finance at Rutgers University, argued that poverty and inequality “matter a great deal” when it comes to education. That’s because being poor or low-income often means facing a range of challenging issues such as housing instability, lack of access to high-quality childcare or preschool programs, and inadequate healthcare. Similarly, students living in poverty are at greater risk for adverse childhood experiences, frequently referred to as ACEs. These adverse experiences can include witnessing substance abuse, experiencing violence or mental illness in the home, and suffering from physical and emotional abuse or neglect.

Although anyone can experience difficult circumstances as a child, children and families living in poverty are more likely to have ACEs. While poverty does not cause ACEs—as many researchers have pointed out—it is a significant risk factor for greater exposure to traumatic life circumstances and situations. This in turn can make children living in poverty vulnerable to toxic stress, leading to what some say is a “negative loop” in which stressful experiences lead to more stressful experiences, and the effect of this on a child’s educational prospects can be profound. Indeed, Baker’s work at Rutgers has found that children who grow up in poverty “complete less schooling” than their wealthier peers, a point that is backed up by data from the American Psychological Association as well as numerous other sources.

Along with the increased risk of dropping out and leaving school altogether, students with a low SES are also frequently behind their peers academically. Some of this has to do with what happens before children living in poverty are even born (due to the importance of such things as consistent prenatal care) but much involves a complex mix of social and emotional experiences, such as the ability to attach well to a primary caregiver (which can be more difficult in households that are under-resourced) or attend a high-quality preschool. Students’ behavior in school can be another factor; for students struggling with ACEs or navigating their way through a life in poverty, helpful traits as perseverance and collaboration may be harder to come by.

In the words of education researcher Eric Jensen, who wrote the book "Teaching with Poverty in Mind," this is because “children raised in poor households often fail to learn...healthy, appropriate responses to everyday situations.” There are many reasons for this, including the aforementioned increased presence of ACEs. The issue, in Jensen’s view, is that children without “healthy, appropriate responses” to stress or frustration may give up too easily or act out in class rather than buckle down and meet academic challenges head-on. He went on to note that this can lead to a sense of separation from the group, which can in turn set up a cycle of negative, isolating interactions between a teacher and a student with a low SES.

This certainly sounds like an overwhelming situation that may feel far beyond any one teacher’s control. Still, researchers like Jensen and others have focused not just on the problems associated with students living in poverty, but also how to help such students thrive in school. Jensen has argued that teachers first must learn to recognize the behavior challenges that tend to be exhibited by children whose brains have adapted to their impoverished circumstances, which can require a distinct shift in perspective and may call for teachers to expect students living in poverty to act more impulsively or impatiently than others.

According to Jensen’s research, the proper response to this expectation is for educators to actively teach students how to behave in a way that will be conducive to a “smoothly running, complex social environment (like a classroom).” Jensen summed this up with three “action steps” for teachers: 1) Embody respect; 2) Embed social skills; and 3) Be inclusive. He advised moving away from the impulse toward authoritarianism and instead articulated a vision built around shared respect, calm reminders, and a consistently communicated and demonstrated sense of belonging for all. This echoes advice found in a handbook from the National Education Association regarding how teachers can most effectively work with students facing trauma, poverty, or both.

“Students from poverty and those who have experienced trauma want to learn,” the National Education Association handbook noted. However, failing to properly address their unique needs may lead to the “potential loss of contributions to society when the gifts of a disadvantaged, traumatized child are not developed and passed on to the next generation.” Like Jensen, the National Education Association researchers argued for a “brain-based approach” to teaching children with a low SES. Simply put, the “brain can and does change” for the better—if chronic stress and other troubling influences are addressed. In addition to underscoring the importance of teachers taking care of themselves and avoiding toxic stress in their own lives, the National Education Association handbook offered specific classroom-based recommendations for teachers, including the nudge to be flexible in how lessons are shared.

It is important to avoid further exacerbating the effects of poverty or ACEs, warned Jane Stevens of the ACEs Connection organization in a 2015 blog post. Stevens, who advocates on behalf of students living with trauma, argued that such students should ideally be met with extra resources, not punishing responses that further isolate, suspend, or expel them. This is key because, as the National Education Association handbook phrased it, “schools can be the most positive place where the neuroplasticity of the brain can replace the negativity of poverty and trauma with hope and a real bright future for our students’ successes.”

What is your school or district doing to help students from low-SES backgrounds succeed? Connect with Lexia Learning on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn to let us know your thoughts and experiences on this topic!

Share This: 


Featured White Paper:

The Critical Role of Oral Language in Reading Instruction and Assessment

Oral language has a profound impact on children’s preparedness for kindergarten and on their success throughout their academic career. Read the white paper by Dr. Liz Brooke, Lexia's Chief Education Officer, to learn about the critical role of oral language in reading instruction and assessment, including the implications for teachers with Title I and English Learner students.

read the white paper

Resource Type: