Relationships Matter: Advice for Working with Low-Income Students

Advice for Working with Low-Income Students

It's no secret that poverty impacts a child’s chances for success in school. Today, the majority of students in many teachers' classrooms come from families with limited economic means. In fact, in 2015, the majority of public school students in the United States (just over 50 percent) qualified for free and reduced lunch at school, according to federal income guidelines.

This means teachers must be skilled at working with these children and be aware of the concerns affecting them, such as housing and food insecurity.

It is important to acknowledge that children living in poverty will encounter a number of challenges on the road to academic success. In a book titled Teaching with Poverty in Mind, writer Eric Jensen does not shy away from these realities. “Many (low-income) children face emotional and social instability,” Jensen reminds readers. He characterizes such instability as often including “inadequate health care” and limited access to positive interactions with adult caregivers.

Jensen goes on to provide a list of specific difficulties faced by parents and children living in less stable economic conditions, such as living in unsafe neighborhoods where children tend to “spend less time playing outdoors and more time watching television,” making them “less likely to participate in after-school activities.” This situation can contrast starkly with that of wealthier students, who often enjoy far greater access to emotionally, physically, and intellectually stimulating environments. Still, as the Economic Policy Institute pointed out in a 2015 paper on the achievement rates of children in poverty, “some children with severe socioeconomic disadvantages achieve at higher levels than typical children without them.”

But how?

What school-based activities and approaches can teachers use to bring out the best in students, many of whom are clustered in Title 1 schools and may have limited access to resource-rich support systems? Step one, in the eyes of many researchers, is to develop relationships. Cynthia Johnson, writing for the Association for Middle Level Education website, makes this important point: “Building relationships is often considered a ‘soft’ principle and is often overlooked when devising strategies to educate children who live in poverty. However, effective educators know building relationships is a crucial step before introducing content.

The Intercultural Development Research Association is an independent nonprofit, known as the IDRA, that focuses on “strengthening and transforming” public education through such avenues as policy analysis and “innovative materials and programs.” The IDRA also has an action framework available on its website for those who work with low-income students. This framework is based on research that includes student input and is designed to help school professionals understand how best to work with and support students living in poverty.

The first item on the IDRA’s framework connects to the idea that relationships are essential by making the point that students thrive in schools where there are “professional relationships that promote trust and cooperation.” According to the organization, this means both students and teachers work in a supportive environment and are “involved in accomplishing the goals of the school and of the community.” Additionally, the IDRA found that the relationship between schools and the families of low-income students is a very important ingredient in helping students succeed, and noted that this is best accomplished when there is an atmosphere of mutual respect and “shared power.”

The IDRA also found that factors such as small class sizes, “access to quality curriculum,” and after-school enrichment opportunities all made a difference in how students from low-income families progressed through grades K–12. Relationships, of course, are only one aspect of making school a productive, positive experience for students who may be struggling with the stresses of living in poverty.

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