Most teachers and parents would admit that some kids thrive more than others in the classroom. Some of these differences can be attributed to issues such as poor attendance and learning disabilities, but it is no secret that poverty is often part of the problem. Children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds often come to school less socially and emotionally prepared than their peers, thwarting the best efforts of educators.

In his book Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It, author Eric Jensen says that poverty calls for “smarter strategies, not resignation and despair.” Jensen debunks cultural myths about poverty, explains the underlying environmental and biological factors that are in play, and gives educators practical strategies to help their students succeed.

Poverty Impedes Healthy Social and Emotional Development

Early in his book, Jensen discusses the many challenges that children from families with low socioeconomic status (SES) tend to experience. They are more likely than their peers of higher SES to live in unstable, chaotic households in neighborhoods with higher rates of crime, more safety hazards, and less green space. Studies show that they tend to watch a greater amount of TV, spend less time outdoors, and have fewer cognitive enrichment opportunities than their higher-SES peers.

In addition, Jensen explains how depression, chemical dependence, and hectic work schedules are common among low-income parents, who tend to be more stressed out and less emotionally responsive to their children. This in turn undermines the strength of the parent-child attachment—a bond that predicts the quality of all future relationships. These and other factors, working in synergy, can result in social, emotional, and cognitive impairment in children, which can lead to the adoption of risky behaviors and a host of negative life experiences.

Poverty Can Result in a Narrower Range of Emotional Responses

Low-SES children often come to school with a narrower range of appropriate emotional responses to the socially complex school environment. Jensen explains that from birth we are all hard-wired to experience six emotions—sadness, joy, disgust, anger, surprise, and fear—whereas other emotional responses (such as humility, shame, and compassion) are learned responses from caregivers. If we think of the range of emotions as the notes on an “emotional keyboard,” children who grow up in poverty may come to school able to play only a few notes.

Note: Above concept from Teaching With Poverty in MInd: What Being Poor Does to Kids Brains and What Schools Can Do About It by Eric Jensen. 

How do you teach humility, cooperation, empathy, and gratitude? Teachers need to model these qualities and skills in their classrooms, and give students opportunities to practice them. Jensen advises, “Give respect to students first, even when they seem least to deserve it.” Here is a sampling of Jensen’s recommendations:

  • Teach basic meet-and-greet skills early in the year by having students face one another, make eye contact, smile, and shake hands
  • Implement social and emotional skill-building programs
  • Avoid sarcasm and negative directives (e.g., “Don’t be a wise guy!”)
  • Embed turn-taking skills into class activities
  • Remind students to thank their classmates after working together collaboratively
  • Praise students’ efforts and celebrate achievements during each and every class

Jensen also offers some good news: Students do come to school with strong “relational” forces—the drive for reliable relationships, the need to “fit in” with their peers, and the desire to feel socially “important.” Jensen warns school administrators, “Do not dismiss the so-called ‘soft side’ of students’ lives, the social side. It runs their brains, their feelings, and their behaviors—and those three run cognition!” He adds, “When students feel socialized and accepted, they perform better academically.”

Strategies in Action

Teaching with Poverty in Mind offers numerous strategies for helping low-SES children succeed. Have you read this book and, if so, what strategies have you found valuable? What do you do in your school or classroom to improve students’ social and emotional skills? Please post your thoughts and comments below.*

* E-mail addresses will be kept confidential.

Don’t miss out—sign up here to receive our blog, Promote Prevent Perspectives, in a weekly email!