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Beyond the classroom: Poverty impacts achievement

By Staff | Sep 12, 2014

In a society that values material goods and social status we often forget about the less fortunate. There are some people who believe that being poor is a choice and that those living in poverty choose to stay there. As someone who lived and breathed this lifestyle during my childhood, this sentiment could not be farther from the truth. In most cases poverty impacts student achievement negatively. The most basic definition of poverty is, “persons with income less than that deemed sufficient to purchase basic needs – food, shelter, clothing, and other essentials – are designated as poor.” (Jensen, 2009).

We are not immune to poverty in Rugby. In fact, more than 25 percent of our children qualify for free and reduced lunch in our school district. This is approximately 170 of our 571 students. We use our students on free and reduced lunch to determine our poverty levels. According to Jensen (2009), there are four at-risk factors that afflict families living in poverty. These are: (1) emotional and social challenges, (2) acute and chronic stressors, (3) cognitive lags and (4) health and safety issues.

Emotional and social challenges are very real for those living in poverty. According to Saudino (2005), DNA accounts for 30 to 50 percent of our behaviors, and 50 to 70 percent is the environment in which we grow up. Children who grow up in poverty may lack a strong attachment between themselves and their parents. This is largely due to the stressors on the parent that are associated with being poor.

Students living in poverty are often left to fend for themselves while their caregivers work long hours. Less time is spent outdoors and more time watching television (Jensen, 2009). It becomes crucial for schools to embed character education that embodies respect, embeds social skills and creates a familial atmosphere. These aspects are the core parts to the Character Counts program at Ely Elementary.

Stress is a part of life and life can be a roller coaster at times. Acute and chronic stress refers to stress sustained over time. According to Jensen (2009), children living in poverty are more prone to experience these types of stressors than their more affluent peers. Chronic stress is linked to over 50 percent of all school absences, impairs attention and concentration, reduces cognition, creativity, and memory, diminishes social skills and social judgment, reduces motivation, determination and effort, increases the likelihood of depression and reduces the growth of new brain cells (Jensen, 2009).

Socioeconomic status is the level of income a family generates, SES is the acronym to refer to income status. SES is linked to a child’s cognitive level. This includes IQ, achievement tests, grade retention rates and literacy, according to Jensen (2009). The difference in achievement between low-SES and their high-SES peers is staggering. SES has been linked to literacy levels in the home. In impoverished homes there are often fewer books, caregivers read less, caregivers often speak in more grammatically simple sentences, and literacy is not a primary focus. According to Jensen (2009), the children of professional parents add words to their vocabularies at about twice the rate of children in welfare families.

A few years ago we started Imagination Library in Rugby. This is an excellent program that provides one free book a month to any child up to the age of 5 in our district. This is a great way to increase literacy levels in all homes in our district. Please contact our school if you are interested for more information.

Studies link socioeconomic status with the overall level of health. This means that the lower the SES the lower a child’s health will be. The lower the parents income the more likely it is that children will be born premature, low in birth weight, or with disabilities (Jensen, 2009). Inadequate housing may also impact the overall health of the child due to environmental dangers. Lack of health insurance may cause a minor health issue to become a major health issue if left untreated.

PISA is an international achievement test used to rank countries according to their students’ scores. In the most recent PISA, researchers found that poverty seems to negatively impact children more in the United States than any other country in terms of student achievement. According to UNICEF, one in four American children live in poverty. I painted a bleak picture regarding children living in poverty. Low-SES parents care about their children deeply, but struggle due to the issues associated with a lack of income. We need to empower parents and begin doing something about the increasing poverty level in America. Poverty is the problem. Children are not given the choice to be poor and a childhood spent in poverty often sets the stage for future setbacks.


Jensen, E. (2009). Teaching with poverty in mind. Alexandria: ASCD.)

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