5 Ways to Help Students Affected by Generational Poverty

Students that live in legacies of generational poverty are often seen as incapable of being successful in their educational pursuits. Further, some of the statistics on grade point averages and drop-out rates are compelling for these students, too.

How to help students break generational poverty

Ways to break a transgenerational cycle of poverty.However, this article on Edutopia by M. McClain, who works with these students on a regular basis, provides some coaching tips for teachers who are responsible for students affected by generational poverty. The article follows:

I work with students who are affected by generational poverty on a daily basis. I see many things. I see students whose shoes are held together by electrical tape. I see students who have perfect attendance because the only meals they receive are through the public school’s cafeteria. I see pictures that students draw of their “pet rats” that live in their house. One thing I do not see a lot of is help for the educators trying to make a difference in these students’ lives.

As I look at the new teachers in my school full of excitement and ready to take on the world, I am encouraged. However, sometimes I worry that the first year teaching in the climate we work in might cause them to give up on education and never return. For that reason, I have compiled a list of easy tips I have learned along the way to help encourage teachers working with students affected by generational poverty.

Love the Students

This seems easy enough, but it is actually much harder than you suspect. While working in my first grade classroom during my first year of teaching, there was a little boy in our grade-level whose father was in jail and whose mother was an alcoholic. Throughout the year, his teacher would come to me and complain about his “sneakiness” or his “disregard for authority.” This same colleague often refused to allow the student to go to the restroom because of the claim that he was wasting time in the restroom. As the year progressed, the punishments for the student became much more severe. As a new teacher, I initially thought this was how the district I worked in disciplined the particular population of students we had. This colleague claimed that students from “this area” just didn’t respond to anything but a firm hand.

Eventually, I could not keep silent anymore. I went to my principal and asked to switch the boy into my classroom. I just wanted to see if a positive behavior system would work. My colleague was happy to see the boy go, and I was happy to see him walk into my classroom. The effects of love transformed that young child. He began forming relationships with other students, working harder on his school work, and smiling more. Children who live in generational poverty do come to us with their own set of issues and bad experiences, but it is our job as educators to make their school experience a positive one. You can still have a consistent grasp on discipline, but just make sure that love is a factor when you are trying to help any student who walks through your door.

Expose Students to Experiences

Many students in generational poverty have a limited amount of experiences. Their schema has not developed enough for educators to truly build upon their prior knowledge. Most of the students living in this environment may not have ever left their county or town. When this is the case, it is your job to give them experiences. Read them books about exotic lands, show them pictures of your travels, let them watch videos about other parts of the world, invite guest speakers in to talk about their experiences, and take them on field trips.

Many teachers cringe when thinking about the planning that goes into a field trip, but these trips are so essential. In this day and time, there are so many grants and funding that can help a whole classroom of students see things they never thought they would see. Stop making excuses for why it can not be done and make it happen. The students in your classroom will only remember a portion of the content you taught them, but they will remember every bit of the field trips or special experiences you exposed them to.

Give Plenty of Praise

Praise is key to any relationship with a child. Students want you to recognize both their small and big successes. Too many times these students hear from others about all of the things they do not have. This negatively affects their self-esteem. Without a positive self-concept, it is impossible for these students to have the confidence they need in order to learn. This is where praise comes in.

However, there is an art to praising a student. When praising a student for accomplishments, make the praise specific. Do not just say “great job” or “wonderful.” Instead take the time to look at what the child has done and tell them, “I am so proud of you for using this tool while trying to work out that math problem” or “I love how expressively you read that passage.” Being specific lets the students know you are paying attention to their efforts.

Do Not Ask for Money

We all wish that we lived in a place where parents fully supplied our classrooms and that our district gave us every piece of equipment we needed. However, this dream is not a reality in most districts. Each time you ask for money, you are risking embarrassing the children in your classroom. Instead of asking for lots of supplies at the beginning of the year or asking students to pay for various activities, set up an anonymous donation method that works for your classroom. Many times parents would rather give money than send in supplies with their students anyway. This allows those parents who can donate to contribute to the classroom, while not making it obvious that some students did not bring in their classroom supplies. Another way to gain supplies without putting a burden on your students is by making a donors choose page for yourself on

Keep Expectations High

Do not insult your students by watering down the curriculum. The students are poor, not ignorant. By keeping high expectations, you reinforce to the students that you believe in their abilities. You give them the chance to show-off what they can do. You also allow them the opportunity to soar high above the expectations society has for them.

I appreciate the candor and specific points of application given to us in this post. I think it is helpful not only for poverty-affected students but for all students.  I hope we can facilitate better classroom environments for these students. I also hope we can use some of the latest brain-based strategies to help students in poverty affected areas to regulate and become more successful in their educational pursuits.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network


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