It’s heartbreaking to see children who live in poverty struggle in our classrooms. They face challenges on so many fronts that it can be overwhelming to know how to help. But when we’re able to connect with students from low-income families, we can make a difference—a big one.

While home environment plays a role in how children do in school, studies show that for low-income children, school environment matters more than it does for those from middle- and upper-income families. “There is clear evidence that five years of learning from above-average teachers would erase the academic effects from poverty,” says Eric Jensen, author of several books including Teaching With Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It and Engaging Students With Poverty in Mind: Practical Strategies for Raising Achievement. “Teachers need to know that.”

WeAreTeachers recently spoke with Jensen, who suggested five things that all teachers can do to connect with students affected by poverty and help them succeed in their classrooms.

ASCD Eric Jenson Quote

  1. Teach Vocabulary Daily

    What you should know:
    Often, there is less language spoken in low-income homes—fewer words per hour and less interactive vocabulary. For instance, kids may hear more commands from parents, such as “Have a seat” or “Pipe down!” rather than complex sentences or back-and-forth conversations, says Jensen. As a result, many kids raised in poverty often start school one or two years behind their peers and never catch up if they don’t receive adequate support.What you can do: Get creative with activities to build vocabulary. For example, try doing a word-of-the-day activity. Give students a sense of control by letting them choose a word from a list you create. Then ask them to do a simple activity using the word, such as writing a question using the word that a partner must answer, or illustrating the word by creating a drawing or collage. You can even offer incentives—like having lunch with the teacher or being able to leave first at the end of class.

  2. Make Your Classroom a Stress-Free Zone

    What you should know: For children who are surrounded by worries about their parents’ ability to pay rent or having enough groceries, lack of stability can take a toll. The presence of long-term stress can cause children to be angry and snap back at teachers or withdraw and give up. “Teachers who don’t know better interpret this as ‘This kid is a bad seed’ or ‘He or she won’t go anywhere in school,’” says Jensen. Rather than behavior problems, the aggression or apathy may be symptoms of stress disorders.What you can do: While you may not be able to eliminate chronic stressors like financial issues at home, there are things you can do to avoid students experiencing added stress in your classroom. If you need to reprimand a student, for example, don’t embarrass him or her by doing it in front of the class. And every time you do reprimand a student, try to follow it up by giving the student at least three positive affirmations—like pointing out how well they followed directions or praising them for a correct answer to a question asked. If you sense your class is particularly stressed during the day, take a break during class to show them how to practice mindful breathing, tense-and-release exercises or fluid arm movements.

  3. Treat Your Class Like Family

    What you should know: Sometimes children show up at school without a strong emotional base from home and don’t have the social skills needed to work together and develop relationships. At the same time, these kids are often looking for strong adult role models, says Jensen. When teachers give students regular opportunities to work together, it helps build their social status and feeling of belonging, which can be key to staying in school and avoiding cliques or gangs.What you can do: Try putting elementary students of similar achievement levels in cooperative groups for activities like reading aloud. Each group member takes a turn reading, and the group discusses answers to questions you provide. In upper grades, students can be grouped in teams of five, by their interests rather than achievement levels, to work on longer-term projects, like a recycling plan for the school.

  4. Take Brain Breaks

    What you should know: Not getting enough or the right kinds of food can impact student performance in school. Also, there is an array of health issues that, if left unchecked because of limited resources, can affect a student’s ability to learn and concentrate, says Jensen. Physical activity, however, can help compensate for the behavioral and cognitive issues caused by poor nutrition.What you can do: If kids are acting sluggish, introduce an energizer to get them out of their seats and moving around the classroom. A simple brain break for elementary students is to have them walk in a line around the room while playing music. In the upper grades, try doing a cross-training simulation by calling out actions for different sports (e.g., catching a football or dribbling a basketball)—you can also let students call out the actions.

  5. Share a Mini Autobiography

    What you should know: Once you are aware of the issues challenging kids in poverty, you’ll be able to think of ways to reach out more effectively. “You have to carry around a little mirror, metaphorically. Always hold it up and think: What could I do differently?” suggests Jensen. Students need to get to know their teachers and understand that they believe in them and genuinely want them to learn.

    What you can do:
    Leave behind complaints and convey a great attitude by saying to your class: “I love being here. You kids are what I look forward to every day,” suggests Jensen. The teachers kids want to work hardest for are the ones with whom they’ve built relationships. Consider taking even just one minute every week to share something personal about yourself—like what you did with your family over the weekend or your goal to run a marathon. Also, try to find out about your students’ personal lives on a daily basis—ask them about their dreams, family, hobbies and even their problems.

ASCD Eric Jenson Quote 2

To find more books, videos, online courses, and other resources to help you address the effects of poverty, visit