It’s no secret that academic outcomes for children growing up in poverty lag behind those of children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. But all too often, myths about poverty contribute to misdirected (even if well-meaning) efforts to support children facing the challenges of poverty.
Here are five all-too-common myths about poverty that are harmful to kids. Let’s agree to stop perpetuating these right now.
Myth #1: Poverty is synonymous with broken homes and bad families.
According to US Census data, just over 43 million Americans, including 8.6 million children under the age of 18, were living below the poverty line in 2015. But while popular culture often links poverty with poor choices, the research shows that people living in poverty are no more likely than people from higher socioeconomic backgrounds to abuse alcohol or drugs.
Statistically-speaking, households below the poverty line are more likely to be headed by a single parent. But let’s make something abundantly clear: a single-parent-headed household isn’t a broken home. All families, no matter their structure, are valuable. And some studies show that poverty factors into decisions to delay or decline marriage, which may help explain the single parent statistic.
The bottom line is, knowing a student’s socioeconomic background doesn’t reliably reveal anything about his family situation. “Saying someone is from poverty is like saying they’re from the middle class; you still don’t know their story,” says Eric Jensen, author of 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.
Some students growing up in poverty come from close-knit, loving families. Others, unfortunately go home to horrific family situations—just as is the case with students from middle- or upper-class backgrounds. You can’t accurately surmise anything about a student’s home life from his family’s income level or address.
Myth #2: Families living in poverty don’t value education.
Dr. Marcus Jackson, principal of William M. Boyd Elementary in Atlanta, Georgia, is sick of the insinuation that African American males growing up in poverty “have no dreams or aspirations outside of sports and rapping.”
He’s also tired of the mistaken notion that children and parents living below the poverty line don’t value education.
The truth, Jensen says, is that surveys show families living in poverty value education as much as middle class families. Educators sometimes fall back on stereotypes of low-income families and interpret a parents’ absence at school events differently than they’d interpret the absence of a more affluent parent. They may assume it’s a lack of interest in education. Yet the reality is that low-income parents may have work conflicts or lack access to the same transportation or childcare options that may make more affluent parents more flexible.
“There are parents who are rich that don’t show up at their kids’ functions too,” Jensen says. However, wealthy parents’ absences may be attributed to work, while their peers from lower-income areas are labeled apathetic.
This ASCD article offers some practical strategies for engaging families who live in poverty.
Myth #3: Children living in poverty can’t handle challenging classes.
It’s true that poverty and trauma can alter the development of the brain. Children living in poverty are statistically more likely to enter school academically behind their higher-income peers. They continue to fall further behind in math and reading as they progress through grade levels. But it’s an incorrect assumption that kids facing the challenges of poverty aren’t cut out for challenging or AP classes.
Just as negative experiences can negatively affect a child’s brain, so too can positive experiences improve outcomes. “Teachers often think that if the brain is changed for the worse, that’s what you’re stuck with,” Jensen says. But the brain exhibits incredible neuroplasticity.
Teachers and counselors who are adept at trauma-informed care—an approach that emphasizes student strengths and reflects an understanding of and responsiveness to trauma—can minimize the impact of negative experiences (related to poverty or not) while building children’s capacity for critical thinking and learning.
Most important is a belief in students’ potential. “The stories we tell about ourselves and those around us can be devastating,” Jensen says. “Schools all over the country tell different stories about their kids. When the story is, ‘our kids are amazing, our kids are capable, and our kids are going to college,’ they often do.”
Of course, all kids need scaffolding in order to handle challenging coursework. Jensen frequently tells educators that children can master rigorous curriculum when they are prepared for it.
Myth #4: Children living in poverty are willfully disrespectful and disobedient.
When faced with disruptive students who use foul language and act out, teachers often assume that the students are purposefully creating chaos and confusion. But that’s not the case, Jensen says.
“Healthy people don’t act like that,” he says, noting that exposure to chronic stress (which can be an effect of poverty) creates a tendency to shrink back or lash out in any situation in which one feels she is losing control. “This is just how the brain works biologically. The brain is screaming, ‘Danger, danger! You might get hurt. You might lose control.’ And then says either, ‘Run and hide’ or ‘Stand up for yourself.’”
Myth #5: Rigorous discipline is required to help children living in poverty get ahead.
Contrary to popular belief, cracking down on misbehaving, misunderstood students facing the challenges of poverty isn’t a path to success. As Jensen writes in Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind, “they need loving, caring role models, not prison guards.”
And yet children of color and those who live in poverty are suspended at rates up to three times higher than white or more affluent students, according to data from The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.
Strict consequences for behaviors that may be adaptive in other circumstances creates an adversarial relationship between the teacher and student. It does little to build students’ coping skills. A far more effective approach is to acknowledge the student’s frustration and help her figure out better ways to get what she wants and needs.
These myths about poverty and the offensive stereotypes about children living in poverty inhibit educators’ ability to effectively teach. If you really want to help children flourish, it’s time to retire these five myths.