Strategies to Help Students in Poverty Succeed


June 17, 2014


Portraits of Debbie Ellis and Gerry Crocker
Education Northwest’s Debbie Ellis and Gerry Crocker

It’s easy to think that the main difference between students who come from poverty and their more affluent peers is their exposure to learning opportunities. However, poverty manifests itself often in unexpected ways in the classroom, and there are specific strategies schools and families can use to help students succeed.

At this week’s Confederation of Oregon School Administrators (COSA) conference in Seaside, Oregon, Education Northwest’s Gerry Crocker and Debbie Ellis will be presenting on this topic in a session titled “Engaging Students, Engaging Families: Strategies That Work.”

“Students in poverty haven’t always had the same experiences as their classmates,” says Crocker. “Their home life is often stressful and can lead to a sense of hopelessness that can cause them to become, in some cases, passive and quiet at school, and in other cases, angry. Teachers can misread this as students being uncooperative or sarcastic.”

As a basic approach, Ellis suggests that teachers uncover their students’ motivations, especially when problem behaviors emerge. “Knowing the motivation is the first step to changing the behavior,” she says.

Ellis, whose work focuses on family engagement, offers strategies in her COSA session that schools can use to effectively engage families in their children’s education. She stresses the importance of getting to know who students and families are outside of the school setting. “If you don’t know them, you can’t engage them,” she notes.

Family engagement doesn’t need to happen in the school. For instance, teachers can communicate an issue with a parent, and then the parent and child can talk about it and work on it at home. The teachers may never know what was discussed, but because of the communication with the parent, the student’s behavior changes. Partnerships like this can help students succeed. —Debbie Ellis

Crocker’s part of the session centers on classroom engagement strategies. She gives an example of teachers expecting students to respond to classroom tasks in ways they were never taught. “We need to show them how we expect them to respond, not tell them,” she says. “Rather than single out students who lack academic experience, we should invite them into a conversation about what we expect them our classroom exchanges to look like.”

Drawing from Carol Dweck’s “mindset” approach, Crocker suggests that teachers focus on praising effort and affirming students’ capacity to learn, rather than viewing them as “smart” or not. Citing another researcher, Eric Jensen, she suggests infusing movement as much as possible into classroom activities and letting students make choices to give them more control over certain situations. “Withholding recess when students misbehave is the worst thing we can do,” she says. “Exercise has been shown to boost glucose levels and key neurotransmitters that increase executive brain function—working memory and attention—the very things we want from students. Exercise benefits all students.”

Other Education Northwest Sessions

If you are attending the COSA conference, June 18–20 at the Seaside Civic and Convention Center, look for these additional presentations by Education Northwest.

Data: Enough Already or Ready Enough?
Nanci Schneider, Practice Expert, Education Northwest
Lisa Harlan, Director School Improvement, Oregon Department of Education

Developing Educator Evaluation, Compensation, and Professional Development Systems: Lessons Learned From Oregon Teacher Incentive Fund Districts
Bev Pratt, TIF Grant Manager, The Chalkboard Project
Havala Hanson, Senior Research Advisor, Education Northwest
Jay Mathisen, Assistant Superintendent, Bend-LaPine School District
Frank Caropelo, Assistant Superintendent, Greater Albany Public School District
Ken Parshall, Assistant Superintendent, Salem-Keizer School District

Developing a Schoolwide Approach to CCSS Writing With 6+1 Traits
Jacqueline Raphael, Manager, 6+1 Trait® Writing Program, Education Northwest

Do You Need Super Powers To Be a Good Supervisor?
Nanci Schneider, Practice Expert, Education Northwest

Implementing Effective PLCs To Support Learning
Mark Endsley, Senior Advisor, Education Northwest