How Does Poverty Affect Student Learning?

How Does Poverty Influence Learning?

People living in poverty are just as diverse as people living in any other socioeconomic class, according to research. They represent, as do other groups, a diverse range of values, beliefs, dispositions, experiences, backgrounds, and life opportunities that are unique to them. To be responsive to the needs of our students, it is beneficial for educators to consider the constraints that poverty frequently places on people’s lives, particularly children, as well as how such conditions affect learning and academic performance. Poverty has an impact on intervening factors, which in turn have an impact on people’s outcomes (Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 1997). Students’ health and well-being, literacy and language development, access to physical and material resources, and level of mobility are some of the factors that must be considered.

Health and Well-Being

These factors are interconnected, and one factor can exacerbate the effects of another. Children’s physical and cognitive development are negatively impacted by factors such as substandard housing, inadequate medical care, and poor nutrition. Premature births and low birth weights are also detrimental to a child’s physical and cognitive development. Students’ ability to benefit from school is influenced by a variety of factors. Students’ mental health (Winters & Cowie, 2009), self-efficacy (Conrath, 1988, 2001), self-image (Ciaccio, 2000a, 2000b), and motivation to do well in school can all be negatively impacted by living in daily economic hardship (Winters & Cowie, 2009). (Beegle, 2006).

Language and Literacy Development

Children from low-income families frequently arrive at school behind their more affluent peers in terms of literacy and language development, and this is especially true for girls. As Susan Neuman (2008) points out in her book Educating the Other America, more than 50 years of research has shown that “children who are poor hear a smaller number of words with more limited syntactic complexity and fewer conversation-eliciting questions, making it difficult for them to quickly acquire new words and to discriminate between words” (p. 5). The availability of reading materials for students from low-income families differs significantly from that of their more affluent peers, according to a substantial body of literature (Allington & McGill-Franzen, 2008).

Material Resources

Families who are struggling to make ends meet frequently find themselves unable to provide additional material resources for their children. Among other things, they may have limited access to high-quality daycare, limited availability of before- and after-school care, and limited physical space in their homes to create private or quiet study environments. They may not have access to a computer or the financial resources necessary to complete projects outside of the classroom.


Another type of constraint placed on families by poverty is the inability to provide stable housing for their members. Students frequently relocate from one location to another because their parents are looking for work or are dealing with other issues that necessitate the relocation of their family. Students who move frequently hurt their academic and social lives almost always.

A great deal is known about the far-reaching effects of poverty on a student’s ability to learn. Understanding these factors provides educators with invaluable knowledge that they can apply in their efforts to support and educate economically disadvantaged students. Students from low-income families do not have lower expectations when they attend high-poverty, high-performing schools, as this knowledge has shown. On the contrary, it fosters empathy as well as an understanding of the differentiation, scaffolding, and support that students may require to meet high academic standards. Similar to high-poverty, high-performing schools, any school that enrolls students who live in poverty should make every effort to gain as much understanding as possible of the life circumstances of the students enrolled in the school.

When children and adolescents realize that their teachers are concerned about them and are making every effort to relate to the realities of their lives, they are far more likely to put their trust in them and to actively participate in their education.


Allington, R., and McGill-Franzen, A. (in press) (2008). “Do you have any books?” Educational Leadership, volume 65, number 7, pages 20-23.
Beegle, D. M., et al (2006). See the plight of the poor… and make a difference! Discover the pieces that have been missing in the process of assisting people to move out of poverty. Tigard, OR: Communication Across Cultural and Language Barriers.
J. Ciaccio is an author who has written several books (2000a). It is our goal to assist children in performing well on state-mandated tests. Education Digest, vol. 65, no. 5, p. 21.
J. Ciaccio is an author who has written several books (2000b). “The opportunity for a teacher to achieve immortality.” Education Digest, vol. 65, no. 6, p. 44-48.
Conrath, J., and Conrath, J. (1988). Secondary dropout prevention is the focus of a full-year prevention curriculum. Gig Harbor, Washington: The author.
Conrath, J., and Conrath, J. (2001). “Change the odds for young people: Next steps for alternative education,” a report by the National Center for Alternative Education. Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 82, no. 8, p. 585-587.
Duncan, G.J., and Brooks-Gunn, J. (in press) (1997). The ramifications of growing up in poverty. The Russell Sage Foundation is based in New York.
Neuman, S. B., et al (2008). Educating the other America: Leading experts address issues such as poverty, literacy, and academic achievement in our educational institutions. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company, Baltimore, Maryland.