Think about the last time you were hungry. Maybe you were busy grading papers and lost track of time, or you had a late parent conference and put off eating until you got home. Whatever the reason was, it probably left you feeling irritable and cranky until you were able to eat. Often when we’re hungry, all we can think about it food.

Now picture what it would feel like to be a child who has to go to school hungry because her family didn’t have enough money for food. Imagine trying to concentrate on what the teacher is saying while your stomach rumbles, and all you can think about is whether your teacher will be able to help you get a lunch to eat today. Imagine, not being able to have clean clothes or the supplies you need for school because your family can’t afford them. Or think about what it would be like to have to get yourself to school because both parents are at work or are not around to support you. Couple that with anxiety, depression, stress, or the effects of trauma and the complexities compound.

Some Eye-opening Stats on Children and Poverty

That is what life is like for so many children who live in poverty – and perhaps even some students in your classroom. In 2014, there were an estimated 46.7 million people living at or below the poverty line with 23% of the total population consisting of children under 18 who live in poverty. Not only do they struggle to have their basic needs met; they are also at risk for higher levels of mental illness, including anxiety. Even with the many services available, not all children have access to the mental health care they need, especially in low-income areas. The services that many of us take for granted are often scarce in low-income areas; and if they exist, families may not know how to access them.

Not surprisingly, a child’s mental health can be negatively affected just by growing up in poverty. According to the Urban Institute, recent research has shown that when children grow up in poverty, the stress of everyday living occupies most of their cognitive functioning, meaning fewer cognitive resources are left for education. In other words, it’s hard to concentrate when you are hungry, stressed, exposed to trauma, and tired. This means that it may be more difficult for a student to pay attention in class and achieve his or her full potential.

Additionally, stress hormones can negatively affect a child’s brain development according to the Urban Institute, and can also affect their mental health. Exposure to prolonged stress has been shown to be linked to inflammation, which can negatively affect both the child’s brain and body.

One research study found that children growing up in low-income housing in Chicago experienced seven times greater levels of anxiety and worry than children nationwide. Children in low-income areas are at a greater risk of being exposed to trauma, abuse and neglect, violence, unstable environments, and lack of adequate nutrition.

Make Your Classroom a Safer Place for Impoverished Kids

With all of these factors piling up, it’s important for teachers to understand what’s happening, and avoid adding to any child’s anxiety. Fortunately there are steps you can take to do this.

“Despite the bleak outlook for many of these students, you can do a great deal to make school a meaningful haven for them,” writes Julia G. Thompson, a public school teacher and author of The First-Year Teachers’ Survival Guide.

She recommends helping your students who live in poverty by implementing some of these suggestions:

  • >Stay vigilant for taunting and bullying of disadvantaged students and act quickly to stop it.
  • Listen to them; they may need to develop a strong relationship with a stable, trusted adult in order to thrive.
  • Boost their self-esteem by praising their successes in school, instead of focusing on external things. Don’t make comments about their clothes or belongings (unless they violate your school’s dress code.)
  • Remember that school may be the only place low-income students can see and use printed materials. Provide magazines, newspapers and books to be used in class.
  • Keep your requirements for school supplies reasonable; be aware that not all students can buy what you ask for. You may want to create a bank of shared supplies your students can borrow if they run out.
  • Be aware of extra costs of field trips, etc. Have a plan to allow all students to go, even ones that may not be able to pay.

Perhaps most importantly, Ms. Thompson says you must keep expectations high for all students, regardless of their economic status

“Poverty does not mean ignorance,” she reminds us.

Meanwhile, make sure your students have access to free or reduced lunch programs. You may need to provide paperwork and help the family complete the forms. And if your community has other services that you feel would benefit your student, make the family aware of it, privately.

While there is still a great deal of work that needs to be done to help children rise above the stressors of living in poverty, these simple changes in your classroom can truly make a difference.


Julia Marie Hogan, LCPC

Counselor + Writer

Julia Marie Hogan is a counselor in Chicago and owner of Vita Optimum Counseling & Consulting, LLC. She also leads workshops and writes on topics related to self-care, relationships and mental health. Her book, It's Ok to Start with You is all about the power of embracing your authentic self through self-care. She is passionate about empowering individuals to be their most authentic selves. You can find more of her writing online at juliamariehogan.com.

Contact Julia Hogan

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The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.