“In 2013, the United States reached an educational milestone. For the first time, a majority of the country’s public school students—51 percent of them, to be precise, fell below the federal government’s threshold for being ‘low income,’ meaning they were eligible for a free or subsidized school lunch. This wasn’t an overnight development; according to data compiled by the Southern Education Foundation, the percentage of American public school students who are low income has been rising steadily since the foundation started tracking the number in 1989. […] Helping poor kids succeed is now, by definition, the central mission of American public schools and, by extension, a central responsibility of the American public” (Paul Tough, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why).
It takes a village to raise a child, and it’s going to take a village to fight childhood poverty in the United States. When we think of poverty, we typically think about third world countries, not the United States—and certainly not the kids that are attending school with our kids. But we must face the facts, there is a 51% chance that our children will learn with, sit by, and/or be friends with another child at school that lives in poverty. The implications of this: children whose most basic needs are not being met at home will have a more challenging time with learning and peer interactions than their counterparts, often requiring more re-direction and one-on-one time from the teacher. Thus, poverty impacts every single student in the classroom in some way. And because it impacts all children (and because it’s the right thing to do), it’s time we start teaching our children at home about what children in poverty may be experiencing and how we can help.
- Educate yourself first. There are numerous online articles and YouTube videos detailing childhood poverty in the United States and the classroom implications of poverty in America. This article from the Washington Post and this video will provide you with a foundation (disclaimer: Tommy’s story always makes me emotional). Another great resource to find the percentage of children on free and reduced lunch in your child’s school district is the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education or on the Kansas side, the Kansas State Department of Education.
- Talk to your children openly and honestly about the difficulties that children in poverty may face. Let them know that some children can’t buy new clothes or school supplies. Explain that some children may live in shelters or motels because they can’t afford a house or an apartment. Depending on the age(s) of your child(ren), you may choose to show video clips, like the one above about Tommy, or this one about a family with a 15-year-old girl and her 13-year-old brother living with their dad in the family vehicle. Videos tend to help children better understand and empathize with what others are experiencing and feeling. Confession: I showed the video about the family living in their vehicle to my four year old. Though her attention span didn’t last throughout the entire video, she now knows that not everyone has a house like she does. This later led to more questions—which I embrace as teaching/learning moments.
- Act. With your child(ren) at your side, act. There are so many ways to help children living in poverty. Here are a few:
- Participate in local school supply, clothing and food drives. Encourage and allow your children to be the ones doing the helping: allow them to pick out school supplies for a child in need, have them gather clothes they have outgrown and take them to your local school district drop off site, and/or have your children pick out food at the store to donate. If you are afraid that your goods are not going to local children or children attending school with your children, don’t hesitate to contact your child’s teacher. Often times, teachers will accept donations on behalf of a child in need and give those items directly to that child or that child’s family. This may be a child that sits right next to yours!
- Encourage your child to become a mentor to a classmate or a younger child (this requires no money). Discuss the importance of being a positive influence over another human being. Perhaps agreeing to be a reading partner before school or agreeing to tutor a younger child in math. Teens may even choose to be a volunteer coach or a big brother or big sister.
- Partner with your child’s teacher to sponsor a child or children. This could look like several different things—it could be a class sponsorship of a family during the holidays, it could be a collection of donated funds to help a disadvantaged youth take music lessons or even an agreement to save change from lunch to help a local family with a car payment. Remember though, make sure your children are the ones doing the helping.
To ensure the best education for all students, we must make sure that all students have their most basic needs met at school, and this is possible! It’s possible if we teach our children at home about poverty and if we teach and empower them to help. We have to be willing to let our children help other children—especially when it may be a friend at school.