Generational Poverty in Schools

Teaching learners who come from a background of generational poverty poses various challenges due to the unproductive beliefs and attitudes they bring into the school environment. Such students, for instance, may find it difficult to keep up with the schedules and deadlines required at school due to their socialization in a home environment where little emphasis is placed on goal-setting. Payne (2005), differentiating generational poverty and situational poverty, highlights that generational poverty is where poverty has persisted for at least two generations, whereas situational poverty arises where a particular event (e.g. death of the family’s breadwinner) occasions a lack of resources. For children brought up in a background of generational poverty, the perception that “society owes one a living” (Payne (2005, p.48), may prevent their effective learning in an environment that encourages individual initiative. As such, faced with a class of students from poor backgrounds, instructors and administrators need to find ways to help the students overcome the inherent barriers to effective learning.

Growing up in an environment laden with extreme poverty presents barriers for children to achieve the emotional competencies necessary to learn effectively in a classroom environment that favors children from middle-class families. Evans (2004) observes that “low-income children in comparison to middle-income children are exposed to greater levels of violence, family disruption, and separation from their family” (p. 78). As such, such children lack the support system at home, which is important in helping children develop the right attitude towards school. For instance, Beegle (2003), drawing from her personal experience with schooling while from a poor family, notes that, even at the formative stages of her education, she had come to associate school with stress: “the stress of trying to arrive on time; having the right clothing, shoes, and lunch; and completing homework projects” (p. 11). As such, the school environment becomes an extension of the violent and emotion-depriving environment that such children face at home, which, according to Payne (2005), becomes another avenue for the students to pass time (acquire a job), rather than a platform to transform their future lives (building a career).

When teachers and school administrators do not identify the students from poor backgrounds and adopt ways to address their needs, the school system can become an impediment instead of a mediator of effective learning. Machin (2006) for instance highlights this noting that, “whilst education can break … intergenerational cycles of disadvantage, it can also act to reinforce them: for example, if education policy [and practices are] not designed with egalitarian notions in mind” (p.7). In respect to the classroom environment, students from a poor background could find it challenging to observe the levels of organization required to achieve effective learning under conventional approaches. Payne (2005) for instance contends that such learners “are very disorganized, frequently lose papers, don’t have signatures … [and] bring many reasons why something is missing, or the paper is gone …” (p. 60). When the teacher is unable to attribute such behavior to the student’s poor background and ineffective socialization process, one could adopt punitive measures, which, instead of alleviating the problem the student is facing, enhances the student’s lack of interest and commitment to the class work.

Another trait that may impede learning for students from poor backgrounds is the desire for entertainment as a way to escape the poor conditions they find themselves in. Noting this, Payne (2005) argues that entertainment becomes the source of respite when one can merely survive. As such, families experiencing generational poverty will place more emphasis on entertainment resources at the expense of investment in resources, such as education, that can alleviate their condition. Due to prioritization of entertainment, the families will, for instance, not stress the importance of learning to their children. Instead, children get socialized into a community that does not urge them to take initiative to become better in their future lives. For instance, children are inculcated into the perception that “a job is about making enough money to survive … not about [building] a career” (Payne, 2005, p. 50). Accordingly, the students will come to the class with lower expectations since they are only in pursuit of a job that guarantees surviving wages rather than one upon which they can build a successful career.

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