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While we often assume that learning is up to each individual and that kids who put in the most effort tend to learn more, the reality says otherwise. Poverty and its many disadvantages can handicap learners before they even begin school and lead them to fall behind classmates or even quit school in frustration.

Here’s a look at how poverty impacts education and what can be done to fight it.

1. Disadvantages Due to Parental Lifestyles

low income housing in city
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Poor families are less likely to be able to afford proper nutrition and sometimes simply don’t have enough food at home.

Poor families are less likely to be able to afford proper nutrition and sometimes simply don’t have enough food at home. With little financial education and low-earnings, poor families might have to send their kids to school without breakfast or lunch. A 2008 study shows that not eating enough can reduce the brain's capacity to learn, and poor students quickly end up falling behind their classmates. 

Children who were exposed to drug use before birth can have cognitive deficiencies. Meanwhile, children who witness violence or experience household stress can also experience learning limitations due to an inability to cope with the situation. These conditions are much more likely to occur in low-income families.

However, cities across the country offer free parenting workshops in person and online to help parents give their kids a better start. Free classes in parenting, nutrition, and stress control assist in ensuring that poor children have a chance of doing well in school. Many organizations also offer help to specific groups, such as families with premature babies, children who have disabilities, and kids with learning difficulties. And in addition to its existing free summer breakfast programs, New York is leading the way to better learning: the city has just announced it will be giving free lunches to all public school students.

2. Lack of Poverty-Specific Learning Programs

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Much of the focus on improving education occurs at the national level, and this results in standards that are geared toward the learning population in general.

Much of the focus on improving education occurs at the national level, and this results in standards that are geared toward the learning population in general. This means that poor neighbourhoods must live up to the same criteria as all other neighbourhoods. Compounding this problem is the fact that few schools have the resources to help individuals who are failing at school. They are often treated as a statistic that hurts the school's graduation rate.

However, some schools have developed programs that help poor children catch up to their peers. For now, specialized programs are working on a local level and are founded by people who see the struggles of these poor children every day. However, national recognition of the learning gaps between poor children and their peers would help move funding where it’s needed the most.

3. Reduced Verbal and Reasoning Skills

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Students from impoverished households tend to have lower levels of verbal and reasoning skills than their peers because their parents are less likely to read to them.

Students from impoverished households tend to have lower levels of verbal and reasoning skills than their peers because their parents are less likely to read to them. With longer working hours, lower levels of education, and fewer literary resources, poor parents are unable to give their kids the same level of attention and thus their children learn a much more limited vocabulary. Moreover, poor children have often not been asked to find solutions to problems or received advice on how to handle difficult situations before entering school. As a result, a study done in 1995 found that poor children had heard 32 million fewer words than other students starting school.

On the bright side, organizations like iMentor match volunteer mentors with high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds to work with them on an individual basis to ensure they graduate and make it in college. The National Mentoring Resource Center also offers many resources and access to programs to help kids who need guidance to do better in school.

4. Impaired Development Due to Stress

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Children's brains develop best when they have low exposure to stress in the home.

Children's brains develop best when they have low exposure to stress in the home. Poverty can create a series of emergencies that trigger stress hormones. These hormones have a dampening effect on brain development, which can result in an inability to pay attention, regulate emotions, or develop proper memory function.

But there is hope. Brain plasticity is the ability of the brain to compensate for underdeveloped regions by boosting others. With support from outside the home to help deal better with stress, these kids' brains can naturally overcome these issues.

5. Learned Helplessness

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Some children believe there is nothing they can do to get out of the cycle of poverty.

Many impoverished children have grown up with what is sometimes called "learned helplessness." They believe that the odds are stacked against them and there is nothing they can do to get out of the cycle of poverty and even gang violence in their communities.

Yet the story of Juan Carlos Reyes shows that this doesn’t have to be true. Reyes was regularly cutting class, getting high, and was headed for gang life until school turned him around. After meeting a tough teacher who refused to believe Reyes was a failure, the teen got involved with sports, learned respect and discipline, and overcame his learning difficulties. Thanks to taking part in free school counseling, college visits, and SAT prep classes, Reyes went on to graduate from high school, his first round of college, and is now pursuing a master’s degree.

6. Bad School Conditions

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A 2008 study found that schools that provide a rundown environment affect poor kids just as much as parental neglect does.

A 2008 study found that schools that provide a run down environment affect poor kids just as much as parental neglect does. Schools are often funded by property taxes, and locations with lower property values have less tax money to work with. When a school is in need of repair, lacks books and other resources, and has a hard time retaining teachers, students are negatively impacted. 

Unfortunately, school districts across North America continue to be unable to fix crumbling schools. Federal funding is hard to come by and there’s no organized plan for rebuilding or renewing schools. In the end, school districts or even individual schools are left on their own to form committees to review their building’s needs, create action plans, and work to secure funding to fix their schools.

7.  Being Unaware of the Possibilities

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Many poor children are not taught about the variety of career opportunities within and outside of their communities.

Many poor children are not taught about the variety of career opportunities within and outside of their communities. Growing up poor, they leave school with a general focus on “making money” instead of trying to excel at a career. It's not a matter of lack of motivation; it's a question of lack of information. Schools can educate children about careers and what it takes to succeed on the job, helping poor students aim higher.  

The Bottom Line

Poverty not only affects education at the institutional level, but it also affects learners on a personal level. Opportunities can seem limited for poor students, and the children’s ability and willingness to take advantage of existing opportunities may be limited.

Thankfully, charities and educational organizations are working harder than ever to level the playing field by providing resources for disadvantaged children. They are working to create innovative approaches to enable poor children to learn better and reach higher -- and individual students like Juan Carlos Reyes are proving it can be done.

Now it’s time to take the game from a one-on-one to a team effort: state, provincial, and federal efforts need to work harder to help poor kids graduate school at the top. These kids are our social and economic future. We can’t afford to let them down.