Today, 46 million Americans live below the poverty line, which means one out of five children in the U.S. live in poverty, one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world (Neuman, 2012).

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a family of four with an average income of less than $23,550 is defined as living in poverty, but these federal guidelines sometimes gloss over dramatic regional differences in cost of living.

Factors linked to poverty including crowded housing, unemployment, limited access to transportation and cultural resources, increased incidence of illness and isolation make parenting far harder and more stressful for poor parents. The stress of poverty involves more than just worries about money. It includes hunger, exposure to violence, accidents, discrimination and multiple family transitions/changes (Wadsworth, 2011; Small, 2015). Out of school factors such as poor-quality day care, lack of access to media resources, and environmental toxicity, exert “a powerful and a limiting role in what can actually be achieved” (Nettles, 2008).

These factors inevitably affect child/parent interactions (Ghate and Hazel, 2002, cited in Sime, 2014). As a result, youth disruptive behavior and caregiver stress often coexist (Small, 2015).

Discourses around working class parents as “incompetent” or “in need of help” have been found to reinforce existing education equalities (Sime, 2014). Teachers sometimes discount or misconstrue the beliefs and practices about home-school relationships rooted in cultures different from their own, and teachers can sometimes assume that low-income parents place a lower value on education (Joshi, Eberly & Konzai, 2005), and the research shows that they value education as much as any other parent (DeCastro-Ambrosetti. Accountability measures have further eroded school-home relations straining teacher and principal relationships with families and communities (McAlister, 2013).

Although parents from low income backgrounds might have the willingness to and understanding that they need to engage, they sometimes lack the confidence, the capacity, and the resources that middle class parents have (Peters, 2007, cited in Sime, 2014). Resources that are important in developing partnerships in their children’s schools could include networks of relationships in the community, appropriate information about the value of specific skills within education such as the importance of algebra courses for middle-school students, or how home-learning activities can support academic proficiency in elementary school students. Schools can provide parent education to address these gaps in skills and knowledge among families (Bolivar & Chrispeels, 2011).

Parents sometimes feel inadequate in their knowledge to help their children with their homework or on matters related to higher education (Koshy et. al, 2013). Further complicating efforts to engage families, parents experiencing the stresses associated with poverty often cope by disengaging, a coping strategy that is sometimes effective in the short term but not in the long term (Wadsworth, 2011). Group activities that develop relationships among families can help to provide a welcoming atmosphere and develop a sense of community in the school that may draw in isolated or withdrawn families (Murray, 2009).

If mental health concerns related to stress are affecting how families in poverty are engaging with schools, these families can be provided information about how to seek mental health services, and how to take steps to reduce the negative effects of poverty and stress. In addition, developing a warm school community where families feel welcome can alleviate some stress through sharing with others. Effective engagement relies on relational trust (McAlister, 2013). Building such trust depends on mutually valuing each party’s contribution to student learning.



Bolivar, J. M., & Chrispeels, J. H. (2011). Enhancing parent leadership through social and intellectual capital. American Educational Research Journal, 48(1), 4-38.

DeCastro-Ambrosetti, D. (2005). Do parents value education? Teachers’ perceptions of minority parents. Multicultural Education, 13(2), 44-46.

Jiang, Y., Granja, M. R., & Koball, H. (2017). Basic Facts about Low-Income Children: Children under 18 Years, 2015. www.nccp.org

Joshi, A., Eberly, J., & Konzal, J. (2005). Dialogue across cultures: Teachers’ perceptions about communication with diverse families. Multicultural Education, 13(2), 11-13.

Koshy, V., Brown, J., Jones, D., & Portman Smith, C. (2013). Exploring the views of parents of high ability children living in relative poverty. Educational Research, 55(3), 304-320.

Ladd, H. (2012). Poverty and education: confronting the evidence. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 13(2), 203-227.

McAlister, S. (2013). Why Community Engagement Matters in School Turnaround. Voices in Urban Education, (36), 35-42.

Murray, C. (2009). Parent and teacher relationships as predictors of school engagement and functioning among low-income urban youth. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 29(3), 376-404. doi:10.1177/0272431608322940

Nettles, S. M., Caughy, M.O., O’Campo, P.J. (Mar. 2008). School adjustment in the early grades:  toward an integrated model of neighborhood, parental, and child processes. Review of Educational Research 78: 1, 3-32.

Neuman, J. (Editor & Director) (Nov. 20, 2012.) Poor Kids: Frontline PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/poor-kids/

Olivos, E. M., & Mendoza, M. (2010). Immigration and educational inequality: Examining Latino immigrant parents’ engagement in U.S. public schools. Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies,, 8(3), 339-357. https://doi.org/10.1080/15562948.2010.501301

Poverty thresholds by size of family and number of children. (2016, May 16) United States Census Bureau. U.S. Department of Commerce. http://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/income-poverty/historical-poverty-thresholds.html

Sime, D., & Sheridan, M. (2014). ‘You want the best for your kids’: Improving educational outcomes for children living in poverty through parental engagement. Educational Research, 56(3), 327-342.

Small, L. A., Jackson, J., Gopalan, G., & McKay, M. M. (2015). Meeting the Complex Needs of Urban Youth and Their Families through the 4Rs 2Ss Family Strengthening Program: The “Real World” Meets Evidence-Informed Care. Research on Social Work Practice, 25(4), 433-445.

Wadsworth, M., Raviv, T., Santiago, C., & Etter, E. (2011). Testing the Adaptation to Poverty-Related Stress Model: Predicting Psychopathology Symptoms in Families Facing Economic Hardship. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 40(4), 646-657.


Provide families with information on local and national resources

One way to help families experiencing poverty is by connecting them with local resources. Some families may not be aware of all of the resources available to them, and schools have an excellent opportunity to connect them with these services. For example, educators in Hawai‘i can provide their families with the following suggested resources. 

  1. This list includes resources from the Hawai‘i DHS, DOH, DOE, and EOEL intended to address basic needs and support children’s health and development. Areas include childcare/education, food/nutrition, health/wellness, economic supports, and housing/shelter. SharingOurUluResourceList2_24_20
  2. This document provides information on the Kalihi-Palama Health Center which provides families with health care, medications, family planning, dental, homeless medical, and several other services in multiple languages. Contact information for their primary care locations is included. Community Resources 2020 update may 29 2020
  3. Schools can also create and provide to parents a list of local food banks/pantries and community food resources, thrift stores, and other local resources in their area

In order to better understand U.S. food stamps and other federal program, teachers can research SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children).

Find out: How does an individual go about applying for these benefits? What benefits and services do SNAP and WIC provide? What is required to be eligible for these programs? What is required to receive food stamps? How can someone apply for SNAP or WIC? What foods can an individual purchase with SNAP? How can someone apply to receive to support from WIC?

Develop a handout for families in your school community about how to obtain services through SNAP or WIC. For information on these services, go to:


InTASC Model Core Teaching Standards

Standard #9: Professional Learning and Ethical Practice

9(d) The teacher actively seeks professional, community, and technological resources, within and outside the school, as supports for analysis, reflection, and problem-solving.

Standard #10: Leadership and Collaboration 

10(b) The teacher works with other school professionals to plan and jointly facilitate learning on how to meet diverse needs of learners.

10(m) The teacher understands that alignment of family, school, and community spheres of influence enhances student learning and that discontinuity in these spheres of influence interferes with learning.

Create a "care closet"

Students whose families are experiencing poverty may arrive at school hungry and in need of basic toiletry and clothing items. Being hungry makes focusing on classroom material and activities difficult, and students may not feel motivated to participate if their basic needs are not being met. Abraham Maslow developed what is known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. He identified needs that range from lower level to higher level needs. According to his influential theory a person’s basic needs (lowest level, i.e., physiological, safety) must be met before any higher level needs (i.e. learning, self-actualization) can be addressed (images of this hierarchy can be found through a Google search).

One way that schools can help address some of these needs is by creating a “care closet” containing clothes, toiletries, school supplies, and snacks. Donations could be contributed by families in the school, school staff, and the local community. Students could visit the closet and take the items they need. Additionally, local schools who also have “care closets” could exchange clothing donations in order to reduce the risk of any unwanted attention students may receive by wearing clothing that someone else at their school donated. “Care closets” can be established by partnerships between the school and the PTA, local churches, and community businesses.

For example, this article describes how one teacher began a “care closet” at her school: https://www.edsurge.com/news/2019-04-15-students-get-food-clothing-and-more-from-care-closet-built-by-their-teacher

Talk with other teachers and school staff about how you could establish a “care closet” at your school. Aspects to consider include:

  • What space is available in your school that could be used for a “care closet?”
  • What clothing and hygiene items do you want to make available?
  • Will you ask for volunteers to help run the “care closet?” (This could be an excellent family engagement opportunity – parents/grandparents/aunties/uncles could volunteer to help during the closet’s open hours)
  • Which local business could you partner with to seek donations?

InTASC Model Core Teaching Standards

Standard #2: Learning Differences

2(j) The teacher understands that learners bring assets for learning based on their individual experiences, abilities, talents, prior learning, and peer and social group interactions, as well as language, culture, family, and community values.

Standard #10: Leadership and Collaboration 

10(m) The teacher understands that alignment of family, school, and community spheres of influence enhances student learning and that discontinuity in these spheres of influence interferes with learning.

The 4Rs/2 S’s intervention program

The 4Rs (Rules, Responsibilities, Relationships, Respect) and 2S's (Stress, Support) program provides evidence-based counseling strategies for families dealing with children (ages 7-11) who are oppositionally defiant or experiencing behavioral difficulties.

The 4R’s/2S’s Intervention program to counsel students experiencing behavioral difficulties suggests strategies for counseling parents and students through turbulent times. This program comes from the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research. The full program lasts 16 weeks, and is described in detail at http://mcsilver.nyu.edu/4Rs-2Ss

Here are a few strategies from this successful program.

During meetings with parents,

  • Check in with families and socialize for a few minutes.

After parents and students have gotten settled in,

  • Acknowledge and discuss possible barriers to engaging with the school.
    • Barriers to engagement can include concrete obstacles such as time, competing priorities, transportation, and child care.
    • Perceptual obstacles include attitudes about mental health, stigmas, negative experiences, and parents’ own stresses and needs.  Perceptual barriers are often not voiced verbally. The onus is on the teacher to identify and discuss these perceptual barriers. Obstacles can come from either the parents or the teacher.
  • Validate parents and take time to understand their perspectives.
    • Parents who feel blamed are at high risk to disengage.
    • Parents who don’t trust the provider are at high risk to disengage.
    • Youth may have concerns about privacy and confidentiality.
    • Cultural and racial differences can lead to misunderstandings.
  • Empower parents.
    • Help parents identify barriers to change.
    • Work with families to problem solve.
    • Provide positive feedback.
  • Identity strengths.
    • Ask: What’s working well in your family?
    • Prompt (for the parent): Think about something positive you can say about your child. Explain what you mean by “strengths.” (Have a list of strengths ready to help families who are struggling to identify their child’s strengths.) Examples: My child gets along well with others. My child gets along with his siblings. My child is quick to understand. My child is funny.
    • Prompt (for the child): Think about something positive you can say about your parent.

Adapted from the 4Rs and 2 S’s for Strengthening Families. McSilver Institute for Poverty, Policy, and Research.  http://mcsilver.nyu.edu/4Rs-2Ss