The Science of Learning Blog

January 26, 2012

Helping Low-SES Students Thrive

BY Bill Jenkins, PhD

An image of an adult man reading to a little boy and a little girl

Studies and statistics have clearly demonstrated the link between low achievement and low socioeconomic status or SES. Still, studies have also shown that given the right conditions, every student – including those from less fortunate circumstances – have the opportunity to succeed. Not only that, but the kinds of changes that can increase achievement are available to every household, regardless of SES.

Factors linked to low-SES have been shown to have an effect upon readiness for school and achievement once a child has entered school. Circumstances include a household’s lack of financial wherewithal to devote to learning resources such as books, supplies and computers. Other contributing factors include lack of parental involvement; only 36% of low SES parents read to their kindergartners, compared to 62% in the highest SES students (Coley, 2002). In addition, parents of low SES households tend to be dual-income or single parent families who have limited time and energy at home to devote to meaningful engagement with their children.

That said, many successful students do come from low-SES homes. While some of this success can be attributed to the simple innate resiliency and drive arising from within the student, research has been able to tease out a number of common factors in such homes, where certain practices are clearly contributing to student success. 

Factors for Success

In 2006, Allison Milne and Lee Plourde studied this population, selecting six second-grade students from a Central Washington elementary school who came from low-SES homes but were also high achievers. While the number of students in the study was limited, Milne and Plourde outline a number of common factors in their homes that likely contributed to their success:

  • Educational content in the home:In all households, these students as early learners all had access to learning materials, such as books, writing material and structured time. All students attended preschool or Head Start.
  • Placing value on education:All parents held having an education as an important value, and made efforts to ensure that their children understood this value. Of the participant families, all parents had completed at least through the 10th grade.
  • Positive, supportive relationships:Regardless of family structure (single mother, guardian, two-parent, etc.), successful children’s families demonstrated patterns of support and open communication. Such parents expressed wanting open, respectful relationships with their children, and spent time with them having more adult-like conversations. They also indicated that they spent time together and had fun with one another. Finally, these families all had support systems of friends and family nearby to lean on in times of need.
  • Understanding of the parental role:When it came to questions about their job as parents, all expressed “eerily similar” answers, such as providing support and guidance at home, and making sure their children understood the essential nature of a good education. They also made sure that they set examples through their own behaviors that communicated such values to their children.

Even though this study was limited in its sample size, the implications and the opportunities are far reaching. If low-SES children have the support and understanding that we see in these households, financial status does not have to be the ultimate determinant of academic achievement.

For further reading:

Factors of a low-SES household: what aids academic achievement?

Education and Socioeconomic Status, American Psychological Association

Related Reading:

Changing the Culture of Poverty by Doing Whatever it Takes

What Educators Can Do About Poverty in American Schools

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