What can I do to support students from lower-income backgrounds?
Imagine that you come from a family of dancers. You grew up learning a variety of dance styles, memorizing their intricate steps, and even choreographing your own routines. You want to share your talents with the world, but there’s an issue. The rest of your society says that dancing isn’t important—that singing is the mark of a true artist. Even if you also happen to have a beautiful voice, imagine what it’s like to have your dancing skills go unrecognized. Imagine everything society is missing out on by not valuing your talents.
This challenge is one that many students who are currently marginalized, such as students from lower-income families, face in school. While studies have shown that students often gain valuable skills and perspectives from their marginalized identities and experiences, schools typically aren’t well set up to recognize and reward these strengths. As we evaluate students based on more traditionally valued skills, we overlook a diverse array of important strengths, such as adaptability, empathy, and being able to work with others to solve real-world problems. As a result, students may be led to feel as though the things that they’ve learned from their marginalized backgrounds are irrelevant to their experiences in school—or even that their backgrounds are an obstacle to their success.
What can we do about it? Research shows that teachers are especially well-positioned to challenge these inequitable norms. They can support the motivation, well-being, and persistence of students from lower-income backgrounds by explicitly recognizing these students’ backgrounds as assets rather than barriers to their success. While creating such strength-based classrooms requires an ongoing commitment to challenging previous ways of thinking, my colleagues and I have developed three recommendations to help get you started as you create courses and lessons that authentically value the unique strengths of students who are often marginalized.
Step 1: Listen to students. The best way to begin to understand students and their strengths is to hear from them directly! Try administering a beginning-of-the-year survey to learn more about their interests and experiences. You can ask students to share something about themselves that other people need to know in order to really understand them. You can also directly encourage them to share a unique skill or perspective that they have but often don’t get to demonstrate in school. To help foster mutual relationships and comfort with students, it’s a good idea to share your own answers to the survey questions before asking them to respond.
Step 2: Evaluate your curriculum. Carefully examine whether your course designs and assignments provide space for a diverse range of student strengths, interests, and perspectives. Where are there opportunities to ensure that marginalized students feel welcomed and valued? Are you incorporating readings from a diverse array of voices? Do you use class examples that may be relevant to the lives and interests of your students? It can be hard to critically evaluate your own courses, so we recommend completing this step with a colleague or two.
Step 3: Design—and redesign. Whether you adapt old materials or develop new ones, this will always be an iterative process. When you try out different approaches, get student input on your materials. Even asking at the end of a class period what students learned about themselves or the topic you covered gives you an opportunity to see what’s working and what can be improved. It’s also helpful to reflect on which students were particularly engaged during a given class period, then think about how you can expand that engagement to other students.
Since her students highlighted their collaborative and problem-solving strengths, for example, a science teacher had them work together to apply course concepts to support community gardening efforts. When she gave students feedback on their work, she also asked for their input on the assignment. She subsequently revised it so that students had more chances to learn about real-world topics they were passionate about, such as climate change.
This work can be hard at first and requires deliberate and ongoing reflection. However, teachers report that once they start challenging traditional ways of “doing school,” they uncover hundreds of opportunities to celebrate students and deepen learning in their classrooms.
The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.