Poverty is one of the biggest predictors of academic success for students. Teachers today are keenly aware of this. Hungry children don’t learn, so we have free-lunch programs, and teachers keep extra apples and crackers in our classrooms in a basket for whoever needs them. We have annual trainings to look out for students who come to school in the same clothes day after day, or who make comments about living in hotels, or not having a place to stay tonight. We keep a vigilant eye out for homelessness in its many forms, and intervene when possible. We have “adopt a family” holiday drives.
Adults who work in schools know that socioeconomic status is a sensitive topic for many of our students, so we do what we can in an anonymous way. If we go on a field trip, we use school funds, rather than ask families to pay (sometimes as little as seven dollars). This way we avoid any uncomfortable conversations. At my last few schools, we didn’t give parents a school supply list at the beginning of the year; sometimes the district would provide each classroom with school supply materials, sometimes the PTA would fundraise for us, and sometimes we teachers would supply them ourselves.
How I Deal with Issues of Socioeconomic Status in my Classroom
Now, it’s not like we always know who has money and who doesn’t. When I take attendance in the morning, there isn’t a mark on the roster for who gets a free lunch and who doesn’t. But some of my second graders say things that give me a peek into their minds, and how they understand socioeconomic status.
I don’t actually keep extra granola bars, apples, and orange juice cartons in my classroom. The school I work at has a shelf in the cafeteria with these leftover food items available, but I require my second grade students to ask me before helping themselves, and only at snack times, so that we prioritize eating at eating times, classwork at classwork times, etc.
One Family’s Approach: Have Conversations about Issues of Socioeconomic Status at Home
One day, an administrator let me know she caught one of my students eating a leftover strawberry muffin in the bathroom, and had made a big mess with the crumbs, before coming outside to recess with the rest of the class I was upset with this student’s dishonesty. I wondered about how to handle it. We walked outside for dismissal, and, as I was asking her what happened, why she took the muffin without asking, her father came to pick her up and overheard us talking. It turns out that they had decided to start buying school lunch, but not school breakfast. They wanted to sit down every morning and have breakfast as a family, at home. If the student wanted more snacks, she was supposed to tell her parents so they could pick some to pack in her lunchbox. She was not supposed to take the freebies. Those were for families who really need the assistance, but we do not need that assistance, her father said.
This conversation revealed to me that this family has conversations about what healthy eating looks like, and where food comes from, and what it costs. The father used the word assistance, and implied that we can afford what we need, while others cannot. I was pleasantly surprised, because so many of my students would throw away so much of their food at lunchtime, then ask later for those leftovers from the cafeteria shelf. Many of my students don’t have these conversations at home.
Children Behave Childishly around Food (Duh)
Students whose families struggle financially will often have strange habits around food, and getting enough of it. I have seen students hoard extra milk cartons in their desks, past their expiration dates. I have seen students bring entire boxes of cereal to school as a “snack,” even though they get a school lunch every day. I have students, and this may have nothing to do with financial stability, who will sneak one potato chip at a time, from their desk, during our math block, even though we just had breakfast twenty minutes ago, and our next snack time is an hour from now.
I try to approach these behaviors with understanding, but consistency, and an adherence to the rules. Throw away the expired milk, we can get you a fresh one. You may have one cup of cereal as a snack. Put the box back in your backpack. Did you eat your breakfast a moment ago? You did? That’s very good. Please put the chips away then, and save them for snack time. Let’s focus on our work now.
Regardless of Socioeconomic Status, Kids will Push Boundaries, Not out of Malice, but out of Curiosity
I think it’s important to have these conversations with kids. They try to push boundaries, and see what they can get away with, which is natural at this age. When they hear that the cafeteria snacks are “free,” or that they “can” take one if they “need” it, they don’t know what that means. They think “free” means “abundant,” and that “can” means “should”, and that “need” means “I want one bite but I don’t really like pears but my friend is getting one so can I get one too?” Their lunchbox contains several strawberries, an appropriately portioned ziplock bag of unseasoned popcorn, and one of those apple-slice-and-peanutbutter combo snack packs. They clearly have a family prioritizes, and can afford, healthy eating.
How do we teach kids to be grateful for what they have, while also anonymously getting assistance to those who need it, without making anyone uncomfortable for taking the extra help, and without making anyone feel left out for NOT getting the bonus snacks? It’s a difficult line to tiptoe, but I suggest that every family start these conversations at home.