General Information

One out of every six children in our schools lives with poverty and its impact. (Report Card on Child Poverty in Ontario, p.1) That means that their parents or caregivers struggle every day to find enough money to meet the basic costs of living: food, housing, and heating. Research shows that children in low-income families have poorer physical health and suffer the effects of poorer nutrition than children in higher-income families. Poor parental health can put these children at a disadvantage even before they are born (e.g., resulting in early difficulties such as low birth weight). When students are dealing with poverty, they can end up excluded from important parts of school life, and they can feel that they do not fit in with other members of the school community. They may face more physical and mental stress and are more likely to be hospitalized and suffer from dental problems. If they come from families who are working poor or otherwise in precarious employment, these difficulties are compounded by lack of benefits.

Impact On Student Success

  • Students who do not have access to regular, healthy meals will have a harder time staying alert and ready to learn through the school day.
  • A student’s need for special education is directly linked to family income. The likelihood of children from low-income families requiring special education is about twice that of children from middle- and high-income families.
  • Students may miss out on many important aspects of school life simply because their families cannot afford the costs of participation, and they or their parents find it too embarrassing or awkward to seek subsidy or support. Students may drop courses or other activities rather than admit that they can’t afford the supplies, fees, clothing, or equipment needed for participation. They may report illness or appointments to avoid special events that their families cannot afford, such as field trips.
  • Students who feel different from their peers will often feel that they do not belong at school. This may put them at greater risk of dropping out of school.
  • Lack of income makes it difficult to afford over-the-counter medication or supplementary medical or dental care, increasing the likelihood that these children will have to do without helpful treatments.
  • Education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty. Education can make all the difference to a student’s future income potential and ability to move beyond the poverty of his/her childhood.
  • Children who live in poverty are often embarrassed by their circumstances and work hard to protect their parents. Make sure that any conversations with children about their circumstances or offers of support for them are conducted in private.
  • Hunger, insecure and unsafe housing, and poor physical health contribute to an increased risk of difficulties in school.
  • Poor children are just as intelligent as other children, but poverty can lead to higher stress levels, poor concentration, and lower functioning vision, hearing, speech, mobility, dexterity, and cognition. Work to recognize the signs of poverty.
  • Adopt a matter-of-fact approach to questions about whether expense is a barrier to participation. When you model that it is normal for schools to offer financial support as needed to ensure that all students can participate, parents will feel less self-conscious about accepting assistance.
  • Consider ways to cost share among parents to reduce the burden on those with lower incomes—e.g., propose a sliding scale for a school activity, trusting that parents who can pay at the higher end of the scale will do so.
  • Plan for inclusive treats and snacks—e.g., consider how to extend the school breakfast programs, which most schools support, to cover periodic hot lunch days as well to help prevent students from feeling socially isolated.
  • Given that 32% of children living in poverty go without food on a regular basis, remember to investigate the possibility of hunger when concentration or behaviour seems to lag.
  • Support and encourage school councils to minimize the impact of poverty for all students in the school.
  • Consider ways to promote low-cost/no-cost access to school resources—e.g., a skates or musical instrument library can help give students access to the equipment they need to take part in school or recreational activities.
  • Make sure that community or school subsidy options are well known to parents and caregivers—e.g., have information available in school foyers or circulated in newsletters.
  • Consider school anti-stigma campaigns so that poverty is not seen as an embarrassing secret but a simple matter of circumstance.
  • Champion meal programs, sliding scales, or fee waiving to ensure that all students can participate in school activities.
  • Search out innovative partnerships that benefit students living in poverty—e.g., ask the piano teacher to give free lessons, encourage judo in the gym after school with sponsorship for some families.
  • Given how important participation in school activities is for a child’s well-being, do not hesitate to ask for school support (e.g., to delay, waive, or reduce a fee) to overcome financial barriers to participation. Schools want to help.
  • With all the stresses that managing poverty can bring, it can be hard to remember to focus on children’s accomplishments at school. But it is so important to make time to help children feel proud of what they accomplish at school and to promote the power of education as a tool for building brighter futures.
  • Ask directly about how poverty may be affecting student and family well-being.
  • Share information regularly regarding social and community supports that help families get access to needed subsidies.
  • Work with families to find practical solutions to overcome the barriers to participation and inclusion that their children might face (e.g., transportation, equipment, lunch money).
  • Find ways for families to use their skills and resources to pay forward the benefits they have received. They will be more likely to ask for and use resources if they know they will have opportunities to return the favour at a later date.