The keys to helping students in poverty thrive

Role models, rich experiences, and social skills

WITH POVERTY ON THE RISE in many communities across the state, and with a noticeable uptick in youth violence this summer in Worcester and the Boston area, many of our youth face an uphill battle to fulfill their potential. The data clearly shows that youth from under-resourced, low-income communities, statistically achieve far less education and earning capacity than their more affluent peers. This gap results not only from the effects of poverty, race, family stress, and neighborhood crime but the lack of adequate resources and learning opportunities both inside and outside of the classroom. To thrive, these students and their families need a support system that can help foster the skills needed to succeed in school and in life. The following are a few ideas on how we as a community can support under-resourced students throughout the school year.

Positive Role Models — Children spend far less time in the classroom each year than they do at home and out of school. Teachers partner with parents to ensure that children get to school on time, that homework is completed, and that studying and reading are a priority. Unfortunately, many parents in poverty struggle just to provide the basics for living, let alone the basics for academic success. By providing under-resourced families with strong and enduring, one-to-one relationships with caring, responsible adult mentors for their children, we have the opportunity to change these children’s lives for the better, forever. Having the support of someone who believes in them, listens to them, and models positive behaviors, children begin to make better choices, changing the course of their future.

Foster Wendy

Our research has proven that formal mentoring programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters have a powerful and positive impact on the children we serve including improved attitudes toward school, improved relationships with peers and family, and lower likelihood of skipping school and initiating drug and alcohol use. By adding stability and consistency to a child’s life, particularly in the form of an adult mentor, children have a greater sense of pride and responsibility. Knowing that someone cares, supports, and wants the best for them adds a level of motivation as they now are held accountable for their actions. Due in large part to these ripple effects, the presence of a positive role model in a child’s life has a lasting, life changing, impact.

Educational Resources and Experiences — Children in under-resourced communities often lack access to educational and enrichment experiences outside of school that are critical to their development. One stark reminder of this is the ratio of books to children in middle-class neighborhoods compared to low-income neighborhoods. At 13 books per child in middle-class neighborhoods, low-income neighborhoods sadly average just one book per every 300 children. The lack of exposure to books and other reading materials puts these children at a disadvantage from day one of their schooling.

Many youth are also confined to their neighborhoods, or within the walls of their apartment, due to violence or a lack of monetary resources. Exposing youth to new people, places, and life experiences helps develop their character while encouraging a love of learning and exploration. While books and enrichment experiences alone won’t close the gap, they are simple, effective, and inexpensive ways we as a community can open up the world for a child and instill a love of learning, helping children see the connection between academic success and future success. 

Social Skills Development — Study after study has shown that success in school and in life is not just about cognitive development. Children need to develop critical social and emotional skills, sometimes called “noncognitive skills” or “21st century skills.” Research shows that “one of the most powerful and cost-effective interventions is to help children develop core social and emotional strengths like self-management, self-awareness, and social awareness — strengths that are necessary for students to fully benefit from their education, and succeed in many other areas of life.” In fact, recent research has shown that children who scored high on social skills were four times as likely to graduate from college as those who scored low and that social skills are a predictor of many other factors including likelihood of stable employment and getting arrested.

Schools have recognized the importance of developing students’ social and emotional skills, yet developing these skills often takes a backseat to academic testing and curriculum standards. We know that children develop social and emotional skills through role models, guidance from adults, and by building trusting relationships with consistent, caring adults. We must continue to advocate for the importance of programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters that develop social and emotional skills in children and allowing schools and teachers to integrate activities into the classroom that will strengthen children’s academic prospects through greater responsibility, self-esteem, determination, and leadership. 

Meet the Author

Wendy Foster

President and CEO, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay
Positive role models, educational resources and experiences, and social-skill development are vital building blocks to academic and life success. The cost to deliver these resources is very modest, but it does require engagement throughout every sector to ensure every child has the possibility of a different future. We already know the cost to society when any child doesn’t get that chance.

Wendy Foster is the president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay.