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How Understanding Poverty Can
Help Low-Income
Children Learn


Teachers often come from vastly different social and economic classes than their students, which can lead to culture clashes in the classroom. A book by Dr. Ruby K. Payne helps educators understand low-income students, and discusses ways to improve their learning. Included: Tips for making lessons relevant to students from all social classes.

During her career as an educator, Dr. Ruby K. Payne began to realize that the behavior of some low income students might seem wrong to teachers from middle-income backgrounds, but made sense in the context of students' lives. Payne began to explain her observations to other teachers, and soon was in so much demand, that she found herself writing a book about the topic.

A Framework for Understanding Poverty, published by aha! Process, explains to teachers how economic class differences in an educational setting can make teaching and learning challenging. Payne discusses the social cues or "hidden rules" that govern how people think and interact in society -- and the significance of those rules in a classroom. She also speaks at about 200 workshops and seminars a year about understanding the impact of poverty and helping low-income children learn.

Payne talked with Education World about how misperceptions about low-income students and a middle-income frame of reference can hamper the education of students in poverty.


Dr. Ruby K. Payne

Education World: How did you become interested in studying the influence of economic and social classes on how children learn and how teachers respond to them?


Dr. Ruby K. Payne: We had a school with discipline problems when I was the director of staff development for the Goose Creek Consolidated School District in Baytown, Texas. When I explained to the assistant principal the reasons for the behaviors, she asked me to come talk to her staff. I did. The information spread word of mouth. Soon I had individuals outside the district asking for information. I wrote the book to explain it because I could not take all the phone calls. The information came from living among the poor and the wealthy -- in other words, out of life experience and reading.


EW: What are some common misperceptions educators may have about children who come from a low-income background, especially if they are not accustomed to teaching low-income children?

"To survive in poverty, you must be very non-verbal, reactive, and sensory-based. To survive in school and work, you must be very verbal, very abstract, and very proactive," says author and educator Dr. Ruby K. Payne.

Payne: That the students from poverty are not intelligent and that students engage in behaviors that make no sense. To survive in poverty, you must be very non-verbal, reactive, and sensory-based. To survive in school and work, you must be very verbal, very abstract, and very proactive (you must plan.) Abstract means that you can live in a representational world. For example, when a check is written, the understanding is that it represents money that is in the bank as opposed to cash, which is actual money.

EW: What are some strategies teachers can employ to help make lessons more relevant and understandable for children of all social classes?

Payne: We recommend these interventions:

  • Build relationships of mutual respect with students.
  • Use direct teach processes. This means that you are very specific in the steps and procedures needed to do something. For example, a recipe has amounts of ingredients but will also tell the steps or order that must be followed to make the item. And in school, often the processes are not identified or written down so they can be consistently followed.
  • Use mental models. Mental models help translate between the sensory and the abstract worlds. Just as a blueprint translates between the conversation about a house and the actual finished house in the three dimensions, so a mental model translates between abstract constructs and the sensory world.
  • Teach that there are two sets of rules -- one for school and work, one for outside of school and work.

EW: What do you mean by "hidden rules" within social classes and how should teachers employ knowledge about those rules in their classes?

Payne: Hidden rules are unspoken cueing mechanisms individuals use to know whether a person does or does not belong. My book explains them in more detail.

EW: Do you find much resistance to the idea of adapting education to fit the needs of low-income students? If so, why do you think that is?

Payne: Some teachers and administrators are very resistant. But overall, there has been much positive support for this information. I think a person always resists what he or she does not understand or believe.

This e-interview with Dr. Ruby K. Payne is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World

Originally published 10/28/2004; updated 01/15/2007