Many educators ponder this question: “How do I get my students to want to learn?” Some students do not necessarily want to come to school every day and be challenged to achieve high standards. Traditionally, motivation has been applied with a simple input-output model. Teachers praise students for their hard work and support their motivation to persevere through difficult situations. This cause-and-effect model could very well work in many instances; however, educators and researchers alike need to understand that student motivation is more complex than that. Cause-and-effect may be easily replicated within a laboratory, but not necessarily in a classroom. Why? Because students come to schools with a host of social contexts, including religious backgrounds, family dynamics, race, socio-economic status, and other factors, which all affect motivation.
We read about it all the time – students of lower socioeconomic status (SES) do not perform as well academically as those from higher SES. SES refers to the mix of economic, educational, and social factors that encompass the differences in economic wealth (such as educational opportunity and attainment), social status, and the ability to control aspects of one’s life. Both laboratory and societal research point to early enriched environments as essential to success. They also show that stress, which is often found in households of low SES, can adversely affect cognitive function. Given the wealth of information on the cycle of reduced opportunities for enriched experiences and stress effects on cognitive development, a seemingly basic question would be, “Can we change this cycle? And, if so, how?”
We cannot expect to improve student achievement without addressing the issue of poverty head on, and this work has to include families and communities. In Washington State, 46.1% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. In many school districts, this percentage is much higher. Poverty can impede children's ability to learn and can contribute to social, emotional, and behavioral problems. Poverty also can contribute to poor health and mental health. Risks are greatest for children who experience poverty when they are young and/or experience deep and persistent poverty. Research suggests family engagement promotes a range of benefits for students, including improved school readiness, higher student achievement, better social skills and behavior, and increased likelihood of high school graduation. Involving parents, integrating the teaching of social and academic skills, and creating continuity among settings that a child negotiates on a daily basis are all crucial for launching a successful academic career. Our goal has to be to work with families to enhance their children's education and ability to learn, working around the barriers poverty might present. One clear way to navigate around these barriers is to focus on families as partners.
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