It’s back to school season and my teaching friends are posting photos of their classroom decorations on Pinterest and asking for lesson plan recommendations. Parent friends are Instagramming photos of last minute vacations and their kids with their shiny new shoes and bright, overflowing backpacks. I too, have fallen under the spell of special edition crayon packs and the possibilities of a nifty new binder.


Yet, in the midst of all this excitement, I am thinking of some other kids; students whose families are struggling with poverty, who are going back to school without – without a carefree summer break behind them, without school supplies, without proper clothing, without lunch money. Twenty-one percent of children in the U.S. living below the poverty line, making this an all-too-common back-to-school experience in schools across the country.  


We know that the chronic stresses of poverty can change a child’s brain; inhibiting ability to manage behavior, language development and memory, among other challenges. And while addressing these issues can be complex, there are so many things we can do to help a young person face a new school year – starting with not shaming them.  


That first trip through the lunch line that singles out free lunch students from their peers. Public “unboxing” of school supplies in the classroom. Or one of my most hated first day activities ever: “Draw a picture/tell us what you did on your summer vacation,” Followed closely with the Family Tree activity assigned under the guise of getting to know your students.


Social class, race, gender, family make-up and other social differences dramatically influence how a child perceives school. When handled poorly by teachers and schools, these differences may leave a negative and indelible mark on their memories of school, not to mention their engagement with learning.


Just brainstorming here, inviting you to create a kinder, gentler back to school this year and helping kids focus on learning instead of the shame and stress of being poor and different.

Outfitting kids for success

Encourage your school and/or teacher to adopt a “shared” supply policy so each student has equal access to what they need to complete assignments and activities. And, collect supplies in such a way that won’t embarrass students who don’t have them. Secondly, most schools have their supply lists posted in popular stores such as Target and Walmart. If you are able, grab a list and outfit a student for the year, or add a few items to donate to a local classroom.

Learning at home.

We could debate the value of homework all day, but most schools are still dishing it out. Homework assumes quite a lot about a child’s home life – starting with the child having a home. Beyond that, we assume that they have a place where they can do their homework, an adult able and available to help and, the means to purchase homework and project materials.

 I’m a huge advocate for outfitting a “project closet” where students can source materials they don’t have at home and to provide the tools they need for projects, or the school science or history fairs. In my classroom, I had grab and go bags of supplies that any student could use when needed. No check out/check in system, just a note inside saying to return the bag so it could be refilled. Sometimes my students were helping their siblings, too and I kept them stocked and available with donations from local non profits and stores. And don’t forget high school students. A stack of planners to supply students who don’t have one would be as a good as gold in any high school.  

Great minds start with full tummies.

Thank you President Truman for the National School Lunch Program; hunger is bad for learning! Yet, as they are implemented today, school breakfast and lunch programs single children out by requiring them to come to school early or, by providing only the very basic foodstuffs the program will allow, while more affluent children receive “fun” meal extras like cookies or nachos. These cues are easily read, and everyone knows who is “poor enough” to get free lunch, often prompting those in the program to skip meals all together. Recently, the news has highlighted stories of schools calling out students publically (or refusing meals at all) because their parents cannot pay their portion of the reduced fee or, they are not enrolled. This is disgraceful.

 Some school districts are extending free lunch to all students. Everyone getting free meals means no one is singled out for their socioeconomic status, and goes a long way to help destigmatize poverty at school. That’s a big move and one not all districts can afford. What else can you do?

 Educate yourself on your school’s policies and procedures and speak out for practices that protect each child’s privacy and dignity. Encourage your local food bank to start backpack programs that provide take home foodstuffs right at school so students can have nutritious meals at home, too. Or, you might just grab a gift card to a local grocery or superstore to gift to a teacher to supply his/her snack drawer for a student who is obviously hungry and distracted.

One of the most effective ways we have to reduce poverty is through education. This year, as we relive memories of joyful school days of years past, let’s work together to ensure we are giving all children the chance to reach their full potential today. As the bright new crayons and shiny backpacks hit the shelves, let’s act on our impulse to get engaged. It can be as easy as purchasing a box of crayons or as big as running for the school board. Maybe your book club or church group could adopt a classroom or pursue one of the ideas here? The key to strong communities is to get involved, and as a wise colleague once told me, no effort on behalf of a child is ever wasted.

Happy Back to School!