While members of the community practice tai chi outside the school doors, students file into the building after the morning bell to music that reflects the different cultures in the community. Some go straight to their classrooms where teachers greet them with open-ended activities. Others go to the office to say “good-morning” to the office administrators and get a breakfast snack from a bowl that is always well stocked. A few students are met outside the school by a child and youth worker or teacher who provides the scaffolding they need to get their day off to a positive start. Other students leave the gym after a morning workout that includes yoga. This is what a typical start of the day looks like at Wilclay Public School and Unionville Meadows Public School. As a Regional Performance Plus Teacher, I work with both schools to mitigate the impacts of poverty by supporting staff and working with families and community members to create a safe and positive environment for students and their families
These schools are located in neighbourhoods where many children and families live in poverty and many new immigrant families have settled. The students and their families arrive at the school with varied challenges that impact learning and often require additional resources, supports and capacity. Using resources already available, the staff work together to develop strategies to support student academic success and well-being and give their students a healthy and supportive learning environment.
Child poverty is a serious problem and affects all classrooms in Ontario. According to the 2016 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Ontario, 513,850, or almost 19 percent, of Ontario children under the age of 18 live in poverty. One in six children in our classrooms is experiencing the effects of poverty daily. This statistic increases with children under 6, where one in five (174,250) of our youngest learners lives in poverty. Children from families who are Indigenous, racialized, newcomers, affected by disabilities, and/or are led by a female lone parent experience poverty at much higher and disproportionate rates.
With these statistics in mind, teachers in these two schools have implemented plans to address the physical, social-emotional and academic impacts of poverty.
When working with families who are dealing with poverty, building community is essential. Families need to see their experiences and perspectives represented and need to have the opportunity to participate and provide input. To best meet the academic needs of learners, the non-academic needs (food and nutrition, immigration transitions and well-being) have to be addressed. There is no formula for this; it needs to be an effort of collective problem solving since each school community is different.
It is important for teachers to form partnerships with families facing socio-economic challenges and create environments where they can be actively engaged in the decision-making process within the school. Educators need to listen to families, emphasize bilateral conversations and promote an expanded view of the school environment where families access resources from the entire neighbourhood and become empowered to take an active role in their child’s education.
To bring family voices to the school, Wilclay asked parents, students and staff questions, including how they felt about the school and how the school was meeting their needs. The results were collated into core tenets called “The Wilclay Way” that were posted throughout the school in the languages most commonly spoken in the school community. These common understandings include welcoming and respecting everyone, creating a safe and healthy environment, always doing your best and being proud of your successes. They are practiced throughout the school day and celebrated through monthly assemblies.
The school also asked parents what types of family learning they would be most interested in, recognizing that their workshops and curriculum nights were not always well attended. The results showed that they wanted to learn how to support their child and themselves social-emotionally more than academically. Topics such as How to Talk So My Child Will Listen, Raising Resilient Children and Dealing with Stress and Anxiety generated more interest than more academic offerings. From this feedback, regular “Chai and Chat” family workshops were implemented where families could come and learn from each other, school staff and community partners such as Positive Parenting Program (Triple P), public health and the local fire department.
Throughout the day family members are in the school– helping with snack and lunch preparations, creating displays to share cultural celebrations while board-approved community members provide language translation support, welcome new families and help them acclimatize to the school routines and support classroom teachers by reading with students or working on inquiry-based activities.
The Importance of Addressing Non-Academic Needs
Both schools have well-established snack programs that are supported by the school council and organized by parent and community volunteers. The snacks that are offered to students represent the diversity of the school population. This partnership between the school and the community ensures the types of foods that are prepared and distributed meet the cultural needs of the students as well as Ministry standards. Many parents who volunteer in this and other capacities use their time at school to get to know their neighbours, practice their English skills and get a better understanding of what is happening in the school and how they can contribute. As parents got to know each other over the last year, they began mobilizing to support one another, initiating before- and after-school carpooling and babysitting for those families who were unable to bring their child to and from school or who needed afterschool care. By providing opportunities to contribute and shape the school environment as well as connect with neighbours, the schools have become community hubs of information and resources for families. Staff and families have access to public health nurses, mental health professionals and other community resources for support in and out of the classroom. This includes classroom lessons and parent workshops on dental care or fire safety with care packages that include toothbrushes and toothpaste for each student or fire alarms for families to take home.
In our schools, we have also worked to accommodate the needs of families who are building new lives in Canada but still have strong ties to their country of origin. They may return frequently and for extended periods of time fragmenting the family unit. This can be traumatic for students who do not see their parents regularly and may not fully understand the reasons for their parent(s)’ absence.
At Unionville Meadows Public School, teachers recognize the need to be sensitive to these family dynamics. They are mindful how they talk about family relationships in lessons and, for those students who have been on extended absences, ensure there are plans to transition them back to the classroom socially and academically. Building resilience while forging new friendships for students helps with this. For example. “Girls Group” is a social support that focuses on providing safe spaces for girls in the junior grades to have voice, share their life experiences and learn to develop and maintain healthy relationships. For primary students, the Zones of Regulation program has been incorporated to give them language to express their emotions through colours – blue is sad, yellow is excited or anxious, red is angry and green is calm – and select appropriate tools to self-regulate.
At Wilclay, educators found students needed extra supports to remain focused on their learning. In response, the school has several initiatives including a “wellness room” where students can go to take a break from class, get support for an individual issue, deal with conflict or have social groups facilitated by child and youth workers or teachers. Many classrooms have “calming baskets” that include tissues, Playdough, sensory/textured balls, squeeze toys and homemade glitter bottles. Students have access to the calming baskets whenever they feel they need it or a teacher can encourage students to use it when the need arises.
For junior and intermediate students, having voice and empowering them to use it builds confidence and resilience. Regular gender-specific social groups along with classroom lessons by teachers and various community organizations create opportunities to express ideas and feelings and learn new strategies for emotional and social well-being.
Teachers, schools and community partners working together for the well-being and success of students and their families requires that we build mutually supportive relationships, coordinate resources and ensure effective communication amongst all stakeholders. When working in a school community that has issues of poverty, it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. Being immersed in the daily work of supporting learners who come to our classrooms with various physical, social-emotional and academic needs can be overwhelming for new and seasoned educators. For these two schools, the key has been seeing the community as a valuable resource and bringing as many voices to the table as possible to ensure the schools are inclusive, effective and supportive of the needs of students and their families.
Strategies for Addressing Poverty in your School
The following strategies are excerpted from Poverty and Schooling: Where Mindset Meets Practice. Written by Dr. Darlene Ciuffetelli Parker, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Brock University, this resource suggests school-based strategies to address poverty that focus on enhancing teacher awareness, building school culture and enhancing professional practice in the classroom.
• Provide professional-development that promotes an understanding of and sensitivity to issues related to poverty.
• Encourage school teams to engage in site-based, collaborative inquiry to explore preconceived assumptions and stereotypes associated with families living in poverty as well as to reflect on their practices in classrooms and schools.
• Seek to understand the context in which students and their families live.
• Understand the context of your workplace and the community that surrounds it.
• Resist deficit language when speaking about learners, their learning and their families.
• Engage families outside and inside the walls of the school.
• Employ school strategies that demonstrate respectful inclusivity (e.g., address newsletters with “Dear Families” rather than “Dear Parent/Guardian”). Make the shift from “teaching parents what to do” to engaging them in the life of the school.
• Forge community partnerships that stress collective responsibility and leadership and involve the whole community.
• Expect all children to succeed and make connections to students’ prior knowledge and scaffold learning opportunities.
• Use classroom community-building strategies that foster a positive and inclusive environment and respect for diversity.
• Integrate representations of poverty in children’s literature to enhance student understanding.
Charmain Brown is a member of the York Region Teacher Local.