Opportunity gaps increase for poor children

By Kaitlyn Bailey | Battle High School

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Photo by Kaitlyn Bailey

Poverty affects more than a child’s home life; it also affects the behavior of adolescents in many different ways.

In Columbia, 15.4 percent of children 18-and-under are living in impoverished conditions, according to 2016 data collected by the City of Columbia. These numbers are still rising.

“For kids who are exposed to poverty and possibly exposed to abuse and neglect, then there are a lot of ways brain development starts to have a gap because the child is in a fight, flight, or freeze mode constantly,” said Rachel Jones, a licensed counselor and mental health director at Burrell Health in Columbia. “This causes the brain to be overwhelmed and it can’t fully develop the way a normal brain would if it was not under stress all the time.”

When the brain is in a fight, flight or freeze mode, adolescents may behave in different ways. Signs of this are lashing out, taking risks, not being able to focus in school, and constantly worrying. Jones says this behavior can be spotted as early as kindergarten, depending on how long the child has been in poverty.


One of Columbia’s highest poverty schools is Oakland Middle School, where 55 percent of students receive free and reduced lunch.

At Oakland Middle School, test scores are not meeting the targets. In math, only 28 percent of students scored proficient or advanced on the 2016-2017 Missouri Assessment Program test. The school’s target was 60 percent of students to score proficient or higher. In communication arts, 40.1 percent of students scored proficient or advanced, while their target score was 70 percent, according to data collected by Columbia Public Schools.

“Behavior in students who are in poverty is often caused by the lack of basic needs met at home,” said Tillie Stone, who teaches Transmath at Oakland.

This means that when the student is at school, they are not focused on learning, but worrying about whether or not they will have the necessities they need at home that night.

Poverty could affect a child’s education when there is a high level of truancy.

“In some situations, kids aren’t even able to attend school regularly, due to transportation problems or watching their siblings because their parents can’t afford daycare which means they fall behind academically,” Jones said.

Another result is that graduation rates can plummet. The 2014 Census Bureau reports that adolescents in poverty are more likely to not earn a high school diploma than the total population.

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Photo courtesy of Census Bureau Reports

Jones said she can understand why this might be the case.

“For the most part, kids who live in poverty had parents that didn’t go to college. It can be difficult for parents to raise their child to go further than they’ve gone because they don’t know how to prepare them because they didn’t experience it themselves,” Jones said.

According to a study by the University of California, Los Angeles in 2015, parents who know how to read and write will most likely have children who are literate and will have expectations for them to get a college degree compared to parents who are in poverty.

Kim Adelizzi, a student at MU, is the first child in her family to attend a four-year university. 

“I think the most important thing is for students to connect with their parents and communicate what you’re learning. I was constantly going home and telling my family what I was learning, and I was excited to tell them about it,” Adelizzi said. “We need advocates when no one in our family has attended college and have people who know what we’re learning at school.”


Columbia was 6.7 percent above the average level of residents in poverty and had 52 more crimes than the average city did in 2016, according to City-Data.com. Jones sees trends in her job with poverty and crime, however, she doesn’t think there is a complete correlation.

“There are just as many wealthy people who commit a crime but we don’t always see it. Any child who is free to do what they want, wants to fit in with others, and has no adult supervision, can get into criminal trouble no matter how wealthy or poor they are,” Jones said. “So I don’t think it is a complete correlation; however, I do see that when parents are working a lot and their kid is not seeing their family, they feel the need to contribute, which can lead to crimes.”

Risk Factors

For adolescents living in poor conditions, their brain develops differently than those in middle to upper-class families. This can mean there is a greater risk for behavioral problems.

One of the risks for adolescents in poverty is their behavior while unattended.

“Typically single parents work multiple jobs or shifts at a time when the child is not in school, which is a time children need supervision and adult bonding. Without adult supervision, a child can act out in many ways,” Jones said.

These children also have a higher risk of behavioral problems when they have other siblings. When an adolescent is taking care of another child, they have a lot of responsibilities and have to behave in an adult-like-way when they are not an adult yet.

Children who experience impoverished conditions during their childhood are more likely to grow up to be poor, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty. This is called generational poverty, the idea of being in poverty for at least two generations.

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Photo courtesy of The National Center for Children in Poverty

“It can be hard to get out of poverty when an adolescent grew up in it and past generations in their family did, too, because they are more likely to live the same way when they don’t have another example,” Jones said.

The Call To Action

“The most important thing is for parents in poverty to make connections with the school and with the community, which can be hard to do logistically,” Jones said. “If parents can connect to other families and school staff who are interested and give additional help and education, it can elevate the stress and feeling of making their kid responsible and successful all by themselves.” 

Melissa Smith, a teacher for Columbia Public Schools and a mother of three, believes parents should be involved in their child’s schooling as much as possible.

“Some of the ways parents can get involved is by showing up to events, checking grades, and asking questions about what their child is learning. Some of my favorite times have been going to events with my children and getting to know other parents in the school.”

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Photo by Kaitlyn Bailey


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