Socio-economic status and school – how much does it really matter?

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One of the key pieces of information that teachers want to know about a school is its SES, or socio-economic status, score. 

If you’re looking for a new job or a school to send your children to, it’s one of the first pieces of information you’ll find. It’s a score that tells the story of the students and their families; a low score typically means the students have less money, and a high score means they have more. How much does this matter, though? What can you expect from a school and its students based on SES?

What could be happening at home.

If your students have less money, you can assume that their home lives would be different to those with higher income families. This does look different for every student and isn’t generalisable; being poor does not mean having a traumatic home life. A couple of things could result, though:

A higher stress home. 

Events such as losing a job or needing to fix the car could result in higher stress for a lower-income family. 

Pressure to work. 

This doesn’t mean that parents cause that pressure, as it could be that a student wants a new Playstation and this is the only way they’re going to get it.

Additional duties around the house. 

This could be caring for siblings or additional housework. These things are expected in most families to differing degrees, but having parents who work long hours and can’t afford babysitting, cleaners, or home maintenance may depend more on their older children. 

Not prioritising school. 

All of the factors above could result in this, as well as parents who didn’t value education while in school. I’ve had students whose career goals were to be on the dole because that’s what the rest of their families did. 

Caring for parents

Disability is a big reason someone might be unemployed, so it is more likely that students with a parent with a disability will have less money.  Many of these students have more stress because of ongoing health issues and may also need to care for their family members. 

See more: Engagement: How do we know if our students are learning?

What you might encounter in the classroom

What does this mean, though? When you teach students with these different pressures at home, what do they need to learn, and how can you help support them?

That may not be able to do homework. 

If your house is small, crowded and noisy, it will be much harder to get homework done. It becomes even harder if you’re expected to care for young children, do chores around the house, or work a part-time job. While many students want to succeed, some need more time to focus on their studies.

They may expect to leave school early. 

If they’re working and their family is starting to rely on their income, they may expect to leave school as soon as possible. Doing so can greatly alleviate their stress levels if their family has greater food security, but it can affect their priorities while at school. 

They may have less energy

Working, both at a job and at home can lead to less sleep. So can living in a noisy house with petiole working odd hours, or in a home that can’t afford to keep the heating or air-conditioning running overnight. If your students are experiencing good insecurity, they may also come to school hungry. These all impact attention and learning as well as their emotional state. 

They may lack hope and aspirations. 

Having little can make anyone feel trapped. Being one disaster away from losing your home means many learn to spend their lives putting one foot in front of the other. Many students will have parents or siblings to care for fit a long time, so if they want to go to university, they will only be disappointed. Students can easily become depressed, stop caring about anything, or get angry at their situation. 

They may be looking for an escape. 

I mean this in terms of an emotional outlet and a literal, physical escape. Some students will work incredibly hard to do well, get a good degree, and improve the situation for themselves and their families. Some will act out at school because that’s where they can still be kids. Some will aim for detention to get the attention they’re missing at home or to spend more time away from it, and some will form incredibly strong relationships with their teachers who understand them

With students with lower socioeconomic backgrounds, you can’t expect one situation or that a particular strategy will work to support them. You need to know your students to help them get what they need, but this can be a very complex cohort of students. 

Elise is an enthusiastic and passionate Australian teacher who is on a mission to inspire and support fellow educators. With over a decade of experience in the classroom, Elise leverages her expertise and creativity to provide valuable insights and resources through her blog. Whether you're looking for innovative lesson ideas, effective teaching strategies, or just a dose of inspiration, Elise has got you covered.

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