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Volume 24, Number 2
March/April 2008

The “Quiet” Troubles of Low-Income Children


When many Americans think of at-risk, low-income kids, we may imagine young children who are disruptive and aggressive, ricocheting around the classroom. Or we may picture teenagers caught up with drugs or gangs, pregnant girls, or homes where parents are absent or abusive.

These images are powerful, but they badly distort who at-risk children are and what makes them vulnerable. Most of the troubles poor at-risk children have are not “loud” problems like disruptive behavior or gang involvement. They are “quiet.”

I began to better understand the true nature of poor children’s vulnerabilities soon after receiving my doctorate in education. I was working for the Annie E. Casey Foundation on a dropout prevention project, and I was assigned to write portraits of teenagers at risk of dropping out in Little Rock, Ark.

The first child I spoke with was staying home to take care of his mother, who was wiped out by a crushing depression. The second child I met—a lovely, shy eighth grader whose teacher described her as only thinly connected to school—was drifting along the edge of the playground, seemingly untethered to any other child. She soon revealed that this was her fifth school in two years. I met other children who were drifting out of school because they had fallen far behind or were struggling with undiagnosed learning disabilities.

But I remember thinking, “Where’s my at-risk child?” None of these children matched the portrait I thought I had been assigned to write.

And then I met Randall, a handsome, stout, highly guarded seventh grader. He was involved with gangs and drugs. His teacher referred to him as a “jerk,” and the principal described him as “that little asshole.” I asked Randall whom he trusted and he slowly held up a piece of paper that was totally blank. Relief washed over me—I could now write my portrait! I had found my at-risk kid.

It soon dawned on me, however, that for every child I met with loud problems like Randall, I had met two or three students with quiet troubles who were also at risk. (And it’s important to add that, contrary to stereotypes, I also met many well-grounded children who were making solid progress in school.)

In the years since, I have spent a great deal of time in schools working on reform efforts and as a researcher, and I have come to understand more about these quiet problems—health, emotional, academic, and social problems that are not easily discernible—and how they can undercut a student’s academic prospects.

One Pair of Shoes

What exactly are these quiet problems? Why are they so often undetected? What might we do about them?

The range of these problems is vast. Hunger, dehydration, asthma, obesity, and hearing problems can all insidiously trip children up in school. Some quiet problems are psychological—depression, anxiety, the fear of utter destitution. Others are less easily categorized: not having a quiet place to read, not having money for books or a computer, not being able to manage transportation to afterschool activities. In one school outside Boston, a teacher told me that two brothers were coming to school on alternate days because they had only one pair of shoes between them.

Certain quiet problems are especially pervasive and concerning. One is caretaking responsibility, such as having to take care of a depressed or sick parent or look after younger siblings. One study of high school students in three cities conducted by the Institute for Survey Research at Temple University found that 20 percent of the children had missed school to take care of a “family member or close friend.” Another study by the National Center for Education Statistics indicated that 12 percent of high school dropouts nationwide left school to take care of a family member. While both of these studies date back to the early 1990s, nothing in my experience indicates that circumstances have changed.

Frequent mobility also makes it hard for many children to get traction in school. It’s not uncommon in urban schools for about 20 percent of the student body to change schools in a given year. A U.S. Government Accountability Office report revealed that “one-sixth of the nation’s third graders—more than half a million children—have attended at least three different schools since starting first grade.” In areas of highly concentrated poverty, that number is often far higher. As a result, students may bounce between schools that have entirely different curricula and teaching practices, putting them at risk of school difficulties and reducing the chance that they will stay in school.

The number of children with undetected or untreated vision problems is a national scandal. In any urban classroom, it’s not uncommon to find one or two children squinting at their books or at the blackboard. By one estimate, at least 25 percent of urban students have uncorrected vision problems. Part of the problem is that kids lose their glasses easily, and it can take Medicaid up to six months to replace them. When the glasses do come, they’re often big and clunky—the kind of glasses that no school-age child wants to wear.
Finally, sleep deprivation interferes with the learning of large numbers of children. Staff members in one elementary school I have worked with estimate that about one-quarter of their students experience sleep deprivation consistently enough to interfere with learning. That percentage is likely to be far higher in high school.

The “Steady Drizzle” of Parental Hopelessness

Just as concerning as the quiet problems that confront children are those that hinder their parents. While many quiet problems can afflict parents, parental depression is especially concerning. Somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of parents will suffer from acute, severe depression, experiencing some combination of fatigue, loss of appetite, withdrawal, hopeless moods, and suicidal thoughts. But a range of studies suggests that 30 to 60 percent of low-income parents will suffer from more moderate depression for longer periods of time. I am not talking about mental illness. I am talking about the steady drizzle of helplessness and hopelessness that can afflict those trapped in poverty for many years, especially when these adults are isolated and in constant stress.

Many of these people, despite their depression, are warm, effective parents—a feat that requires no small amount of pluck and courage. But children of depressed parents are more likely to suffer from an array of problems, including developmental delays, juvenile delinquency, and depression. What’s more, it’s far harder for depressed parents to do the things critical for their children’s school success. The strongest predictor of school success for a young child is growing up in a language-rich environment, a place where parents are not only reading but asking questions, listening, and engaging in rich, ongoing conversation. All of these activities can be exhausting for a depressed parent.

Some schools are dealing effectively with some of these quiet problems. For example, there are districts and schools that use social workers to help families deal with housing problems—a prime reason families move—so their kids can stay in one school. Other districts are vigilant about conducting vision screenings and supplying students with eyeglasses. And I know of at least one school that arranges mental health services for depressed parents.

But these problems often slip under the radar of school staff. A study I conducted along with Harvard Graduate School of Education faculty member Terrence Tivnan, former faculty member Caroline Watts, and several graduate students indicated that some teachers fail to detect vision and hearing problems and sleep deprivation. Kids who are depressed and withdrawn can also escape teachers’ notice. One reason may be that teachers are often consumed by small numbers of students with loud problems. Teachers may also stop registering these quieter problems because they know that their schools don’t have the resources or time to deal with them.

As one school counselor puts it, “You have to be extraordinarily withdrawn to be referred to me.”

A Data-Driven Approach

There are many strategies to help stem these quiet troubles. Some will require schools to partner with other agencies. For example, it’s clear that schools should not be expected to take on a problem like parental depression by themselves. They could, however, ally with public health departments, community health centers, and other community agencies to reduce parental isolation and to provide the kind of public education that will help parents obtain treatment. Schools might indicate through newsletters and posters on walls, for example, the signs of parental depression and provide information about obtaining treatment. Schools can also work with community health centers to prevent sleep deprivation among children—for example, by coordinating messages to parents about the importance of establishing bedtime routines and reducing late-night television watching.

To address quiet problems effectively, it’s also critical for schools to develop data-driven implementation and accountability systems. While there’s a great deal of talk these days about data-driven instruction, schools are rarely driven by any data in their efforts to address other dimensions of school life. In response to a problem like sleep deprivation, say, schools will typically conduct a workshop that might be attended by a dozen parents. That’s quite different from tracking the number of children who are coming to school sleep deprived, devising an intervention that seeks to engage a wide array of parents, monitoring whether it had any impact, and revising it if necessary.

The effectiveness of schools’ efforts will depend on one other factor: meaningful, deep, respectful parental engagement. To deal with many of these problems, school staff will need to work closely with parents, especially the parents of those children most at risk.
Dealing with these problems will be no simple matter for school staff strapped for time and resources. Further, it’s vital that efforts to deal with these problems don’t drain attention away from the critical work of improving instruction. Better instruction is not only central to improving achievement: Children are far better able to manage these quiet problems when they’re in classrooms where teaching is rich and engaging.

But a fairly small amount of effort in dealing with these quiet problems can go a long way toward preventing serious problems—and cutting costs. Getting kids the right eyeglasses may help prevent reading failure, for example, and reading failure is a prime reason that children end up in special education, at considerable expense. Helping a family arrange babysitting—something a parent liaison or school social worker might do—may enable a teenager to stay in school. And while mental health services for children suffering from anxiety and depression are expensive, it’s hard to imagine how any society with a modicum of humanity can let these problems go untreated.

We need to make these problems visible and make them a priority in our school policies.

Richard Weissbourd is a lecturer in education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government. He is a founder of several children’s initiatives, including ReadBoston, WriteBoston, and the Lee Academy Pilot School.