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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.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.