Factors Contributing to School Success by Disadvantaged Students

A key issue to be addressed by the new Gonski review is how to improve school outcomes for disadvantaged students. A new US study contributes to this by examining disadvantaged students’ own perceptions of what it takes to succeed at school. It found that strong peer relationships, caring supportive teachers, family and community support, and strong motivations all contribute significantly to school success by disadvantaged students.

The study is published in the latest issue of the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development. It examined the perceptions of a small national sample of high achieving, low income 12- and 13-year old students in US middle schools.

The study shows that academic success by disadvantaged students is the result of a combination of several factors.

Peer networks are crucial. Seventy-five percent of the students in the sample reported that they adopt pro-academic behaviours, attitudes, and aspirations of students in their friendship networks. They attend class regularly, earn good grades, study, set goals, manage their time, have career aspirations, and value education. Nearly 90% reported that their peers’ non-academic support (e.g., advice, motivation, encouragement, openness, and active listening) helps them to avoid common distractions and to focus on their schoolwork. Nearly 80% reported that they benefit from extra academic support outside of class from their peers and that they make a concerted effort to also contribute to their peers’ academic achievement.

The study found that peer networks contributed to the academic success of these students by:
• facilitating access to academic resources and supports that would otherwise be unavailable to them;
• promoting pro-academic behaviours and identities that may inspire changes in both the academic goals that students set for themselves, as well as the intensity with which they pursue their aims; and
• providing the emotional support, intimate counsel, or advice on personal matters (outside the realm of academic) necessary to withstand stressful circumstances and to cope in appropriate and effective ways.

These findings are supported by recent research that suggests that the quality of peer relationships and the assistance provided through them may explain part of the academic success of students from low-income backgrounds.

Another finding of the study is that students with a positive and supportive relationship with a teacher are inspired to succeed in school and persist in the face of adversity. Students reported that they work harder in the classroom, persevere in the face of difficulties, accept teacher direction and criticism, and listen more to the teacher when they have a positive relationship with the teacher.

All of the students in the sample said that a warm and caring relationships with at least one teacher was essential to their academic success. Teachers who created one-on-one time with students, communicated a belief in students, provided referrals to resources and services outside of school, took an interest in students’ lives outside school, and identified student strengths enhanced students’ commitment to school and achieving good grades.

Two-thirds of the students credited their teachers’ sensitivity to an understanding of how poverty has an impact on their daily lives as contributing to their academic success. In particular, such teachers provide students with opportunities to complete their homework in class, make sure that they have school supplies, allow students to tell their story, provide students with snacks throughout the day, refer students to outside services and programs to meet their basic needs, and connect the curriculum to their reality.

This finding of the importance of at least one caring and supportive teacher is in accordance with recent studies indicating that few factors in education have a greater impact on a student’s academic achievement than a positive and supportive relationship with a teacher.

A third finding from the study was that successful students are able to draw on their families and communities for support in succeeding at school. Specifically, student participants used their family and community networks to seek mentors and advice, pursue educational opportunities, and participate in extra-curricular activities that extend beyond their classroom programs in order to succeed in school.

Over 80% of the students attributed their academic success to caring adult relationships within their families and communities. These caring adults (e.g., grandparents, other relatives, neighbours, and community and religious leaders) provided encouragement, financial support, moral support, academic assistance, accountability, and specific guidance in navigating the barriers to school success.

Nearly 90% of the students said that learning experiences outside of school contributed to their academic success. Programs and activities that provide academic, social, emotional, and physical development outside the traditional school helped them to retain and deepen their understanding of class material, develop new talents, and increase their interest in education. Just over 70% said that role models amongst their family, friends, and neighbours inspired and motivated them to overcome poverty-related obstacles to school success.

A fourth finding on the success of disadvantaged students was that they are able to draw on both intrinsic and extrinsic sources of motivation to succeed. Nearly 80% of the sample said that the desire to transcend poverty and live a better quality of life was a motivating factor to do well in school. For these students, education is viewed as a way to escape the hardships and obstacles associated with living in poverty. Over 90% reported that seeing the results of their hard work motivates them to do well in school. These students viewed getting good grades, rewards, and praise as a recognition of their hard work. Over 90% also reported that encouragement from individuals in their lives largely contribute to their motivation to do well in school. In particular, these family members and friends offer specific, positive responses to students’ effort and progress in school and school performance regardless of the outcome.

In discussing the implications of its findings, the study says that fostering school success for children living in poverty calls for a coordinated, whole-child, whole-school approach. It says that school counsellors have a special role in this. It says that it is essential that they intervene at a number of levels, such as the individual, peer, school or teacher, family, and community levels.

While individual counselling makes a difference, counsellors must move beyond an individual-only focus. Interventions should create and strengthen protective factors as well as reduce risk. Counsellors should seek to utilize multi-pronged interventions that foster access to positive peer networks, equip teachers and school adults for care work, motivate students to overcome contextual barriers, and connect students to family and community partnerships.

Creating positive and supportive peer networks for disadvantaged students is critical. Counsellors can collaborate with service-learning groups and organizations and encourage them to implement programming and outreach at their schools. Counsellors and teachers can then encourage their students to get involved. These groups can expose their students to supportive peers with similar academic-focused goals and interests.

Teachers and counsellors can also work together to promote opportunities for access to peers by developing study group opportunities for students during lunch and after school, and encouraging students to work in these groups to help each other with assignments, class projects, college and financial aid applications, and other educational tasks.

Peer mentoring programs may also serve as a support for students living in poverty. School-based peer mentoring between an older youth and a younger youth can provide support and guidance to the younger youth. Although peer mentoring programs are not tutoring programs, they may incorporate peer tutoring.

The findings of the study highlight the importance of providing students living in poverty with access to caring teachers and adults. Counsellors can foster resilience against the risks of poverty by facilitating a caring community of adults in schools. Counsellors must be prepared to help teachers and other adults in the school understand what caring for students means. This is especially important when caring for children who have much different backgrounds than the middle-class, mainstream culture of teachers.

School counsellors must also be adept at fostering school–family–community partnerships. When counsellors partner with family, school, and community stakeholders, they equip themselves to help large numbers of children in fundamental ways. Partnerships provide stakeholders with the networks, assets, and means to connect students living in poverty to caring adults; out-of-school opportunities to learn; resilient role models; peer mentors; and other resources they need, including food and clothing. Partnerships bring school, family, and community stakeholders together to implement programs and activities, mobilize resources, and create opportunities that foster resilience in children, especially children who face adversity.

Trevor Cobbold

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