Supporting Young Children and Families Living in Poverty

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Episode #128: Creating an equitable classroom environment for young children regardless of their socioeconomic background can be challenging. How can you ensure that your classroom is a safe space for every child under your care, especially if you work with families that are living in poverty? In this episode, Kenya Wolff, Director of the Willie Price Lab School at the University of Mississippi, talks to us about the common misconceptions that people have of families living in poverty, steps educators can take to create a more mindful preschool classroom and why it is important to advocate for policies that support low-income families.

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Episode Transcript

Kenya WOLFF: We see all kinds of issues – behavioral issues, mental health issues – and it starts very young. And so we have to be advocates for families outside of the classroom, as well as there are things that teachers can do inside the classroom to help support children who are coming from environments like that.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.

Kenya, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

WOLFF: Thank you, thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here.

SPREEUWENBERG: So today on this show we have Kenya Wolff. She is the Assistant Professor of Early-Childhood Education at the University of Mississippi. And she’s also the director of the Willie Price Lab School. Kenya, it’s great to have you on the show today. And we’re going to be talking to you about supporting and advocating for children and families living in poverty, something you’re passionate about. Let’s start off learning a bit more about you and why you’re passionate about this subject.

WOLFF: Absolutely. Well, I didn’t grow up in the U.S. I grew up overseas and I’m the child of a missionary. And I think some of that upbringing still resonates with me, the idea that education can be transformative and that we’re put on this planet to really serve others. And so I bring that wisdom to all of my work. I follow a lot of poverty growing up. And I think probably one of the biggest impacts I had was when I came here to the U.S. I didn’t expect to see it at the levels that I thought. I was amazed by the levels of homelessness and hunger here in the U.S. And so I at that point – I must have been about 18 or 19 – kind of made it my mission to work within the U.S. to fight poverty. And one of the most effective ways I can do that, I believe, is working with young children and their families.

SPREEUWENBERG: Cool. And I do think that’s something that I’ve heard from others as well before, and it’s certainly something to be cognitive of here and in the U.S. – and we’re here in Canada – is sometimes poverty isn’t obvious on the surface. And so can you tell us a little bit more about that and maybe some figures or data points behind poverty in the U.S.?

WOLFF: Sure. Well, we know that one in five children live in poverty, and there are many different types of poverty. There’s rural poverty here in Mississippi; there’s relative poverty. So in Africa, for example, it’s maybe a little more obvious because there’s lot of poverty there but it’s relative. Here in the U.S. we see that the divide between those who have and have not is growing. One of the issues is there’s generational poverty. And we know that people who are born into poverty have a harder time getting out of poverty. It’s a cycle. And as early-childhood educators we can advocate for systemic change, things like greater equality, better policies that support families that actually help lift people out of poverty. We know that education is a huge way that we’re able to make a change help individuals escape and end poverty.

SPREEUWENBERG: And what are some other myths or stereotypes that people might have about families living in poverty?

WOLFF: Sure. One of the biggest myths we have is that poor people are lazy, and this is the belief that people, individuals, we blame them for their lot in life and think, “If they would just work a little harder.” However we know that one of the greatest predictors of wealth is not because people work harder, it’s that they’re born into wealth. And so that’s a myth that we have to overcome. Some of the families I would say – I’m just looking at some statistics here – we know that the majority of families with young children who are living in poverty work. It’s just that they aren’t getting a living wage.

Another misconception is that parents who are living in poverty don’t value education, and that’s simply not true. I know in my experience of working with families living in poverty for over 20 years, they care a lot about education. They value it. However they may or may not have paid leave to be able to come and meet with the teachers for conferences. They may be struggling to survive and with transportation and housing. Often times when you’re living in that survival mode you aren’t able to go in and volunteer and do some of the other things that teachers tend to think shows that parent cares and values education. There’s some other myths.

SPREEUWENBERG: I was just going to comment on your point about laziness. So actually I remember when I studied business as a master’s degree, there’s actually some data behind that. They did a poll of Americans and people living in France. And the question was, “Do you think that people in poverty are lazy or unlucky?” And in America the majority of people said, “Lazy.” And in France the majority of people said, “Lucky,” which really kind of drives a lot of the views in society, driving through to what the political climate is like and all those things, which is a whole separate discussion. But certainly the view that you have of people that are in that type of a situation has wide-ranging effects on the policies in place to help support people in situations where they’re living in poverty.

WOLFF: Absolutely. We do tend to blame the individual and our culture and not look at things like… look, we know that it’s been nine years since Congress raised the federal minimum wage. Here in Mississippi we don’t have a state minimum wage. So we have families living on $7.25 an hour. And we know that over those nine years food prices have increased 25% and housing has increased 50%. So that’s very circumstantial. It’s evidence that shows pretty much in order to get ahead we don’t have a system that’s supporting those families. We have a major problem. Families are working and they’re just struggling.

SPREEUWENBERG: Absolutely, and there’s a lot of data behind that, too, that wage increases have fallen far behind inflation and prices for cost of living, in America specifically. Now, can we talk a little bit more about the connection between poverty and education? So we’re talking on the Preschool Podcast your a Professor of Early-childhood Education and Director of an early-childhood education program. What’s the connection there? And what can we really do to help support families living in poverty, as early-childhood educators?

WOLFF: Sure. So some of this research comes from the newer brain research that’s out there. We know that when families are living in poverty, they’re in survival mode. There’s a lot of stress, and that stress can be toxic. It can certainly be toxic to children. If you can imagine waking up every day and wondering if you’re going to be able to get your car started, struggling to put food on the table, those types of stressors impact the family and they impact young children’s brains because they’re surrounded by that. You can almost feel it’s palatable when you are in a home that struggling. If you are struggling for healthcare – let’s say your child needs a checkup or is sick – if you don’t have the kind of medical care that you need your child is going to go longer, and whether it’s dental pain or any other kind of pain. And those kinds of stressors impact a young child a child’s brain. And we know that those stressors impact a child’s development.

And so as an early as an early-childhood educator and someone that cares about children I want to make sure that not only my classrooms are safe and provide a loving atmosphere but that families have that same environment. So I can’t just say, “Well, I work with children in my classroom but whatever happens to children in their homes, that’s not my business,” because as we see as classroom teachers children come with the whole package. They come with their families. You can’t separate the two. And so when they come into the classroom and they have lived in toxic stress situations, we’re seeing a connection between anxiety in young children. We’re seeing a connection in language deficits because they have not had those language-rich environments in their homes because they’re in survival mode. We see all kinds of issues – behavioral issues, mental health issues – and it starts very young. And so we have to be advocates for families outside of the classroom, as well as there are things that teachers can do inside the classroom to help support children who are coming from environments like that.

SPREEUWENBERG: So let’s talk about that a little bit more. If I’m an early-childhood educator listening to this podcast, what are the things I can do in my classroom, practical things, to create a more equitable classroom environment?

WOLFF: Sure, great. Well, I like how you ask that question, because the first thing we have to do is create an equitable classroom environment. And many teachers we know come from middle-class backgrounds. And so there are things that aren’t even obvious to them that they need to do. The first thing we have to do is really check our own bias. So look at some of the myths. If you’re assuming that a child’s family is lazy, poor, on drugs, just doesn’t care then you’re already setting yourself up to put that child in a deficit because you’re judging, and children pick up on these things. So check your own bias. Look at some data like we’ve talked about today.

And then the second thing we have to do is we have to really provide a safe environment for the child. For many years I worked in Dallas with families who were either new immigrants or homeless and hungry. And those children, when they would come in I would tell my teacher, and for me my mission was to make the environment a stress-free and safe for the child as possible, and loving. Many children didn’t have stability, they didn’t have a roof over their head sometimes. So I wanted that place to be safe. And one of the ways that I did that was I told the children, “My job is to keep you safe. My job is to love you.” And so my discipline and guidance that I gave the children always was based on relationships. I wanted to have the place as kind and as stress-free as possible.

Some of the other things that you’ve got to do, you’ve got to be cognizant of where the parents are at. So it’s as simple as maybe not typing out a newsletter in English, maybe using the family’s home language, or instead of sending texts because families can’t afford phones; pinning a note to a child’s shirt when they’re going home; watching and getting to know your children.

I have many children do on Mondays we always needed to order double the amounts of food because they were just starving basically. Maybe that’s not the best word, but ravished on Mondays. On Fridays we learned to send home little backpacks full of food. And we tried to make it a judgment-free zone. So Target and other places would donate some of their leftover baked goods, and we didn’t ask where the food was going. We just sent that home hoping that it helped provide something for the children.

In our libraries we made sure that there were all kinds of books that represented all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds. I’ve talked to some parents who are from middle-class families, and for example their children had asked them, “Mom, what’s a laundromat?” Well, we have many kids, that’s all they use. So do your books show laundromats? Do they show people living in all different situations? When you invite families in for career day or the parent day, do you only invite the families in who are doctors or firemen? Or do you also invite families in who maybe work at a local fast food restaurant or take care of our garbage for us? Because we should all be proud of the work that our families do.

And then another really simple thing is, I’ve seen early-childhood educators use food as craft. And so they’ll fill up the sensory bins with noodles or rice, and that’s something that I’ve had to talk to teachers about because if you have children who are from food-insecure homes that can be very disrespectful, just the idea that, “Here we are playing with food when some of you would give a right arm to have that kind of food in your home.”

So these are just some basic things. Some other kind of practical things are, some schools have “wear a different color shirt day every day this week”, or “wear your favorite university T-shirt to school”. Well, those are all great ideas. However in practice there may be children who stay home or whose family have to make those tough decisions, “Do I go out and buy a shirt for school that day?” Those kind of things, or “Do feed my family?” So there are many things that, coming from a middle-class or upper-class background, you don’t think about.

SPREEUWENBERG: It’s interesting because it sounds like a lot of it is really just being very mindful and thoughtful. And so I would think that training would be probably something very helpful for early-childhood educators on this subject.

WOLFF: Absolutely. Even here in Mississippi it’s amazing, our undergraduate students, many of them come from places of privilege and they just aren’t necessarily aware. And so one of the things I do with my undergrad classes of potential teacher-[educator] students are, we sit down and we do a poverty simulation where I’ll give them an amount of money to spend and say, “Okay, you’ve got to come up with a family budget.” And I’m always amazed at that – and of course these are undergraduate students – but they aren’t necessarily sure how much it costs for childcare or for diapers, formula, those kinds of things. And I’ll tell them, “Okay, this is what an average family of four makes in Mississippi. This is what you get if you are on any kind of government assistance.” And it’s amazing how they will struggle through that exercise. And it’s helpful.

There’s also a website that you can go to that does more of a modern simulation. It’s called and you can do the same thing. But you realize when you’re struggling to make rent or figuring out how to pay for food, when something like an expected medical bill comes up or even something like having to purchase a birthday present to go to a birthday party with your child, those are stressors. And it can it can really open up people’s eyes to see what it’s like.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, absolutely. That sounds like a really good exercise that that everyone should really go through. Now just to wrap things up, what about outside the classroom? How can we advocate for families living in poverty, as early-childhood educators?

WOLFF: Yeah. Well, there are a couple things. I think one of the most important things we need to do is just be aware of how we’re voting. So often early-childhood educators say, “Well, I’m not political. I love the children I love their families but I’m just not political.” And to that I say, politics may be messy and very contentious in this country, sadly. But who represents us and the policies that we make, whether they support families or are detrimental, those kinds of things happen in the voting booth. So be aware and talk to your local legislatures about these issues and how they impact families.

When I traveled the country and talked to people they’re amazed, they’re not even aware of the fact that in the United States we don’t have any kind of National Family Leave Act to support families when they have a child. That’s up to the employer. And so just being aware of that there are policies that could be put in place that would support and set families up for success. See what other countries are doing that work and advocate on your local and national level. Those are important things.

And then remember that many of us are a step or two away from living in poverty. As early-childhood educators many of us know this because the pay isn’t by any means what it should be. And so we have to advocate ourselves for living wages, not only for our field but also for our families. And there are many states that are doing that. But we should be doing that, and we shouldn’t be doing this in partnership with families not as “We’re helping you,” but, “We’re alongside of you. We’re in this and we want to help you.” And you can’t do that unless you actually know families who are living in poverty. So move outside of your bubble, reach outside of your social circle and get to know your families. You can’t do that if you’re just in the classroom and have a wall between you and your families.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, that’s a good point. And certainly – and so we’re here in Toronto in Canada, and there’s of course a lot of similarities between Canada and the U.S. – but certainly one of the things that we always find quite surprising here in Canada is the difference with maternity leave. So in Canada actually now you can take up to 18 months – before it was twelve months – and that’s one example where certainly from a political perspective you can have a really big impact by putting some of those policies in place, where in the U.S. right now there’s limited-to-no opportunity for [maternity] leave.

WOLFF: Absolutely, and it causes so much stress for the parents and the child. We have a real problem with finding infant-toddler car. Here in Mississippi where one is that infant-toddler deserts. So families are really struggling and if we had policies like yours it would be very, very beneficial. You [in Canada] also have healthcare.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, there’s that too. We could have a whole other podcast on that, that’s for sure. Cool. Well, look, this has been super-informative, Kenya. I think it’s really interesting to hear your perspective on it, being an expert on the subject. And certainly it sounds like if nothing else we can all be more mindful of families that might be in poverty that we’re working with and certainly create an equitable classroom environment for those families, and also advocate for them outside the classroom. There’s so much more that we can do, so many more ways that we can get involved. If I’m listening to this podcast, Kenya, and I want to get in touch with you or learn more, what’s the best way to do that?

WOLFF: Wonderful. Well I do have special issue that we put out on in Dimensions of Early-childhood and I could send you a copy. I could also send you some of the materials I use when I speak on it if you e-mail me. So my email is

SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome. Kenya, thank you so much for coming on the show today. It’s been a pleasure having you.

WOLFF: Thank you for having me.

Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron is the Co-Founder & CEO of HiMama, where he leads all aspects of a social purpose business that helps early childhood educators improve learning outcomes for children.

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