4 How Do Social Issues Affect Students?

Jennifer Beasley and Myra Haulmark

“Children” by aka Quique is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In a recent population survey, 7.1 million students under the age of 18 lived in a neighborhood with a poverty rate of 30 percent or more. This high incidence of poverty places these children at a higher rate of becoming ill, not having proper health care, becoming parents before finishing school, using illegal drugs, being exposed to or involved in violence, and going to jail before they are even old enough to vote. These social issues, which will be discussed in this chapter, can impact a child’s life both outside school as well as inside school.  In education, there is a responsibility to teach them all, but are there things that teachers should know to do this well?  Children living in below-average neighborhoods should be given the same opportunities as children living in average and above-average housing.


Learning Objectives

In this chapter, readers will…

  • Identify critical social issues that directly influence the students’ academic success in the classroom
  • Describe the impact poverty has on a student’s potential for success in schools
  • Define the role of communication between the school and family

Key terms in the chapter are…

  • Socioeconomic status
  • At-risk
  • Poverty

The Challenges of Poverty

A major disadvantage to students produced from living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods is the possibility of growing up not being able to succeed in life because they were not properly trained as children. It is the responsibility of the authoritarians, policymakers, parents, schools, and teachers to make sure each student, despite their living arrangements, is given an equal opportunity to succeed. Statistics have shown that students who live in poor neighborhoods usually test lower on standardized tests. The students also tend to learn less than students in average schools.

To make sure students living in low-income neighborhoods are well prepared for life as adults, certain things are required. Basic aspects include greater access to support that all families need to raise kids successfully–employment opportunities for parents, quality health care, formal and informal networks of adults who can assist in times of crisis, vibrant religious institutions, organized recreation, and safe streets. Parental opportunities, good health care, religious groups, and fun activities all make for a well-rounded student, but these children need a quality education. Education has been the vehicle for advancing the social and economic status of children and families, compensating for poverty and distressed environments, and, for millions of kids, paving the way to opportunities unavailable to their parents. Education is the catalyst for success. Research shows that school completion and academic success increase children’s ability to escape poverty, form strong families, and raise successful kids of their own. Research from the U.S. Bureau of the Census, Money Income in the United States, states that a college graduate earns twice as much money a year compared to an adult with only a high school diploma, and that same college graduate earns about three times as much as a high school dropout. Sadly, students living in these low-income neighborhoods are falling by the wayside. The chances of getting a quality education while living in poverty are very small. If our nation is to remain prosperous and committed to equality of opportunity, we must create successful schools for poor children.

Contributing to Successful Students

Students in poverty-stricken neighborhoods can succeed. To contribute to kids’ success in school and overall development, five ideas should be demonstrated. They include:

  1. Preschool experiences that prepare children to learn,
  2. Schools that are small enough to engage every child,
  3. High standards in curriculum, instruction, and assessment,
  4. Strong, meaningful family participation, and
  5. Making education part of a larger community committed to healthy youth and family development.

High-quality early childhood care and preschool education can stimulate cognitive development, increase school readiness, and advance academic achievement in the early elementary grades.  Smaller classroom sizes promote more one on one between the student and teacher. Students can receive more individualized help. The teachers are also able to change the flow of instructional time if necessary; they can do what works best for the class as a whole. Higher success rates also come from having “high learning standards, challenging curricula based on those standards, and instructional practices that keep kids actively engaged in learning. In schools, standards are set so the students comprehend the seriousness and the value the school places on academic success. States like Kentucky, Washington, and Maryland and districts like Milwaukee and Philadelphia have taken significant steps to set standards that are aligned with curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices.  Parental involvement and parent-teacher interaction are also key to the success of the students. Interaction between the teacher and parent can be as simple as a brief email or telephone call. Involvement should include knowing the latest news in the school, participating in any parent orientations and meetings, and helping and being aware of the students’ homework.

What do you think?

Cartoon owl sitting on a book is licensed under CCO.

What social issue impacted your community?

  1. Poverty
  2. Drug Abuse
  3. Homelessness
  4. I am not sure

Other Social Issues That May Affect Education


A child’s success may be dependent upon many factors that may take place in the home or the lack thereof. According to the Year 2005 Report to Congress on the Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program, there were approximately 928,429 homeless children and youth (Pre K-12) reported in 2000, an increase of 10 percent over the last reporting year of 1997, with 65 percent of these children in Pre K-Grade 6. Students who are homeless are defined as lacking a stable, long-term place to reside. The students may be:

  • Sharing the housing of other persons due to the loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason,
  • Living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations,
  • Living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings,
  • Living in emergency or transitional shelters,
  • Abandoned in hospitals,
  • Awaiting foster care placement,
  • Have a primary nighttime residence that is not designed for regular sleeping accommodation for humans.

Homeless students are battered psychologically and emotionally and have added pressures once entering the school building. These children are presented with many obstacles to overcome in school ranging from having their homes taken away, living in a shelter, to not knowing when and where their next meal is going to come. Once in the classroom, the students have a hard time focusing, forcing them to become less motivated about completing school. Homeless students have a higher rate of dropping out of school entering the workforce because of a lack of enthusiasm and focus. Those students who chose to be homeless, because they have run away from home, experience both sexual and physical abuse. They sometimes become involved with illegal drugs and excessive alcohol use. Other factors that may be a factor that might prohibit a quality education for a homeless child may include poor nutrition, inadequate sleep, and lack of health care.

Family Composition

An interview with a social worker revealed the impact of home and social environment on a child’s education. In this social worker’s school, a school for children with emotional and/or learning disabilities, a number of the students resides in neighborhoods at or below poverty level. They are oftentimes being raised by single parents or grandparents who also care for other children or relatives placing the child’s education low on the caregiver’s list of priorities. Children from these types of environments often display inappropriate behavior that negatively impacts their academic development.

A major difficulty for the teachers and social workers in this school is the lack of parental involvement. The school, according to the social worker, is at least an hour-long bus ride for the parents (most don’t own cars) which keeps many parents from visiting the school and meeting the child’s teachers. The school has often offered to fund the parents’ transportation to and from the school; however, the parents face difficulties in getting time off from their jobs. Whether or not the parents’ have an interest in the child’s education, the children do not see a connection between the parents and their teachers resulting in a lack of academic motivation and no desire to behave appropriately.

An article in The Elementary School Journal entitled “Teachers’ Reported Practices of Parent Involvement: Problems and Possibilities,” by Joyce L. Epstein and Henry Jay Becker of Johns Hopkins University which addresses the family and how parental involvement affects a child’s educational process. This article is about a study of teachers in Maryland and how they feel about parent involvement. The comments from the 3,700 teachers vary tremendously from teachers who strongly believe that their job can only be performed adequately if they can rely on parental help, and the other opposite thought from teachers who have long given up the hope of parental help. Some of the teachers polled felt that “parents have so little prime time to spend with their child or children,” (Epstein, 1982) that it is very hard to cultivate a parent-teacher relationship much less a parent-teacher-child relationship.

This study/article also delves into the world of today, and how the working parents have more demands on their time and how helping kids at home becomes a more frustrating task when a parent is tired or has so many jobs to just pay the bills (Epstein, 1982). Teachers seem to be split down the middle when it comes to deciding if it is worth their effort to try to involve parents, but the general synopsis of the study was that in the long run, it is well worth the effort for the child’s sake no matter what the family structure entails. Single parents, working parents, grandparents raising their grandchildren, and all family structures should begin with the child’s educational process at home and help the schools and teachers open the doors and windows into the mind of the child. This applies to every socioeconomic structure of the family, not just poverty structures.

Drugs, Alcohol, and Abuse

Drugs and alcohol can have a lasting effect on children. The effects can start in fetal development and continue through life development. Having a mother who uses alcohol or drugs while pregnant can affect the fetus and have lasting effects on their cognitive and social development. Alcohol can cause mental retardation, slower physical development, severe learning, and cognitive disabilities. A mother that uses illegal drugs, like marijuana, cocaine, etc, can also have a severe and lasting effect on the child. They can decrease the cellular oxygen and nutrient supply for the fetus which then affects the parts of the brain responsible for learning, memory, behavior, and cognitive functions. It can also cause language delays and attention problems. (Kaplan, 122)

Drugs and alcohol can also affect more than just the child’s body, it also affects the environment they live in. Drug and alcohol abuse leads to poverty, abuse, and neglect in the home. The parents are too busy with their habits that they have little emotional involvement with the child. (Kaplan, 124-125).

Abuse is also a major problem affecting children in school and life. Out of the three million children that are reported each year to child protective service agencies for being alleged victims of abuse and neglect, about one-third (about one million) are determined to be legitimate cases that require action (Bullough, 69). There are three types of abuse; physical, sexual, and emotional. Physical neglect is the most common form of child maltreatment. It is responsible for about sixty percent (60%) of all reported cases of abuse (Bullough, 57). They all have major lasting effects on the children. All of them cause psychological problems in the child. Abuse can cause language delays, poor social relationships with peers, lower intelligence scores, and behavioral problems. Studies show that the abused child also is more likely to experience failure in school because of all the problems abuse causes. (Kaplan, 355) At least half of all valid child abuse cases involve caregivers under alcohol or drug abuse (Bullough, 43).

How can families and schools better communicate?

Although the research and statistics about the impact of social issues on a child’s education can be overwhelming, the role of communication can help. It is hard to believe that we have a breakdown in communication on any level in today’s world. We have the ability to be connected 24 hours a day seven days a week. Cell phones, pagers, and the Internet are all devices we use daily to stay connected, so it is not surprising that the communications between the families and the schools the children attend are in sync more than ever. There is a real effort to include families into the school environment, and in some ways, the programs the schools have for our children could not take place without the effort of the parents and guardians. Communication with our children’s teachers is right at our fingertips, but without getting the information out to parents on how to access this information, it is a resource that is wasted.

Staying in Touch

When parents are involved in their children’s education, studies show that students generally have higher grades and test scores, and are more likely to go to college.

-Parent-Teachers Association (www.pta.org)

It is important for those parents who may not be able to take time out of their busy lives to volunteer within the school to be able to communicate with the teachers and have information on what is going on in their children’s lives as well. This has become extremely easy with the introduction of technology into our everyday lives. Parents can email directly to their child’s teacher any time day or night, schools have a direct voice mailbox for parents to leave messages for the teacher, and the use of cell phones for immediate contact. No longer do we have to hear about a situation after the fact, but we now have the ability to know immediately. As your child becomes older, they are less likely to bring home the everyday paper that has been graded. The days of parents unaware of their child’s progress until report cards are in the past. Now, parents can access their child’s grades using the Internet. Parents can see what is going on within the school on Internet-based School Web Sites and even have homework and daily announcements sent right to their home computers or hand-held devices. Staying in touch with your children’s teacher and school has never been as easy or more accessible. Technology is not the only answer to keeping the communication lines only, School Systems across the nation are setting days on their yearly calendars for personal conferences.

This image by Khamkhor is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

One school system in Virginia Beach has devoted several days of teacher-parent conferences staggered throughout the year. This is where the teacher and parent can meet during the day, at a time convenient for both parties. The meeting is spent discussing the progress the child is making. They can talk of strategies and the teachers can give parents advice on what they need to work on at home to assist the student in making sure they stay up to date with their studies. This allows the parents to meet the teacher and put a face and personality with a name. The teacher in return can speak directly to the parent and form a relationship. It gives the link needed to help the child succeed, as one principal of a school said, “To run an effective school, there has to be that link between the home and the school. If you don’t have that link, you’re spinning your wheels. You never make a dent in education unless the parents are involved.” (2007, The Record) Gone are the days of putting your child on the bus and seeing them when they arrive home at the end of the day. Today’s schools encourage parents to become familiar faces inside the school.

One problem however is the fact that not all parents have access to email or cell phones, and a lot of single parents work hours that make it almost impossible to come in for a conference unless it is planned well in advance. One way to overcome this is through SchoolCall. This system makes it simple for schools to report student absences to parents automatically, set up web interfaces that allow teachers to set up call groups, and even voicemail for faculty. This system should be taken a step further to allow calls to a teacher’s room to be forwarded to their home. This would allow parents who can’t call during school hours to contact the teacher without the teacher’s home phone number. Often these are the ones, single parents working crazy hours who need to be able to get in contact with teachers and can’t always rely on the child to bring messages home, who need this access. While email and cell phones are great, they don’t work for everyone and we as teachers need to be aware of this and find ways around this problem.

Getting Involved

Statistics show that there is a “positive and convincing relationship between family involvement and benefits for students, including improved academic achievement.” (Henderson & Mapp 2002). When it has been shown to improve test scores with increased parental involvement schools, school boards and states have come up with ways to make sure that the parents have an opportunity to play a role in their child’s education. It is no longer just the teacher’s job to make sure your child is learning. We are now in an age where the parent’s role has become increasingly important in the type of education your child is receiving.

Several major groups play a large part in bridging the communication gap between parents and their children’s schools. The PTA has become a powerhouse for all individual schools over the past several years. The PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) is an organization on the front line of any school when it comes to parent participation. It organizes volunteers who are responsible for in-school and after-school programs that have branched out from carnivals and field days to educational programs such as math and science night. In December 2003, a campaign was designed to “increase awareness of critical benefits of parental involvement and to provide parents with practical, easy ways to help their children succeed in school and life.” (pta.org) This advertising campaign is a tool that is used to inform parents that it is vital to becoming involved in their children’s education. Directed by actor James Woods, the ad states that you must “Know what really matters, know about your kid’s school, and know about your kid” (pta.org) it follows with a phone number and website that you could use to find your schools information on its PTA organization. One example of how far the PTA has come over the years is the Reflections Contest held every year. The Reflections Contest is run by local PTA volunteers within each school, which bring together teachers and parents to entice students to enter into a contest displaying their talents in many categories such as music, art, poetry, and drama. Winners are judged and chosen on a local, state, and then national level, and each year the students can compete to come up with the theme for the following year. This is a great way families can become involved, work with and begin the process of communicating with the teachers and the school.

Another organization is the School Planning Council. This is made up of Administration, Teachers, and Parents who meet together at the beginning of every school year to go over the curriculum. This is a very important organization that allows parents to have a voice in what their child is learning. The opportunity to participate in the Council is offered to every parent of the school their child attends. This is another bridge to enable parents to become involved with their children’s education.

Open Door Policy

Today’s school has a variety of volunteer positions that enable parents to become a part of the school day. This has come into play on a major scale with the “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001” (NCLB) Title I of NCLB (Section 1118) “outline requirements for schools, districts, and cites to create partnerships between parents and schools. Under NCLB, schools were required to provide opportunities for parent involvement” (Vaden-Kiernan, 2002-03) Teachers asked parents to come into the class and volunteer, they encouraged parents to come in and help with all of the day to day activities and schools have begun opening their doors. Parents can come into the class and help out with tasks that take up the teacher’s instruction time. For example, parents can help the teacher with copying papers, filing, and grading so that the instructional time for teachers will not be cut short with non-teaching tasks and enables the teacher to concentrate on teaching. Principals play a vital role in allowing open door policies within the schools so that parent involvement can happen. Principals give the face to the school as a friendly family environment. If a parent feels wanted, it is more likely that they will want to return to that environment. And studies showed that it is possible that “higher parent involvement encourages schools to communicate better with parents.” (Vaden-Kiernan, 2002-03)


A child’s destiny should not be determined by the neighborhood a child lives in, the composition of the child’s family, or the child’s circumstances. Every child should be given the same equal opportunity to achieve excellence. Teachers should view every child as a child that is capable of learning. The responsibility of instilling the value of learning is placed not only on the parents, but the teachers, administrators, school board officials, and every other adult that has a part in a child’s life.

Communication is key when meeting the needs of all learners. Today’s school systems are finding a variety of ways to improve communication between parents and their schools. Schools are improving parental information of how their child develops. Schools are giving information about the developmental processes and the expectations of the child, according to grade level, through the literature available to all parents. Schools are keeping lines of communication open. They are making teachers available and more accessible along with incorporating technology, which enables easier access for parents to communicate with their schools and encouraging parent involvement with an abundance of programs for parents to become involved. Every child benefits when there is an established and comfortable line of communication between parents and the school.


Take a look at the following resource:  Which challenge would you like to learn more about?

Dig Deeper

The following resources are provided when “digging deeper” into the chapter.


Modified from:
Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Hot Topics/Home Environment. (2020, September 30). Wikibooks, The Free Textbook Project. Retrieved 19:28, February 11, 2021, from https://en.wikibooks.org/w/index.php?title=Social_and_Cultural_Foundations_of_American_Education/Hot_Topics/Home_Environment&oldid=3744188.

Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Relationships/Communication. (2010, March 28). Wikibooks, The Free Textbook Project. Retrieved 19:30, February 11, 2021, from https://en.wikibooks.org/w/index.php?title=Social_and_Cultural_Foundations_of_American_Education/Relationships/Communication&oldid=1745354.


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Introduction to Education Copyright © 2021 by Jennifer Beasley and Myra Haulmark is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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