Poverty and Trauma are Causing Principals to Rethink How They Lead

William Gillespie, Ph.D. – Director of Educational Leadership
Institute for Professional Studies in Education, UW-La Crosse

People living in poverty suffer the effects of nearly every major societal problem, many of which affect their children’s ability to learn. Families in poverty lack access to health care, living-wage jobs, safe and affordable housing, clean air and water, and so on. These conditions limit their abilities to achieve to their full potential and have a direct effect on their children’s education. For example, compared with their wealthier peers, poor students are more likely to attend schools that have less funding; lower teacher salaries; more limited computer and Internet access; larger class sizes; higher student-to-teacher ratios; a less-rigorous curriculum; and fewer experienced teachers. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (2004) also found that schools with high concentrations of families living in poverty were more likely to suffer from large numbers of teacher vacancies and substitute teachers, more teachers who are not licensed in their subject areas, insufficient or outdated classroom materials, and inadequate or nonexistent learning facilities. All of these economic conditions strain students living in poverty from being able to achieve success in school.
Racial disparity of children living in poverty continues to increase also. The percentage of school age children living in poverty in 2011 who were Black, Hispanic, Indian/Alaska native, Native Hawaiian/ Pacific Islander and children of two or more races averaged 35% where families living below the poverty threshold that were White or Asian averaged 13%. These statistics are an indication that children are experiencing trauma due to living in poverty at an increasing rate. Trauma in children associated with poverty such as parental job loss, loss of a home, displacement from family and friends, etc. is often causing children to come to school unable and often unwilling to learn. Childhood trauma leading to stress can have long lasting neural effects, making it harder to exercise self-control, focus attention, delay gratification and do many of the other things that contribute to learning and a happy life. Therefore, the school principal is increasingly relying on their ability to provide support through positive relationship building and therapeutic counseling to combat the often untreated traumatic events children are experiencing due to the side effects of poverty.
Many children may experience traumatic effects from poverty but children from all social classes are experiencing trauma associated with verbal, physical, and sexual childhood abuse at an increasing rate. These life altering childhood experiences create serious challenges for schools when left untreated. Learning becomes increasingly difficult for these students whose mental health is often temporarily or permanently impaired. Their academic success is often put in jeopardy because school principals do not have the resources or training to support these students and their learning needs. Therefore, an increase in childhood trauma often related to poverty challenges a school principal’s ability to successfully create an emotionally safe school environment where learning and academic success can take place. This challenge has created the need for principal leadership style to change.
Often referred to as a manager of people, the school principal has been able to be effective at increasing academic proficiencies by using traditional methods of educational leadership. A traditional style referred to as autocratic or top-down leadership utilizes a hierarchical approach to decision making that often created positive results in student learning. However, recently school districts are finding this type of leadership to be ineffective in many schools today because a child’s ability to learn has changed.
As mentioned earlier, children are experiencing poverty and childhood trauma at an alarming rate. Customary principal leadership styles that focus primarily on academic outcomes are often failing to create successful learning environments. Principal leadership styles need to change to meet the diverse learning needs of the students and school communities they serve.

Aud, Susan. (2012). The Condition of Education, May 2012. Natl Center for Education.
Books, S. (2004). Poverty and schooling in the U.S.: Contexts and consequences. Mahway, NJ: Erlbaum.
Barton, P. E. (2004). Why does the gap persist? Educational Leadership, 62(3), 8–13.
Carey, K. (2005). The funding gap 2004: Many states still shortchange low-income and minority students. Washington, DC: Education Trust
Gorski, P. (2008). The Myth of the “Culture of Poverty” – Believing that poor people are different from those with higher incomes is dangerous and wrong. Educational Leadership, 65, 7, 32.
Tough, P. (2012). How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character.
United States Census Bureau. (2009). 2010 Census. Washington, D.C: U.S. Census Bureau.

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