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Teaching Students in Tough Situations

Every teacher knows that a student’s home life has a huge impact on his or her learning. This is true whether students are part of a stable, loving family or whether they face adversities even adults would struggle to cope with. Although teachers can never replace a full-time, dedicated caregiver, it’s helpful to understand the challenges of students in tough situations so you can offer additional support where possible.

Foster Care

image of foster caretaker and children

There are more than 400,000 students in the foster care system in the U.S. Although this group is hardly a monolith, the statistics about these students are sobering: Foster children receive 50% less monetary contribution to their care than in the average American family, and less than a quarter of these children have access to a computer (only 5% in rural areas). Once children age out of the system, 50% have no income at all in the first four years of adulthood, and those who do earn an average of $7,500 annually.

You might not always know for certain if one of your students is in foster care, and sometimes these students will only be in your classroom temporarily. If you do encounter a foster care student, here are some tips for supporting him or her, from Edutopia:

  • Help students feel safe. Many students in foster care have experienced trauma. That means they will often have strong defense mechanisms that come out when they feel threatened in any way. That’s why it’s important to give students space when they need it, and help them identify and eliminate triggers when possible. These free worksheets from Do2learn give students a visual way of identifying rising feelings of stress while at school.
  • Give students autonomy whenever possible. Children in foster care often have little say over their lives, so giving them choices at school can go a long way in building their sense of autonomy and ownership. You can offer simple choices such as allowing them to select their seat or have input on their assignment scaffolding.
  • Help students connect. Students are more apt to listen to and trust you when they know you care. Edutopia gives an example of how to connect with struggling students called the 2×10 method: Spend two minutes a day for 10 school days in a row talking to students about their day or their interests—whatever they want. In a very short amount of time, you’ll be able to build a good relationship with students and help them feel seen and heard in your classroom.
  • Teach self-regulation skills. Given the upheaval most foster care children have experienced, these students often struggle to control their emotions and focus on the task at hand. Foster care students (and really all students) will benefit from learning and practicing deep breathing and mindfulness exercises throughout the day.

Chronic Illness

image of doctor taking care of child

Chronic illness impacts between 10 and 15% of American students. The impact of these illnesses can vary widely. Some students might have impaired physical or cognitive abilities due to their illness. Others might not have impaired abilities but might have to take medications throughout the school day or miss school frequently for doctors’ appointments or to protect a compromised immune system.

It’s up to parents to inform the school about their student’s illness, supply any necessary medications, and work with the school to make a plan for the student’s physical and educational needs. In this guide, the American School Health Association (ASHA) and other prominent health organizations give the following advice for teachers with chronically ill students:

  • Communicate with families regularly. With ongoing illnesses, more information is always better. If you notice changes in behavior or attitude, or if something goes even slightly awry with the student’s care plan, don’t hesitate to let families know. This information can be invaluable as families communicate with health care providers for a child’s ongoing care.
  • Ensure access to medication and supports. The guide from ASHA recommends any staff who interacts with a student with a chronic illness should know about medications and therapies he or she must receive. That means teachers and other staff members must make sure students receive medications at the right time and in a safe, reliable manner. This is especially important to remember on days with field trips or special assemblies, when details like this can slip through the cracks. Likewise, if students have an IEP that requires special accommodations or time out of class, teachers are essential in ensuring students receive what they need, and in the manner prescribed.
  • Promote a supportive learning environment. Students with chronic illness often feel singled out, and not for good reasons. They’re always the one having to go to the office to take medication or having to miss school to go to the doctor; it can be hard to keep up academically and socially when there’s so much going on outside school. As far as it’s in your power to do so, do your best to treat these students just like everyone else to help them feel included and valued in your classroom, and encourage other students to do the same.


image of husband yelling at wife

Divorce is not uncommon, and no two families look the same. It’s likely that a significant number of your students come from single parent households, divide their time between two family units, or have stepparents. Especially when a divorce is recent or ongoing, your students may be experiencing:

  • Loss of time with one or both of their parents
  • A sudden change in economic status
  • Emotional upheaval that may distract them from schoolwork

So how can teachers help? Here are some simple strategies you can easily weave into your everyday routines:

  • Maintain structure and normalcy. During a divorce, students’ home lives are in upheaval as one parent moves out and students begin splitting their time between homes. That’s why it’s important for school to be a place of consistency, routine, and predictability. Providing structure will help your students feel grounded and centered.
  • Be consistent but flexible. Students undergoing emotional distress might act out more than normal. It’s important not to lower behavioral standards and allow students to exploit the situation; but at the same time, if you can see students are having a hard day, try to give them some extra time and space to work through their emotions.
  • Listen and reassure. Never underestimate the power of simply listening when a child chooses to open up. Don’t feel like you have to have the perfect answer or have to heal their profound sadness in a single conversation. Instead, the best thing you can do is validate their emotions and experiences during this tough time.
  • Affirm all family structures. Use inclusive language on school forms and when talking about students’ home lives (e.g., saying “families” or “guardians” instead of “mom and dad”). Also provide books that show different types of families, and adapt events like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day to affirm that all home situations are equally valid.

Want to dig deeper? Our article Supporting Students During Divorce goes into more depth on each of these points and offers additional tips and classroom activities for helping your students when their parents separate.

Domestic Abuse

image of father and mother yelling at daughter

Teachers are on the front lines when it comes to identifying and reporting abuse. You are with students more than any other service or authority outside their home, and you could make the difference in saving a child from needless suffering.

It’s painful even to think about circumstances like this, but teachers have a moral and legal duty to report signs of abuse. Signs to watch for include:

  • An abnormal number of bruises or abrasions
  • Unexplained or abrupt changes in behavior, sleep, or appetite
  • Inability to control emotions or cope with everyday challenges
  • Becoming overly clingy or withdrawn
  • Increase in aggressive behavior or speech
  • Risky or illegal behaviors (in teenagers)

Aside from looking for signs, the most important thing you can do is listen and take your students seriously. According to Safe Start and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “The most meaningful assistance teachers can offer children exposed to violence is a safe and comfortable environment where children can talk. Students may talk about exposure to violence all at once or in bits and pieces and ‘test’ the teacher’s responses.” Just as you watch for physical signs of violence, pay attention to what your students may be trying to tell you when they share their emotions or stories about what’s going on outside the classroom.

Note: The advice in this section is general and cannot cover the many traumatic issues surrounding domestic abuse. If you suspect one of your students is in an abusive situation, consult your school leader immediately for the proper procedures and authorities to contact in your state.

More Strategies for Helping High-Risk Students

Special student populations present unique challenges to providing an excellent education. However, having the right strategies in place will help you be prepared for when these students enter your classroom. For more in-depth methods and resources on teaching these students, check out these professional development courses from Advancement Courses:

  • Supporting Students With Disruptive Behavior Disorders: Sometimes students with disruptive behavior disorders (DBDs) are the ones who need you the most. Learn research-based strategies and interventions to prevent and manage behaviors associated with DBDs. Give your students the support they need while maintaining a productive and positive learning environment.
  • Helping Students Overcome Trauma: Help students transform from trauma victims to trauma survivors by supporting them to proactively deal with trauma. Learn strategies to help your school become trauma sensitive and a place of empowerment and outreach.
  • Teaching Poverty’s Children: Learn about the nature, causes, and effects of poverty, and gain robust and effective strategies for helping these students succeed in and out of the classroom.
  • Empowering Students Through Educational Equity: Students in low-income urban schools don’t always respond well to traditional educational methods and often experience academic inequity. Learn strategies for developing and modifying instruction to truly engage these students, meet their needs, and prepare them for college and a career.

Advancement Courses offers more than 280 online, self-paced PD courses covering both foundational topics and emerging trends in K–12 education. Courses are available for both graduate and continuing education credit for your salary advancement or recertification needs.

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