Relationship Between Poverty & Special Education Placement


Current research provides evidence that poverty influences not only a child's academic outcome but her disability rates as well. Based on a report released by the U.S. Department of Education's Center for Educational Statistics, 13.1 percent of students in the nation's public school systems were served in special education programs by 2009. Paired with the nearly 22 percent of America's children living below the poverty line, researchers have identified several probable causes for the parallel between poverty and special education placement.

Early Childhood Illiteracy

  • According to The Atlantic, psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley conducted a study in the mid 1980s concluding that by the age of 4, children of welfare recipients and those living in poverty had been exposed to 32 million less words than children living in more affluent homes. With reading development heavily dependent upon a child's exposure to language and literacy prior to entering kindergarten, children living in poverty often lack the tools necessary to be successful in reading. Over time, this challenge manifests itself across content areas. More often than not, the result for these children is special education placement.

Parent Education Level

  • Over 80 percent of families headed by a parent lacking a high school diploma are low-income, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty. Current research suggests that a parent’s level of education has a significant impact on the academic achievement of their children. If a parent did not experience academic success in school, the probability of his child facing similar challenges is extremely high. Parents in these homes are least likely to do things such as check homework or review study materials with their children. With the absence of these basic elements, high academic achievement is difficult to attain. Consequently, these students become more prone to placement in special education.

No Time for Advocacy

  • Even where there is an adult in the home who satisfactorily completed educational requirements, irregular work schedules can keep the parent away from her responsibilities for her child. Research shows that the average child living in poverty spends quite a bit of time without the presence of an adult -- fending for himself or taking care of younger siblings, according to Jennifer Armstrong, assistant professor at Governors State University. Many times this is due to the head of household working multiple jobs or late hours. These parents often do not have the flexibility to attend conferences and meetings pertaining to their child's learning. As a result, academic decisions fall solely on the school, with placement in special education being seen as the most viable option.

Emotional and Behavior Challenges

  • Living in poverty places students at a higher risk of emotional, behavioral and mental health challenges. According to Eric Jensen, author of "Teaching With Poverty in Mind," the U.S. Department of Education found that in 2002, the number of children suffering from emotional disorders such as attention-deficit, hyperactivity and mood disorders was nearly 450,000. The presence of one or more of these mental health challenges can make it difficult for a student to learn within the traditional classroom setting. Once diagnosed with a disorder, based on the severity of a child's behavior, it may be the recommendation of the student's teachers, administrators and counselors to remove the student from the traditional course schedule and initiate special education placement.


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