The Achievement Gap Crisis: Opportunities Decrease for Poor Children

Kaitlyn Bailey, Editor-in-Chief

Poverty affects more than a child’s home life; it also affects the behavior of adolescents in many different ways. 

In Columbia, 16 percent of children 18-and-under are living in impoverished conditions, according to 2018 data collected by Boone County. These numbers are still rising. 

Rachel Jones, a licensed counselor and Mental Health Director at Burrell Health in Columbia, said adolescents who grow up below the poverty line are exposed to far greater risks than those who aren’t impoverished. 

“For kids who are exposed to poverty and possibly exposed to abuse and neglect, there is a lot of ways brain development starts to have a gap because the child is in a fight, flight, or freeze mode constantly,” Jones said when explaining the potential risks. “This causes the brain to be overwhelmed and it can’t fully develop the way a normal brain would if it was not under stress all the time.” 

When the brain is in a fight, flight or freeze mode, adolescents may behave in different ways. Signs of this are lashing out, taking risks, not being able to focus in school, and constantly worrying. Jones says this behavior can be spotted as early as kindergarten, depending on how long the child has lived in poverty.


One of Columbia’s highest poverty schools is Oakland Middle School. In the 2018-2019 school year, 65.8 percent of students received free and reduced lunch, according to data collected by Columbia Public Schools. 

At Oakland Middle School, test scores are not meeting the targeted test scores. In math, only 27 percent of students scored proficient or advanced on the 2018-2019 Missouri Assessment Program test, according to online records. The school’s target was 40 percent of students to score proficient or higher. In English, only 39 percent of students scored proficient or advanced, while their target score was 60 percent, the records showed.

“Students in poverty are not always ready to have a mindset of learning because they are often worried about a lot of other things,” Jones said while explaining why she thinks the data corresponds directly to the amount of students on free and reduced lunch. “This could be whether they will have dinner that night or if they will have shoes on their feet, and most times, that is more important to kids than education.”

Jones also added that poverty could affect a child’s education when there is a high level of truancy.

“In some situations, kids aren’t even able to attend school regularly, due to transportation problems or watching their siblings because their parents can’t afford daycare which means they fall behind academically,” Jones said.

Another result is that graduation rates can plummet. The 2014 Census Bureau reports that adolescents in poverty are more likely to not earn a high school diploma than the total population.

Jones said she understands why this might be the case.

“For the most part, kids who live in poverty had parents that didn’t go to college. It can be difficult for parents to raise their child to go further than they’ve gone because they don’t know how to prepare their child for that because they didn’t experience it themselves,” Jones said.

Kim Adelizzi, a student at the University of Missouri and the first child in her family to attend a four-year university, said she had to find additional resources to prepare for college and find other ways to get her parents involved in her education. 

“I think the most important thing is for students to connect with their parents and communicate what you’re learning. I was constantly going home and telling my family what I was learning, and I was excited to tell them about it,” Adelizzi said. “We need advocates when no one in our family has attended college and have people who know what we’re learning at school.”


Columbia was 9.4 percent above the national average of residents who live below the poverty line and had 37 more crimes than the average city did in 2017, according to Jones sees trends in her job with poverty and crime; however, she doesn’t think there is a complete correlation.

“There are just as many wealthy people who commit a crime but we don’t always see it. Any child who is free to do what they want, wants to fit in with others, and has no adult supervision, can get into criminal trouble no matter how wealthy or poor they are,” Jones said. “So I don’t think it is a complete correlation; however, I do see that when parents are working a lot and their kid is not seeing their family, they feel the need to contribute, which can lead to crimes.”

Risk Factors

For adolescents living in poor conditions, their brain develops differently than those in middle to upper-class families. This could lead to a greater risk for behavioral problems.

One of the risks for adolescents in poverty is their behavior while unattended. 

“Typically single parents work multiple jobs or shifts at a time when the child is not in school, which is a time children need supervision and adult bonding. Without adult supervision, a child can act out in many ways,” Jones said. 

These children also have a higher risk of behavioral problems when they have other siblings. When an adolescent is taking care of another child, they have a lot of responsibilities and have to behave in an adult-like way when they are not an adult yet. 

Children who experience impoverished conditions during their childhood are also more likely to grow up to be poor, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty. This is called generational poverty, the idea of being in poverty for at least two generations.

“It can be hard to get out of poverty when an adolescent grew up in it and past generations in their family did too, because they are more likely to live the same way when they don’t have another example,” Jones said when explaining about why this might be the case. 

The Call To Action

“The most important thing  for parents in poverty is to make connections with the school and with the community, which can be hard to do logistically,” Jones said. “If parents can connect to other families and school staff who are interested and give additional help and education, it can alleviate the stress and feeling of making their kid responsible and successful all by themselves.” 

According to, parents should be involved in their child’s schooling as much as possible. 

“Parent involvement is vital in student success and in creating a healthy, effective school environment.” 

Parents can get involved by checking student’s grades, meeting with teachers, or getting involved in a parent organization.