by Dr. Punita Rice Teaching

poverty, hope, and fixed mindsets

Over the course of this semester, some insights are beginning to emerge for me about current practices and mindsets in schools and education culture that tend to promote a fixed mindset about school performance (especially in high poverty or turnaround environments). First, I am recognizing that overcoming the impacts of poverty and other forms of childhood challenge or trauma involves much more than just a growth mindset. Second, I am recognizing the importance of building hope in students as a strategy to help them in overcoming various challenges. Finally, I’m starting to see that there are some norms and attitudes in education culture that contribute to fixed mindsets about school performance — and that they must be overcome.

Overcoming the Impacts of Poverty

Because the highest needs students, coming from generational poverty, tend to be lumped together in the highest needs schools, there tends to be a system-wide sense of hopelessness in these environments, that promotes a fixed mindset about school turnaround and performance.

This also raises for these students, and their staff, the salience of negative messages about the impacts of poverty and other ACEs on student outcomes in these environments — which may foster a culture in which students, watching their peers fail repeatedly, may have a hard time seeing past the destiny shaped by their generational poverty.

But if there were a more reasonable percentage of low-SES students in schools, negative impacts on the most impacted students might decrease (Balfanz, 2013). A more diverse environment with a blend of students from varied SES backgrounds, as Balfanz (2013) recommends, might help prevent the tendency of high-poverty environments to develop procedures and mindsets that are structured around an expectation that students will underperform.  Thus, a theme that emerges in examining these stories is the importance of thinking creatively to build and foster hope.

The Importance of Building Hope

At the risk of sounding preachy, hope makes the impossible possible. Anything educators can do to help students develop and foster hope in their own future is worth experimenting with. In particular, helping students develop specific action plans and strategies to reach their big goals (graduating, going to college, or getting a job) can also help develop this hope, and can reduce the fixed mindset students may have about their own school performance.

Potentially, putting students in diverse school environments, with live examples of students from all kinds of backgrounds succeeding (or failing), at least in part because of their choices (and not their backgrounds) can help empower the most poverty-afflicted students to believe in the value of their own effort. Ensuring students have access to building healthy relationships with their teachers, inspiring them to believe in themselves, and perhaps most importantly, arming them with actual, actionable strategies for making their goals more possible, all increase student hope.

Here’s another way we might be able to build hope (and this approach might sound off the wall, but stay with me): What would happen if, from the perspective of trying to support student achievement, the school community were to treat a student’s generational poverty as a health condition to work through? In the way that an IEP or 504 plan might enable the school community to help the student to overcome and work through that challenge through accommodations, this approach might involve treating the condition of generational poverty as something that requires accommodations to overcome, which would mean finding ways to support students in developing hope in spite of it. Giving such a student the extra support he or she might need might go a long way in fostering hope.

Fixed Mindsets about School Performance

The fixed view of school performance may also come from the view of American school performance as a tale of two Americas — affluent America, which shows high student performance, and impoverished America, which has similar education outcomes to those of developing nations — promotes a fixed mindset about school performance and potential. This is a shame, because it ignores the power of the individual student.

While certainly, students from more privileged backgrounds may have more working in their favor to make them more likely to succeed — as is often demonstrated (Duncan & Murnane, 2014), it is important to help students believe that poverty does not necessitate a subpar future. Aside from solving the issue of poverty itself, the next best thing might be to work toward building students’ hope as a way to try to improve their long-term outcomes.

The bottom line is that on a large scale, addressing the challenges of low-income school performance and low-income student performance cannot be fixed with a prescription of “give them some more hope.” But on an individual scale, and through various actions that expose the student to a diverse set of peers, empower the student by giving him or her a real plan, and provide the student with extra supports to overcome his or her personal challenges, it actually might.


Balfanz, R. (2012). Overcoming the poverty challenge to enable college and career readiness for all:  the crucial role of student supports.  Retrieved from http://new.every1graduates.org/overcoming-poverty-challenge/

Duncan, G. & Murnane, R. (2014). The crisis of inequality and the challenge for american education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

About the Author

Dr. Punita Rice

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Dr. Punita Rice is a wife and mama, an education researcher, a writer, the founder and director of ISAASE, and an advisor with Johns Hopkins University School of Education's Doctor of Education program. Her work centers around multicultural education and equity, and South Asian American experiences in school. You can read more about Punita and her work here. Punita also writes about life, culture, education, and motherhood here on her blog. She works from home in Maryland, and drinks a great deal of coffee.