An Interview with Ruby Payne: About Teaching Children in Poverty

Jun 1, 2005 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico 88130

Ruby K. Payne is the author of “Hidden Rules of Class at Work”,” A Framework for Understanding Poverty” (which has sold more than 500,000 copies) and she has written and co-authored a dozen books surrounding issues of poverty in areas of education, social services, the workplace, communities, churches and leadership.

She has been a professional educator since 1972 and has served as a high school teacher, central office administrator, principal and educational consultation. She received her Ph.D. from Loyola University in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and is a well known speaker on poverty and the “mindsets of economic classes”. In this interview, she responds to questions about educating children from poverty stricken environments and the challenges both teachers and students face in this regard.

1) What provisions do teachers need to make for students from poverty?

First of all, there needs to be a relationship of mutual respect. Students from poverty will not work for teachers they do not like. Secondly, to survive in poverty, one must be non-verbal, sensory and reactive.  To survive in school and work, one must be verbal, one must be abstract (live in a paper world) and one has to be proactive (you must be able to plan).  We require by law that students from poverty negotiate the middle class world of school and work.  So teachers need to provide the translators
between the sensory world and the abstract world.  For example, a blueprint translates between the words about a house and the finished three dimensional sensory reality.  The third, teachers need to teach the “hidden rules” of school.  “Hidden rules” are unspoken cueing mechanisms individuals use to know whether you belong or not.  If you
have ever gone to a new church and stood up at the wrong time, you broke a hidden rule.

2.  Do teachers need special training to work with students from poverty?

It is very difficult to teach students who behaviors you do not understand. I think it helps tremendously to have insight into your students – whether it be because they are from poverty, from wealth, are gifted, are minority, are boys, are girls, etc.  It is important to understand your students.

3.  What are the hidden rules of class?   These are the mindsets that individuals use to make decisions.  For example, money.  In middle class, decision making about money and time is around three things: work, achievement and material security.  In wealth, it is about political, financial, and social connections.  But in generational poverty, decision making is about survival, relationships, and entertainment.  So middle class views things as possessions but in generational poverty, people are viewed as possessions.  In the book, a Framework for Understanding Poverty, there is a complete chart of hidden rules.

4.  Do teachers teach differently if they are from middle class or new money or old money?

Teachers bring with them their own hidden rules and the economic background you come from makes a difference in how you approach your students.   Also, reference points are different.  Middle class teachers often believe that there is space in a poor household to do homework.  That may or may not be true.

5.  Immediate gratification and low frustration tolerance in the poor. Are these things artifacts or do they really exist and what can be done about them?

Immediate gratification and low frustration tolerance are not limited to the poor nor owned by the poor.  But what is not done in poverty is planning because one lives in the “tyranny of the moment.” When you are in a daily survival mode, you live in the now.  That means you do not plan- you survive.  When there is no planning, there is no future story.  And when there is no future story, there is no reason not to delay gratification.  Individuals who delay gratification almost always have a future story.  Feuerstein, the Israeli educator, said the following:  When you cannot plan, you cannot predict, when you cannot predict, you don’t know cause and effect.  When you do not know cause and effect, you do not know consequence. When you do not know consequence, you do not control impulsivity and when you do not control impulsivity, you have an inclination to criminal behavior.

6.  What educational values do those in poverty hold?

Depends on how many generations they have been in poverty.  In situational poverty (death, divorce, illness), education is very much revered and sacrificed to get because it is the ticket out of poverty.  In generational poverty, (two generations or more), education is often feared, because it is equated with loss.  The children leave.

7.  What do teachers need to know today that they did not need to know ten years ago?

In the book, I talk about eight resources that make a huge difference in a person’s life.  Only one has to do with money. These eight resources are financial, emotional, support systems, spiritual (not necessarily religious), mental, physical, relationships and role models, and knowledge of hidden rules.  Several of these resources are related to social capital – I.e. the people and connections around you.  One way that poverty is significantly different now is that there are many fewer resources related to social capital. All learning is related to relationships.

Right now, according to Search Institute in Minneapolis, only 40% of adolescents in America can identify 3 or more adults who care about them.

8. What implications do not having access to computers and the internet have for poverty stricken children?

I am not as worried about that as others are.  Many children in poverty have video games and it has been my experience that they make the transition to computers very fast.  What I do worry about is that they do not see or know the educational tool that the computer can be.

9. You have recently written a book “Crossing the Tracks for Love”  – Why did you write it?

So many individuals would say at the end of a workshop – this is the best marital seminar I have ever been to.  Finally, I understand my spouse. Or I understand my child or my sister or my brother who married into old money.  So, I wrote the book for them.

10. What happens when the teaching staff is from a mixture of economic  backgrounds?

One of the places that is most impacted is the level of teacher expectation for student success.  Depending upon the background and personality of a teacher, the teacher will either be too harsh in the expectations (I made it out of poverty and they can too)  or too easy (poor child – look where they come from).  Neither are helpful.

We strongly recommend an approach of mutual respect which includes these three aspects: high expectations, insistence and support.  That happens
only when there is a relationship of mutual respect between the teacher and student.

11.  What have I found about exceptionally good teachers in poverty stricken areas?

They have a relationship of mutual respect with students that include high expectations, insistence and support.  In poverty stricken areas, students will not work for a teacher unless there is mutual respect.  They also give students the tools to translate from a sensory, reactive environment to an environment of paper (abstract representations – I.e. a check represents money but is not cash, a picture represents you but is not you, a plan represents the task but is not the task, etc) and words and planning.

12.  What do we need to teacher pre-service teachers before they enter a poverty stricken school?

We have found that many pre-service teachers do not believe the information in my book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty.  In fact, we had a situation where they asked the trainer to leave the room because they did not believe the information.  A month later, they asked the trainer to come back because they found out that the information was true.  So it would be my suggestion that the pre-service training include time in a poverty school so that students can be observed.  Then the information is meaningful.

13.  What question have we neglected to ask?

Just that I am so hopeful.  We are making a tremendous difference for children in poverty. Teachers are one of the biggest “hopes” in their lives.  In America, if you do not have at least a ninth grade reading level, it is very difficult to move out of poverty. So it is important to be educated.  I am often asked if I am trying to change culture. The answer is no.  What I am trying to do is to provide a choice.  If you are not educated, you do not have a choice to leave poverty – even if you want to.


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