As I was working with one of my ELL groups in grade 1 a few months ago, another student kept interrupting the group asking, "Did you just call me?" I realized, after the third interruption, that she was trying to get my attention because she wanted to talk. I finished my lesson, and went to her. She said that she wanted to read to me and proceeded to pull out a familiar book, which she then read haltingly, with several pauses to yawn and stare off into space. After a few pages of this, I stopped the reading and asked her to go for a walk. Once we were out of the classroom, she confided. She was tired, she had nightmares the night before, had been yelled at for not sleeping, and then yelled at for not getting ready for school quickly enough in the morning. Because she was not getting ready for school quickly enough, she didn't get to have breakfast.
The lesson of this story is that children often have needs that they do not know how to get met. It is our responsibility as teachers and caregivers to try to meet these needs as well as the students' academic needs. Maslow's hierarchy of needs puts Esteem and Self-actualization, the needs met through the academic objectives at school, at the top two tiers of a five-tier pyramid. These needs cannot be adequately looked to until the other needs, Love/Belonging, Safety, and Physiological, have been meet. This student was not able to function successfully in the classroom because she was hungry and tired (physiological needs), and she was stressed by having been yelled at (safety and love/belonging). These needs had to be met first before any academic work could be attended to.
Those of us that work with low-income students, ELLs or otherwise, have to be mindful of these needs and be willing to offer assistance. Fortunately, there are many resources available in most communities that can help.
At my school, we have an active parent community that supports our outreach. We have a Care and Share Committee and Parent Resource Center that help to provide books, clothing, shoes, internet and other supplies for families in need. Our local Girl Scouts and Dance troops go out of their way to provide opportunities for low-income students to participate in activities that might, otherwise, be out of their reach. Staff and community members work together to find out what students need and provide for them. Sometimes this means staff providing transportation for student activities or bringing a student shampoo for their hair.
One of the best examples of this school/community partnership that I have seen takes place at the elementary school next to mine. There the school hosts the local food bank once a month. The food bank drops off the food and it is left to the school staff, long after the school day is over, to organize and distribute it in an equitable manner.
After giving one of my students a stack of books to take home, she responded by saying, "My sisters and I also need paper, markers, crayons, and colored pencils. We need to be able to draw and writes stories at home. You can get that for us right?" I felt like she was asking me to be her own personal Wal-Mart. Then I realized that is my responsibility as I try to meet not just academic needs but all of my students' needs.
Image from Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons