As most students have headed back to the classroom or soon will be arriving, I am wondering how much has changed over the summer for many of these students. Do their parents still have jobs? Were there significant changes in the family structure that have impacted their lives? How many of them spent most of the summer alone because parents were working multiple jobs? Do any of them have a parent who was forced to take a job out of town simply to keep supporting the family?

There is no doubt the “traditional” middle class has been affected by today’s economic climate, but we may encounter silence from these students about what is happening at home. If you’ve never taught the child before or know nothing about him/her, how do you really identify those indicators that can derail a student and lead to disengagement from school? It all comes back to relationships: What can you do to get to know each of your students?

Ruby Payne’s book Under-Resourced Learners contains several really good activities to get to know your students; of course, having been a high school English teacher and middle school principal, my favorite is the writing activity that allows the student to write about him-/herself. And I’d encourage you, as the teacher, to do the same thing. Other techniques include sharing experiences that help your students understand your credentials and hopes for the year and then inviting them to do the same. Individual conferencing is another recommendation. If you are working with elementary students, you might have them draw pictures of their households and tell you about their pictures. Another recommendation from Ruby is a journal writing activity in which the students describe their “favorites”—favorite adult, favorite book, favorite food, favorite TV show, etc.—and explain why each is their favorite.

Whatever technique you choose to use, remember that it is a relationship of mutual respect you are seeking. It’s not about being a friend or a buddy, but it does mean understanding who the children are and the resources they bring to the classroom. Your sensitivity and attention to this will make a big difference!