Poverty and unemployment

Children living in poverty often lack material resources which can affect what they eat, their participation in activities, the clothes they wear, family stress levels and optimism, where and how they live, and their access to proper healthcare and high-quality education.

Unemployment and poverty can be short term. However, for some families it is entrenched and can span many generations. Growing up in prolonged and persistent poverty is a substantial risk for educational attainment and the development of child mental health problems.

Poverty is also important because it can put parents and children under pressure and in an environment which is highly stressful and toxic. It is this prolonged exposure to stress that affects infant and child brain development, overloading it and creating a jumpiness in stress response systems. This often results in children feeling overwhelmed by stress or sometimes struggling to calm themselves and their behaviour down.

As a risk factor, poverty is unlikely, on its own, to undermine children’s mental health and their prospects in life, particularly if it doesn’t last too long. However, when poverty is prolonged and/or combined with other risks (such as parental ill-health, exposure to discrimination, family instability, parents’ education and income) it becomes a key risk factor, increasing the likelihood of poor child mental health. For families already under pressure, poverty can be the factor that pushes them over the edge.

How can poverty affect children?

Poverty can affect children by:

  • Putting pressure on parents to provide some things that are an important part of school life, e.g. school uniforms.
  • Impacting on children’s sleep, concentration and behaviour patterns (because of poor housing or where they live).
  • Increasing family pressures and tensions.
  • Affecting belief in what they can achieve in life, how they view themselves and how others view them (stigma and bullying).

Protective factors: what schools can do

Schools can buffer children from the worst effects of poverty and help protect its impact on child mental health. Schools that successfully achieve this have many common features, including: 

  • Strong leadership supporting a cohesive ‘poverty aware’ staff team.
  • Having a whole-school environment where children feel they belong, feel valued and cared for.
  • Positive relationships in the classroom/school that are built on trust, safety and security, promote pupil wellbeing and help children talk about worries that might be affecting them; helping them open up about how they are feeling and coping.
  • Minimising activities that involve extra cost in school and having banks of resources (e.g. uniform bank, etc.)
  • Providing an education founded on high standards and high expectations for all.
  • Communicating pupils’ potential rather than dwelling on their risk.
  • ‘See it to be it’ – for example, some schools introduce inspirational examples of people who have achieved from local neighbourhoods, despite adversity.
  • Ensuring that schools have programmes in place to help children survive in a challenging environment, build resilience and develop their social and emotional skills – with these skills being further developed across the curriculum.
  • Where possible, extend children’s experiences and increase access to opportunities they might not otherwise have.
  • Engaging with parents and encouraging them to come into the school and observe their child’s learning. Focusing on the strengths and assets in the family rather than problems – this helps school engagement and promotes progress.
  • Having non-stigmatising support for parents and children as well as good collaborative links with local support services.
  • Promoting parenting programmes that support warm, responsive and boundary-setting parenting techniques. These programmes, and the techniques they help develop, are proven to protect children from the worst effects of poverty.
  • Effective, robust and creative use of pupil premium funding for all eligible children, and ensuring parents have a sound understanding of pupil premium funding.

It’s important to note that, despite your best efforts to build children’s resilience, some children’s mental health may deteriorate. You should always be alert to this and be aware that children can communicate difficulties in different ways – through changes in behaviour (becoming more withdrawn or more challenging) and in their play, changes in their relationships with staff and pupils, changes in their academic performance or attendance etc. Tracking children’s wellbeing on a regular basis can help pick up changes early on.

Where children’s mental wellbeing is deteriorating, children will need extra help, either through school pastoral care/counselling support, or through referral to the school nurse, discussion with the SENCO lead or via national helplines provided in the resources listed. If a child’s health continues to deteriorate a referral to local community-based support may be required (e.g. community counselling, early help services or specialist CAMHS).

Related resources

Filter by:
Impact of adverse childhood experiences

Impact of adverse childhood experiences

A range of videos explaining adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and their impact on children.

View resource
Triple P Parenting Support Programme

Triple P Parenting Support Programme

Triple P Online is a web-based parenting intervention. The programme can be used as an early...

View resource (£)
The impact of poverty on children

The impact of poverty on children

A US teacher tutorial site focuses on the many ways poverty can impact on children’s education and...

View resource
  • Teachnology

  • Save
The impact of poverty

The impact of poverty

Infographic showing the impact of poverty.

View resource
  • Child Poverty Action Group

  • Save