Working with Socio-Economically Disadvantaged Students and Families

When I started my Clinical Fellowship, the learning curve was steep. Not only was I getting used to being a part of the workforce, and answering people’s questions like I had a clue what I was talking about I was also adjusting to being an adult in a lot of little worlds.
By Sarah B. Bromley, M.S. CCC-SLP

When I started my Clinical Fellowship, the learning curve was steep. Not only was I getting used to being a part of the workforce, and answering people’s questions like I had a clue what I was talking about I was also adjusting to being an adult in a lot of little worlds.

The worlds that I caught glimpses of didn’t always look a lot like the world I knew. Part of managing the learning curve of that first year was learning (and continuing to learn) how to show up and be a good adult in those little worlds of students, even when I knew nothing about them.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way…lessons on what to leave at the door and lessons that will help you inside your therapy space.


Leave at the door: Your Bias

Being able to leave your bias at the door means that you first have to be able to acknowledge that it exists. Working with a population of students who often differ from my own experience in terms of socioeconomic status, race, and culture creates a lot of opportunities for my own bias to be present.

I grew up in an upper-middle-class, predominantly white neighborhood. The educational spaces that I went through always resembled those demographics. My experiences that molded how I view the world and how I create my own priorities, were also created in those spaces. The students who I work with exist, learn, and love in spaces that look different than my own. It’s my responsibility as an adult in their lives to ensure that my biases do not impact the way students feel.


Bring with you: An Open Mindset

If there is one thing I have learned about kids of any age, it is that if they feel comfortable, they will tell you just about anything that crosses their minds. The experiences that my students have can be drastically different from my own, but that doesn’t mean I always know how I should feel about them.

What I have learned is that it doesn’t matter how I feel about the experience, it matters how my students feel. When my students share details from their lives, I follow their lead and actively seek their guidance on how to approach it by asking questions like “I wonder how you felt about that”. Even if the worlds we experience look different, emotions can serve as a bridge. I can always connect to the emotions that my students experience, I can validate them, and I can let them know that they are not alone.

But, to show up as a good adult, I have to work to make sure that I am never the one telling my students how they should feel. This also goes for the assumptions I make about my students and what they experience. In working with a student population that is largely socio-economically disadvantaged students of color, it is important for me to remember that the student population is still comprised of individuals who have their own experiences and stories to share.


Leave at the door: Rigid Expectations

My experiences have created my own understanding of what it means to be a student. The idea that you show up, on time, having eaten breakfast, with all of your homework completed, pencils sharpened, ready to learn. This is not the universal experience of every student, therefore, it cannot be the universal expectation that we hold for students and their families.

We need to be mindful that our expectations assume that a student’s circumstances are meeting a student’s physical and emotional needs. We shouldn’t lower our expectations of what our students can achieve; however, students cannot thrive in school unless their physical and emotional needs are met. Somedays, that’s where the teaching begins.


Bring with you: Adaptable Practices and a Holistic View

Have you ever been in a therapy session with a student who just was not having it? Did you remind that student that they come to therapy to work on a specific goal and if they didn’t do the work then they would never get better at it? Maybe you reminded them that if they didn’t do their work then they wouldn’t earn a sticker or treat at the end. Sometimes all of those tactics lead to a dead end.

I’ve learned that sometimes you need to take a break and check in with your student. This practice allows me to make sure that before I expect my students to learn, I have done what I can to make sure that their physical and emotional needs are met first.

Sometimes this is as simple as discovering that a student came to school late and missed breakfast and now is in my office starving. Good thing I always have granola bars for these exact moments! My students know that these granola bars are there when they need them, no questions asked, no hoops to jump through. Or maybe it’s one of my middle school students who played his heart out in kickball at recess at the end of August and spent his afternoon hearing from students that he smells. That’s a quick fix, too, if you’ve been through the travel section of a store and stocked up on the little hygiene products.

Sometimes taking a second to check-in with a student reveals a need that is bigger than what I can handle. Circumstances that involve mental health, housing insecurity, domestic violence, and community violence go beyond what I, as a speech language pathologist, can accomplish. This is where your students rely on you to have collaborative relationships with other professionals in your schools. These are the moments where I talk to the student about who in the school is better equipped to meet this need and then ask how much of my help they would like in facilitating that conversation.

Taking a second to check in with a student, figuring out what they need, and then working to meet those needs in a judgment-free way, shows your student that you are someone they can trust. Somedays that means prioritizing their needs over your therapy plans.


Leave at the door: The Pity Party

During my very first professional development, we watched a Ted Talk by Christopher Emdin about Teaching and Being Rachetdemic (now I watch it every year because I love it so much). He creates this connection about how students are like the rainbows that he used to see flying over the projects in Brooklyn. Rainbows aren’t beautiful simply because they fly over beautiful places. Rainbows can exist anywhere in which the right circumstances, like light and water, exist and that is why rainbows are beautiful. I don’t show up for my students if all I see are their circumstances or their disadvantages.

Additionally, as someone who at the end of the day returns to those predominantly middle-class white spaces, it is my responsibility to be cognizant of how I portray my experiences with my students and their families. If I only share the experiences that are hard, sad, or frustrating, what am I doing to challenge society’s narrative about my students and their community?


Bring with you: A Consistent Sense of Joy, Compassion, and Celebration

One of the reasons I love my job is because every single day I have an experience or a conversation with a student that makes me laugh. When you work in an environment where you are forced to confront some of the sad, frustrating, disheartening parts of how society functions, and witness how that dysfunction can impact children, the best antidote is finding joy and looking for those rainbows.

Some days it’s playing 10 minutes of rock-paper-scissors with a three year old who only throws rock and seeing the joy when you just happen to throw scissors (after 10 consecutive papers of course). It’s telling a student “Proud of you!” and having them respond “love you, too!”. It’s the countless hugs, the kids who ask to eat lunch with you, and the parents who thank you for being on their team. The rainbows are everywhere if you look for them.

These are the experiences I highlight when I’m talking with others about my job. These are the stories I tell when people ask me what I do for work. When they follow my response up with “Wow, thank you for what you do. Those kids are so lucky to have you”, if you ask me, I’m the lucky one.

Sarah B. Bromley, M.S. CCC-SLP
Sarah B. Bromley M.S. CC-SLP, has a blast working with the entire educational age span from preschool through high school. Sarah received her Master’s degree from Marquette University in 2018. When she is not wearing her speech hat, she loves to grab the biggest cup of coffee from her local coffee shop while taking her dog Ziggy for a walk around the lake. Feel free to email Sarah at sbromley3232@gmail.com.

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