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Is there a formula for academic success?

Studies show the odds are stacked against learners from poorer backgrounds, so why do some succeed where others fail?

New research may have revealed simple factors that could be key in helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed academically.

More than half of South Africa’s children live in poverty, as research from the 2016 South African Early Childhood Review shows. The study is one of many arguing that factors such as poor nutrition and health care that are associated with poverty can have long-lasting impacts for children.

“Shortfalls in early childhood development are difficult to correct as time goes by. These children are always playing catch-up and the education gap between them and their peers widens over time,” Sonja Giese from Ilifa Labantwana told Bhekisisa at the time of the report’s launch in May 2016. Ilifa Labantwana is one of the organisations that contributed to the publication.

But many students from disadvantaged backgrounds go on to succeed. Is there a recipe for beating the odds?

New research published in the Journal of Multicultural Counselling and Development tried to answer this question by interviewing two dozen high-achieving children from a range of ethnic groups in the United States. The children were roughly 12 years old and came from households that earned $18 000 a year, a figure that was almost three times lower than the country’s median household income in 2013 according to US Census data.

When asked what helped them to achieve at school, learners cited like-minded friends as well as having support from caring adults within their families or communities, and this was often associated with having access to learning opportunities outside the classroom such as reading programmes or extra-curricular activities.

Supportive teachers also played a role in encouraging children to succeed.

“My teacher knew that the students in my class were having a hard time completing homework because most of us lived in small apartments,” said one learner quoted in the study.

“[It’s] hard to focus and find a quiet space. So she stopped giving homework and let us do it at the end of the day at school. It really helped my grades.”

Study author and assistant professor at George Mason University Joseph Williams says that all pupils are born with resilience, but it is the circumstances of the home and community environment that bring it out of them.

Although the US study was small, the research’s findings echo those previously found as part of another small 2005 qualitative published in the  South African Journal of Psychology.

In the South African study, researchers found that first-year university students who came from disadvantaged backgrounds but excelled in their first semester had similar characteristics as the American primary school children, namely: supportive parents, teachers and community members. Georgetown associate professor and author of the study Priscilla Dass-Brailsford told Bhekisisa that students’ desires to deliver their families from poverty were their main motivation for succeeding at university.

“The problem with [the concept of] resilience”

Rashid Ahmed is a senior lecturer at the University of the Western Cape’s department of psychology with an interest in community resilience.

While he acknowledges that children’s resiliency can be an important asset to help them beat the odds, he cautions against placing the onus on children to develop this – instead of fixing the societal factors that disadvantage them.

He explains that resilience is the idea that even in high-risk, disadvantaged environments where children would be expected to, for instance, perform poorly academically or experience mental health problems, some still succeed.

“The problem with [the concept of] resilience is that it places the responsibility on the individuals on then changing their rather than the factors that produce the inequalities and difficulties”, he says.

Although students in the South African studies performed well academically, all 16 students interviewed said poverty was a stress in their life and that their communities lacked resources, such as libraries and recreation centres, to foster their academic growth.

Both Williams and Dass-Brailsford say that to help disadvantaged students succeed, governments need to look at education holistically.

“One of the reasons they need to be resilient is because they come from toxic environments. We need interventions that are more social [in nature], and access to resources, so kids can actually do well,” Williams argues.

Dass-Brailsford also recommends that the department of higher education provides students with tuition assistance as well as libraries close to their homes.

Ahmed says that, in short, there is no formula for academic success – but there is still a lot that can be done to help pupils thrive: “We should be combining interventions that look to build on resilience while simultaneously looking at why so many [children] are failing to start.”

Nelisiwe Msomi was a health reporter at Bhekisisa.