First Book Research & Insights: Support for Toxic Stress of Poverty Most Important Learning Tool for Kids in Need

The consequences of poverty are showing up in the classroom and educators need support: “[This] takes time I don’t have and expertise outside my training.”

WASHINGTON (September 23, 2019) – The most common barriers to learning faced by kids in need have nothing to do with what goes on at school, according to survey results released today by First Book and ImpactED at the University of Pennsylvania. The majority of those surveyed – 3,000 educators exclusively serving low-income communities – reported that a lack of family engagement, inadequate access to behavioral health support, and the impact of trauma are the most significant obstacles preventing kids from learning. These barriers, all issues related to the toxic stress of poverty , must first be addressed before a child can learn, according to the educators.

“Educators are on the front lines of a crisis in our public schools that has its roots in poverty,” said Kyle Zimmer, president, CEO, and co-founder of First Book. “Educators are the first responders, and through the Education Barriers Survey, they have told us exactly what they need to address it. More than half of kids attending public schools in the United States come from low-income families ; it is impossible to overstate the impact of these economic issues. We have to equip educators—and schools as a whole—to address the full spectrum of health and social needs that are showing up in their classrooms, or we will lose a generation of kids.”

But the study also revealed hope. Educators surveyed reported that they felt they could address the most common barriers to learning with the right resources, citing professional development as equally as important, if not more, than funding in some cases. “My students live in unstable housing with limited transportation,” one teacher said. “Guiding families through this maze to reach [social] services takes time I don’t have and expertise outside my training.” Educators also stated that because schools are focal points in many communities, schools need “better coordination with public services,” in addition to a full staff of counselors and service providers. “A lot of the parents are in survival mode just trying to keep their apartments, feed their kids, and deal with family issues.”

Educators surveyed also reported that emotional and behavioral health support, safe environments, and stable relationships are foundational to a child’s ability to learn, and that they are regularly addressing the need for each of those factors as a priority in the classroom. “The majority of youth we serve are in foster care and meeting their basic needs, providing a safe environment, ensuring their mental health is being addressed are the three top priorities for me,” one educator said. “Access [to educational resources] should not be last on the list; however, for the population I work with it has to be.”

First Book Research & Insights, First Book’s research initiative, conducted the First Book Education Barriers Survey. First Book Research & Insights aggregates the voices of the First Book Network, which is comprised of nearly 450,000 educators serving children in need, to identify the unmet needs and challenges unique to schools and programs in low-income communities.

Research Highlights

First Book Research & Insights distributed the First Book Education Barriers Survey in March 2019 to members of the First Book Network, which is comprised of nearly 450,000 educators serving children in need. The research yielded more than 2,800 respondents, with 50 percent representing urban areas, 24 percent suburban, 25 percent rural, and one percent representing tribal nations. Survey methodology and additional results are available on the First Book website: 

  • According to educators, the five most common barriers faced by the kids they serve are:
    • Lack of family engagement, cited by 72 percent;
    • Complicated family structure, including deported, absent, or incarcerated family member, cited by 71 percent;
    • Inadequate access to emotional/behavioral/mental health support, cited by 67 percent;
    • Lack of books that are culturally relevant and of interest to kids, 63 percent; and
    • Experiencing trauma or extreme stress, cited by 62 percent.
  • With the right support, educators felt that they could impact all five of the most common barriers.
    • 90 percent felt they could impact lack of family engagement;
    • 70 percent felt they could impact the stress of a complicated family structure;
    • 87 percent felt they could impact the effects of inadequate access to emotional/behavioral/mental health support;
    • 98 percent felt they could address the lack of books that are culturally relevant and of interest to kids; and
    • 87 percent felt they could impact the effects of trauma or extreme stress.
  • Educators cited professional development as often as—or in some cases, more than—funding as the most needed resource to address education barriers.
    • Regarding trauma and extreme stress, 66 percent of educators cited professional development as the most needed resource versus 44 percent of educators who cited funding.
    • Educators were evenly split when citing what they needed most to address a lack of access to emotional/behavioral/mental health support: 54 percent cited professional development and 57 percent cited funding.
    • Less than 10 percentage points separated educators regarding the most needed resource to address a lack of family engagement: 42 percent cited professional development and 51 percent cited funding.
  • Emotional and behavioral health support, safe environments, and stable relationships ranked equally among educators in terms of their impact on a child’s ability to learn. “I don’t feel like you can separate basic human needs from a safe and positive environment, stable and supportive relationships, or emotional/mental health support,” one educator said. “Students are so full of trauma. Their basic needs have moved beyond just having food and shelter.”
  • Nearly all respondents—95 percent—said they need culturally relevant books and resources to affect the barriers faced by their students.

First Book has books and free resources focused on family engagement and serving kids affected by trauma:

  • The First Book Trauma Toolkit supports the learning and development of kids affected by trauma or stress:
  • Build Strong Families with Stories is a section on the First Book Marketplace curated in partnership with the Search Institute focused on building strong family support for a child’s success in school and in life.
  • The Social & Emotional Learning section includes books and resources that teach kids to manage their emotions, develop positive relationships, and make good choices.


About First Book

First Book believes that all children, no matter where they live, deserve a quality education. Since its founding in 1992, First Book has built the largest and fastest-growing community of educators exclusively serving kids living in low-income communities—now numbering nearly 450,000—and has aggregated their voices to identify and provide all the resources they need to give kids the best possible education. First Book breaks down barriers to quality education through a family of social enterprises, including:

  • The First Book Marketplace (, an award-winning nonprofit eCommerce site that provides the First Book Network with thousands of free and affordable new, high-quality books and resources and basic needs items.
  • First Book Research & Insights, a research initiative that leverages proprietary data generated from more than 27 years of working with educators serving kids in need to advance the educational research field.
  • First Book Accelerator, an initiative that turns current, best-in-class educational research into actionable educator resources in a matter of weeks, dramatically decreasing the time-to-market for current, evidence-based strategies and resources to reach educators serving children in need.

Eligible educators, librarians, providers, and others serving children in need can register with the First Book Network at For more information, visit or follow the latest news on Facebook and Twitter.

Media Contact
Connect with our media team or download our media kit via the First Book Press Room.