Educating Homeless Children
By Leah Davies, M.Ed.
In 1987, the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act became law. Its purpose was to protect the educational rights of homeless children by mandating that states remove barriers that prevent these students from receiving a quality education. The law has been amended several times to be more inclusive. It requires states to review their school residency laws and revise any that prevent homeless children from receiving an appropriate education with minimum disruption. School officials are obligated to facilitate student enrollment and placement, expedite records, and make transportation arrangements.
School personnel often coordinate the delivery of a wide variety of social support services for these children. They can include breakfast and lunch, after-school programs, counseling, school supplies, hygiene products, clothing, and physical, dental and mental health services. Summer sessions, preschool programs, and tutoring can also be offered. Assistance to the parents of homeless children is often provided.
The nature of homelessness needs to be understood. Homeless families have no shelter of their own, are often hungry and may need medical or mental health assistance. They live in emergency or transitional shelters, cars, campgrounds, bus stations, or abandoned buildings. When families double up with friends or relatives they are considered homeless, as are migratory workers with children. They are homeless for a variety of reasons including the absence of strong family ties, illness, unemployment, divorce, decrease in public assistance, mental illness, drug addiction, domestic violence, or other serious problems. Many homeless parents have jobs, yet are unable to afford housing. Families may be chronically homeless or homeless for a short period of time.
Many of these families experience feelings of shame. Parents are often embarrassed by their situation and children fear being stigmatized by their peers. The lack of financial resources can cause parental preoccupation with problems and stifle their ability to be emotionally available for their child or children.
Children who have no permanent residence lack a sense of security. They are frequently ill, unable to concentrate and may exhibit unruly or withdrawn behavior. Feelings of sadness, loneliness, hopelessness, fear and anger take a toll on these students and usually result in low self-esteem, poor social skills, and below average academic performance.
The severity of these children’s problems is often related to the length of time they are exposed to a homeless lifestyle. If these children and their families do not receive the help they need, the cycle of being impoverished and having a multitude of problems will likely continue.
How can teachers assist homeless children?
1. Realize that your classroom may be a child’s only stable haven.
2. Understand that these students may have experienced some sort of trauma, violence and/or abuse.
3. Know that they may be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (see Educators Guide to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children) or situational anxiety.
4. Be aware that they are most likely frustrated and angry about their situation.
5. Understand that acting out is a way that children communicate their fear and anxiety.
6. Realize that homeless children may be inattentive because they are tired.
7. Do not make assumptions about a child’s potential based on his or her living situation.
8. Tell these children that they are capable and have high expectations for their success.
9. Offer acceptance, assistance and support (see Successful Teachers).
10. Provide a predictable schedule and environment where they feel safe and a sense of belonging.
11. Use cooperative learning groups and other techniques to further peer acceptance.
12. Provide a buddy for a homeless child.
13. Furnish a quiet place for an out-of-control child to calm down.
14. Facilitate a child’s evaluation for special programs and/or counseling when appropriate.
15. Be caring and respectful toward these students and their parents.
What are possible roles of a school counselor or other school staff?
1. Promote compassion among the student body.
2. Provide sensitivity training for children who bully.
3. Furnish individual and group counseling for homeless students.
4. Offer social skills, assertiveness and anger management training for those students who need these skills.
5. Coordinate before or after school care and/or tutoring.
6. Present awareness training for school personnel on poverty and homelessness.
7. Facilitate communication among parents, teachers and other school staff.
8. Coordinate social services for these families.
An educator’s goal is to establish parental involvement, yet it is difficult to achieve since parents are often distracted and/or unaware of their child’s basic needs. However, with encouragement some parents will become partners in their child’s education (see Increasing Parent Involvement in School). When school staff provide a supportive relationship with parents, trust can develop. Some schools or agencies provide parent training and an opportunity for parents to further their education. Parents also may be offered job training courses, volunteer opportunities or part time employment.
Settings for educating homeless students range from total segregation to complete mainstreaming. In addition, some classes are held in shelters. Sometimes homeless students in public schools are kept together in a class or asked to gather before class begins in order to receive available services.
There are those who believe that special schools for the homeless meet the needs of these students better than a regular public school. They argue that these self-contained schools are designed specifically for homeless children and therefore offer more benefits. The services frequently provided include: transportation, meals, bathing facilities, storage space for belongings, clean clothing, shoes, personal hygiene items, health care, physicals, and information concerning pubic assistance. There are also blankets, pillows and alarm clocks for children to take with them. One advantage of grouping these children is that they know that they are not the only ones who are homeless.
Recent national studies, however, support homeless children attending mainstream schools. The authors assert that regular public schools are better able to serve more children due to decreased costs. In addition, they contend that the academic needs of homeless students are better met through the variety of public school course offerings. They claim that when homeless students are mainstreamed, they are less stigmatized by peers.
For further information on educating homeless children and educational resources for teachers and counselors, visit www.nationalhomeless.org.