Supporting and understanding the differing at-risk students, especially students experiencing homelessness, in the classroom is an important aspect of being an educator. “Teachers are often seen as important referents in a community. The ways that teachers interact with homeless children and families convey important messages to children and families. Teacher views about children and families can indeed foster feelings of worthiness or the lack thereof” (Powers-Costell & Swick, 2011 p.208). For teachers to teach these at-risk students, they must fully understand what it truly means to be homeless.
To fully understand the effects of homelessness on a student’s success, one must first understand the definition of homelessness. Though homelessness is difficult to define it “refers to those who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” according to the Mckinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (Havlik & Bryan, 2015 p.200). Families with children create one third of the homeless population and that number is on the rise (Havlik & Bryan, 2015 p.200). This growth is rather concerning due to the affects it may have on a child’s well-being. Homeless can affect a child’s cognitive, emotional and social development during a critical time in their life (Havlik & Bryan, 2015 p.200).
An alarming statistic is that “twenty-two percent of all sheltered persons experiencing homelessness are under the age of 18, with over half of this group under the age of 6” (Havlik & Bryan, 2015 p.200). Another important aspect to understand is that homelessness is not defined only as a child living on the streets at night, but also includes students who live in a shelter, motel, campground, foster care, or are currently “doubling up” by living with another family due to eviction or other forced condition (Noll & Watkins, 2003 p.362).
Effects of Homelessness and Student Academic Achievement
As an educator it is important to support all learners in the classroom, but in order to do so one must understand the struggles and adversity our student population may be facing, including the underserved homeless population. While there are many risks associated with student homelessness, a large one is how it may effect their education.
Students who experience homelessness share many barriers to learning with other impoverished students, such as behavioral and academic problems, but they also may experience higher absences and regularly switching schools compared to those same students (Masten, Fiat, Labella, & Strack, 2015 p.317). This group of students also may experience higher grade retention rates than their peers (Masten, Fiat, Labella, & Strack, 2015 p.317).
“For example, [in a] study (Masten et al., 1993), [it was found] found that 38% of homeless children aged 8 to 17 years had repeated a grade, and they changed schools more frequently than currently housed low-income peers in the comparison group” (Masten, Fiat, Labella, & Strack, 2015 p.317). These children are our students and the effects of this can severely impact their learning if they are not provided with the supports they need.
Homelessness can affect a child both academically, specifically in math and reading, and socially within the classroom (Havlik & Bryan, 2015 p.200-201). Learning executive functioning skills; a skill which students with ADHD or ADD struggle with; and building strong literacy skills at a young age can aid in combating some of the adversities associated with childhood homelessness (Sulkowski, 2016 p.762).
“In [some] studies, homelessness has been linked with low achievement in reading and math over and beyond the influence of poverty, maltreatment history, out-of-home placement, and birth-related risk (e.g., low birth weight, preterm birth, inadequate parental care).Essentially, homeless students are unique in that the risk factors they face are not experienced by other highly at-risk student populations” (Sulkowski, 2016 p.762).
These students also may lack supports that their peers have access to such as after school care, transportation, and tutors/mentors (Havlik & Bryan, 2015 p.200). Due to these issues, these students may experience difficulty with receiving a consistent education and are also less likely than their peers to seek out postsecondary education (Havlik & Bryan, 2015 p.201).
Supporting Homeless Students in the Classroom
Supporting students experiencing homelessness in the classroom may seem like a very daunting experience when first thinking about it, but there are many different ways to serve this select group of students. The first part of creating a supportive and accepting classroom, for students entering the classroom, is for an educator to evaluate and develop an understanding of their own personal biases and beliefs.
Doing this can help teachers prepare themselves for the “culture shock” they may experience when they are first exposed to a new culture within the classroom. Knowing what you are not familiar with and learning about shows a lot of commitment and growth as an educator, especially when it comes to learning about our at-risk students. Some ways to support our at-risk homeless students is to develop collaborations with others involved in the child’s life and develop community collaboration (Wilson & Squires, 2014 p.265).
While a teacher cannot directly control whether a child works with outside sources such as head start programs, homeless shelters or health/mental health programs; we can communicate with our staff to provide community supports in the school system and direct students toward the proper staff that can aid them in connecting with these programs such as a guidance counselor (Wilson & Squires, 2014 p.265).
An important part of an educator’s role is teaching children from where they are rather than where we think they should be. This “requires careful observation to determine students’ needs, strengths, and back ground knowledge” (Noll & Watkins p.366). While it is important to use formal assessments in observing students, it should not stop educators from creating informal anecdotal and observational notes about their own students in order to learn where each student is achieving as well as where they need extra support (Noll & Watkins p.366). It is also important to support these students by remembering to be flexible when it comes to assignments.
A child who is from a low-income family that is also homeless may not be able to afford the supplies for an at home science project or be able to write about a summer vacation because they did not have one (Noll & Watkins p.368). It is also important to support students in their emotional needs as well.
A student may come into class upset from the chaos in their life or tired from being moved around frequently, so allowing them to decompress on their own at the beginning of the day by reading their favorite book or taking nap could be beneficial to their learning process because they feel safe and respected (Walker-Dalhouse & Risko, 2008 p.84). Providing these students with an understanding, accepting and safe classroom setting will benefit their learning experience overall.
Standard based Teaching and Homelessness
When children from low SES groups, minority groups, or other at-risk groups enter the classroom, they are already at a disadvantage compared to their peers and often become victims of labeling as well lower expectations (Walsh, 2010 p.372). Standards are a qualitative way of analyzing student success (Walker-Dalhouse & Risko, p.88). This also is a way of providing specificity and clarity to what is required for student success (Walker-Dalhouse & Risko, p.85).
Another main point of these standards is creating quality control between schools by ensuring they are teaching to the same standards statewide (Walker-Dalhouse & Risko, p.81). These points are very important when it comes to teaching students who are experiencing homelessness because it ensures that, no matter how many times they switch schools, (within the same state) they should be able to get back on track due to the consistencies in standards from county to county.
While these standards are very useful to these students, it is also important for teacher to remember that these students may need differentiation of the materials presented, in order to succeed, due to their background.
Summary of Current Homelessness policy and Policy Recommendations
If at-risk students are provided with effective intervention programs then they may have the opportunity to end the poverty cycle that they have become a part of (Walsh, 2010 p.372). The first federal legislation to address the welfare of people experiencing homelessness was the Stewart B. Mckinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 (Pavlakis & Duffield, 2017 p.806). This act provided supports for students in school including addressing their barriers to learning and how to aid them in a school setting (Pavlakis & Duffield, 2017 p. 806).
This act as been reauthorized a plethora of times over the years and was eventually renamed the Mckinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in 1999 (Pavlakis & Duffield, 2017 p.806). Though this act does require “mandated state coordinators of homelessness at every State Educational Agency”, it is also the only “comprehensive and federal legislation reaction to homelessness” (Pavlakis & Duffield, 2017 p.806). This act has a much narrower definition of what is considered homeless and does not include students who are “doubling up” do to unforeseen circumstances and not by choice (Pavlakis & Duffield, 2017 p.825).
McKinney-Vento was viewed as minor issue within the Acts it was reauthorized in such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Elementary Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) (Pavlakis & Duffield, 2017 p.827). Homelessness is a nationwide crisis which is why unlike ESSA, McKinney-Vento was pushing for more federal involvement in the educational system which resulted in a 10% increase in funding in 2017 signed by President Trump (Pavlakis & Duffield, 2017 p.827).
While these practices seem to be doing a decent job at providing supports for the affected population, I believe that more can be done to support our student due to the fact that student homelessness is currently on the rise. Bringing attention to this as well as training teachers on how to work with this at-risk group could aid these students in achieving at the same level as their peers.
The definition of homelessness should also be broadened to include those families who are “doubling up” because those students are being affected in similar ways to a “traditionally” homeless child. It would also be beneficial for this policy to broaden its’ focus to both preschool and secondary-education students. Providing supports before students enter the school system can prepare them to be on track once they enter a mainstream classroom, so they begin school already behind their peers.
Providing more support for students experiencing homelessness in post-secondary education can encourage students to want to further education knowing that they will be supported through housing and funding opportunities.
Student Homelessness in Manatee County
While it is easy to assume this topic will not directly affect you as an educator, that is a false hope. No matter where you are you will eventually encounter a student who is experiencing homelessness. According to a 2016 report by the Florida Coalition for the Homeless as a pro bono service by the National Homeless Information Project, Sarasota and Manatee county have the 8th highest amount of chronically homeless people at 1,468 (Ulman, 2016 p.3).
In Manatee county, there is an organization designed to aid the students who make up part of this number called Project Heart (Staff). While the current federal policy does not provide direct support for students who are “doubling up”, this program does (Staff). The mission of this program is “to provide Manatee county students living in housing transition with the support and resources to enroll and succeed in school” (Staff). Another helpful organization in Manatee county is Turning Points which provides families struggling with or at risk of homelessness with the following:
- Daily Continental Breakfast and Beverages
- Daily Hot Lunches (Our Daily Bread of Bradenton)
- Free One Stop Clinic for Dental & Medical Care
- Hot Showers and a Free Personal Hygiene Kit
- Restroom and Laundry Facilities
- Free Clothing, Books, and Toys
- Fully Equipped Computer Lab
- Employment Assistance & Resume Writing
- Financial Assistance with Past-Due Rent & Utilities
- Acquiring Legal Documents Assistance
- Veterans Services – Yellow Ribbon Program
- Transportation Assistance
(Turning). The most important part about these resources is that the Manatee county school system provides links to them in order to support their homeless student population.
Providing supports to students who are either at risk or experiencing homelessness I essential to their success in learning. For educators to understand this population of students they must fully understand the meaning of homelessness. These students are going through more stressful experiences than their peers and are in need of extra supports which can be provided both in and out of the classroom through varying organizations.
It is also important for educators to be aware of what the educational policy is and how that provides supports to these students. As an educator we can be supportive of these students by adjusting to their needs and fighting for their right