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Overcoming Their Greatest Obstacle: Practical Ways to Help Homeless Children Thrive in the Classroom

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shutterstock_102359161by Jacquie McGregor

“…Through it all, school is probably the only thing that has kept me going. I know that every day that I walk in those doors, I can stop thinking about my problems for the next six hours, and concentrate on what is most important to me.”

–Carrie, 2002 LeTendre/NAEHCY Scholar, and formerly homeless youth

From the moment teachers step into the classroom, we know that we’ll be dealing with students who are working to overcome challenges we cannot even begin to imagine. Some of them obvious to us, such as overcoming physical challenges or coping with learning delays. However, some challenges only come to light as we get to know the child better. Among these, homelessness may be one of the most insidious — and fundamentally overwhelming — for the young men and women entering our classrooms.

According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, approximately one in 45, or 1.6 million children, will experience homeless in any given year. If we think about it in terms of a typical school setting, that means that at least one student in every two classrooms walks out the door every school day wondering whether his or her basic needs will be met. These students may not look any different than any other child in our classrooms;  if their families are suffering from a recent job loss or relocation, we may not even realize they are homeless right away. But immediate impressions aside, these are students who may need more support than any other child in our classrooms.

As teachers, it may seem like there is very little we can do; although we would love to provide every one of our students with a stable home life, homelessness is one situation that is completely out of our hands. However, for men and women who experienced homelessness but have gone on to successful academic and professional lives, school is often identified as the one factor that made a difference in their personal triumphs. The role teachers play in nurturing children dealing with homelessness can be pivotal to their continued development.

Three ways teachers can help homeless students thrive

Here are some practical ways teachers can help our students cope with homelessness see beyond their current situation to a future filled with possibility.

1. Identify and understand the problem

Homeless children are at risk for a myriad of problems stemming from housing insecurity. These can include:

  • Health problems: Children experiencing homelessness are sick four times more often than other children
  • Violence: By the time they are 12 years old, more than 80 percent of homeless children will have witnessed at least one major violent event
  • Emotional and behavioral challenges: Children in homeless situations are three times more likely to have serious emotional and behavioral issues than other children
  • Developmental delays: Children who are homeless are four times more likely to show delayed academic performance than children with stable housing

These numbers illustrate the magnitude of the situation children dealing with homelessness have to tackle every single day. Before educators can begin to offer them solutions, it is imperative that we first understand their problems. Teachers should stay abreast of the changing situations of students coping with homelessness.

Be aware of their physical challenges — how often are they sick, and are they exhibiting signs that they have been the victim of violence? Look for developmental milestones, and work closely with school counseling staff to monitor changes. Be aware of the student’s emotional needs — are classroom outbursts simply a cry for attention, positive or negative? As painful as it may be, a teacher’s consistent reaction may be the only stable element in that child’s day.

2. Help promote healthy self-awareness

Children coping with homelessness are often so overwhelmed by the need to fulfill basic physiological requirements that they have no ability to develop the skills needed for self-awareness. These soft skills, such as motivation, attention, follow-through and confidence, are an integral part of healthy childhood growth.

To help foster these skills, teachers should offer students a chance to take on classroom responsibility and find personal success in classroom tasks. Ideas include:

  • Give the child a sense of ownership in the classroom; allow him to take care of a classroom plant or pet, or make him responsible for the classroom calendar
  • Ensure that the student experiencing homelessness has the same opportunities for enrichment as other students;
  • Be sure to charge the child with being accountable for her own actions; do not, however, hold her accountable for things outside of her control.

3. Help the child foster interpersonal relationships

The critical ingredient missing from the life of a child experiencing homelessness is stability. Without stability, children cannot develop trust and, consequently, cannot foster interpersonal relationships. The ability to build relationships with both peer groups and those in positions of authority is an important predictor of future success.  In order to help homeless students begin to foster relationships, teachers should focus on allowing the child opportunities to deal in peer group settings with others. Ways to achieve this could include:

  • Assigning the child a classroom partner who can help catch him up on missed assignments, show him around the school, and gently introduce him into the school community
  • Ensure that the child experiencing homelessness is not punished by losing times for peer-group interaction: PE, music, art and recess can often be crucial activities for developing social relationships
  • Do not bring attention to the fact that a child is living in a homeless situation in front of other students. As children begin to develop peer relationships, they are wary of any circumstance which could cause them to stand out from the crowd

The three categories listed above identify only a few of the ways in which teachers can work to help homeless children thrive in school. Children experiencing homelessness are in unique situations: they are living with daily fear, wondering whether they will have a home, or food, or clothing every time they leave school. However, they also crave the normalcy of school—rather than being turned away from the fortunes of other children, they can feel, however fleeting, that they are just another kid going to just another school, As teachers, it is our job to help build this feeling. With enough attention and awareness, we can help keep our homeless children from becoming hopeless children.

Jacquie McGregor has taught a wide variety of subjects in 15 years as an educator, including music, art, language arts and life skills. She currently works in online education as a course mentor, teacher and curriculum writer, at both the K-12 and university levels. She is completing her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focusing on arts programming in educational free markets.

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