NASP Communiqué, Vol. 38, #4
The State of
Children in the
By Brenda Kabler and Elana Weinstein
For additional information, NASP members can listen to a podcast on homelessness.
Across America, the numbers of homeless
children and families are growing as a result
of many factors including the recent
economic crisis, home foreclosures, and natural disasters.
The National Center on Family Homelessness
released a new report in March 2009, entitled
“America’s Youngest Outcasts: State Report Card on
Child Homelessness,” documenting that 1 child in
50 is homeless in America—more than 1.5 million
children each year.
The McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act,
Title X, Part C, of the No Child Left Behind Act of
2001 requires that states ensure that homeless
children have access to a free, appropriate public
education and that school districts provide child
homelessness data to the federal government. The
U.S. Department of Education requires that all state
education agencies and/or local education agencies
collect and submit information about the number
of children who were identified as homeless and are
enrolled in local school districts in the state over the
course of an academic year (The National Center
for Homeless Education, 2009). This is currently
the only system that comprehensively assesses
the number of homeless children. The McKinney–
Vento data collection system counts all children
and youth whose primary nighttime residence at
the time of enrollment was a shelter, motel, temporary
arrangement in the housing for other people
due to the loss of permanent housing or economic
hardship, or any other situation that falls within the
Act’s definition of “homeless.”
The McKinney-Vento school data have various limitations. Although all school districts are required to identify
homeless children who are enrolled there, continued lack of awareness of homelessness
and its definition among school personnel leads to underreporting in many
school districts. Twenty-three percent of local education agencies did not submit data
for their State Report Cards, which results in the question of whether the resulting data
are comprehensive enough to present a true picture of the extent of child homelessness
in America today. The most recent data available for the Report Card was from
the 2005–2006 school year. In addition, the McKinney-Vento school data do not provide
information about race and ethnicity; therefore, Census data for children living
in poverty were used as a proxy measure to estimate the ethnicity of children who
Child Homeless Statistics
Approximately 1,555,360 children living in families had no place to call home in
2005–2006 (The National Center on Family Homelessness [NCFH], 2009). Fifty-eight
percent of homeless children are over the age of 6; of those, 77% are in kindergarten
through eighth grade and almost 23% are in grades 9 through 12. More than 1 in 7 children
have moderate to severe health conditions, including asthma, traumatic stress
(almost 1 in 18 homeless children are members of families where adults hit or throw
things), and emotional disturbance (1 in 6 homeless children suffer from emotional disturbances).
Homelessness itself can make children sick. Losing one’s home can cause
illness and aggravate previously existing health conditions for homeless children who
are already in poorer health than their housed peers (NCFH, 1999). Poor health for
homeless children begins at birth with lower birth weights and more required specialty
care (Weinreb, Goldberg, Bassuk, & Perloff, 1998). Homeless children have less access
to medical and dental care (Parker et al., 1991). Proficiency rates in reading and math
for children who are homeless are on average 16% lower than the scores for all students
and fewer than 25% of homeless children graduate from high school (NCFH, 1999).
Eleven percent of American children living in poverty are homeless (NCFH, 2009).
Families living in poverty are forced every day to make decisions about scarce resources.
When family budgets are stretched so that a family must decide between buying groceries
or paying rent, any unexpected event can result in that family becoming homeless.
According to the Report Card (NCFH, 2009), requests for food aid have risen
from 20% to 40% in 2008 and food programs have turned away people who are hungry.
Children without homes are twice as likely as other children to experience hunger and
more than one third of homeless children have been forced to skip meals. Two thirds
of homeless children worry that they will not have enough to eat.
Across the United States, the geographic distribution of homeless children is uneven.
In 2005–2006, almost 75% of all identified homeless children in America were
clustered in 11 states. The 2005 hurricanes resulted in many families losing their homes.
At this time, the highest number of homeless children lived in Louisiana, New Mexico,
Arkansas, Georgia, and Texas (NCFH, 2009).
Role of School Psychologists
School psychologists have training in a diverse range of skills that can benefit the homeless
population within a school setting and they can play a valuable role in working with
homeless children. Initially, school psychologists need background knowledge of this
population in order to be able to work with other school personnel.
It is important for school psychologists to be aware of the diversity in the homeless
population. In general, homeless children have difficulties
and problems similar to children living in poverty (Buckner,
2008; Shinn et al., 2008); these children are exposed
to many risk factors and continuous stress from not having
their basic needs, such as food, shelter, and safety, met. In a
school, it is vital to recognize that many homeless children
lack exposure to early childhood education, are transitory
(Shinn et al.), and attend many schools for brief periods
of time (Morris & Butt, 2003). These children may not
attend school consistently because they constantly move
to find shelter, lack necessary papers and medical records
for school entry (Hicks-Coolick, Burnside-Eaton, & Ardith,
2003), lack transportation, or are ashamed of their situation
(Morris & Butt, 2003). School psychologists need to
advocate for the homeless population by helping families
access services both in school and in the community, providing
assessments aimed at educational programs and services, and working with parents to help them make connections for services for their
Working with school personnel. School psychologists need to share their knowledge
and work collaboratively with other school personnel to best assist homeless
children. In order to target their needs, it is most important at the outset to identify
which children are homeless because they may be “hidden” within a school (Kidd &
Scrimenti, 2004). School personnel can work with the school nurse (Weinreb, Nicholson,
Williams, & Anthes, 2007) to target basic needs such as hearing, vision, and
medical concerns. School psychologists can partner with the school social worker
(Wall, 1996) to assist with connections to available community resources and can provide
staff development (Hicks-Coolick et al., 2003; Wall, 1996) regarding educational
needs (such as tailoring workloads), emotional
concerns, parent interactions, and
sensitivity to the concerns of this population
(Wall, 1996). Schools provide the
safety, consistency, and support needed
by homeless children (Rescorla, Parker,
& Stolley, 1991; Wall, 1996).
Meeting basic needs. Before school
psychologists can implement interventions
that target behavioral, academic,
social, and emotional needs, basic needs
must be met. Most services provided to
the homeless student population are
emergency-focused to provide shelter,
medical assessments, safety, and food
(Buckner, 2008; Hicks-Coolick et al.,
2003; Arnold & Rotheram-Borus, 2009;
Morris & Butt, 2003; Nabors et al., 2004;
Toro et al., 1997; Weinreb et al., 2007).
These families are also in need of mailboxes
and telephone access for communication
purposes and to meet residency
and record-keeping requirements (Hicks-
Coolick et al.; Morris & Butt, 2003; Morris
& Strong, 2004). School psychologists and other school personnel can provide assistance
for other services, which can include access to primary necessities such as food
stamps, healthcare, and clothing.
Academic interventions. Even though basic needs are often the focus of concern
for this population, there is a need for more comprehensive interventions and programs.
School psychologists can screen, assess, and refer homeless children and their
families to other individuals or agencies as necessary (Weinreb et al., 2007). They can
make use of specific assessments and abbreviated evaluations as screening devices
(Rescorla et al., 1991) to provide remedial academic services quickly (Wall, 1996; Yu,
North, LaVesser, Osborne, & Spitznagel, 2008). Brief screening measures are crucial
because homeless students are typically a transient population and may not remain
in the school for long periods of time. A Missouri study by Yu and colleagues (2008)
found that homeless children have lower cognitive abilities based on administration of
the Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test. In a meta-analysis, 9 out of 10 homeless children
performed worse on academic measures and attendance than low-income children
(Buckner, 2008). This already puts them at an educational disadvantage. In addition,
homeless children’s academic progress is often below grade level (Morris & Butt, 2003).
Homeless children do not consistently attend school
because they frequently move and have negative school
experiences; therefore, they do not receive a complete
formal education and do not receive needed services
(Hicks-Coolick et al., 2003; Nabors et al., 2004; Rescorla
et al., 1991; Shinn et al., 2008). School psychologists need
to educate parents about the importance of avoiding disruption
in schooling (Morris & Strong, 2004), and within
the school setting, this population can be provided with
support for completing homework, tutoring, study time,
educational assessments, remediation, and after-school/
summer programs (Hicks-Coolick et al.; Wall, 1996) to
promote academic achievement.
Social, emotional, and behavioral interventions.
Children who are homeless may also require behavioral
interventions within the school setting. Yu and colleagues
(2008) found that homeless children display
more disruptive behaviors than other children. In a New
York City study, Shinn and colleagues (2008) found 4- to
6-year-old homeless children displayed more internalizing
and externalizing problems than children who had
permanent housing. It is likely that behavior problems
result from a lack of routines, structure, and supervision (Morris & Butt, 2003), which can be a consequence of chaotic environments (Rescorla
et al., 1991). Behavior problems can also be associated with the development of mental
health disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder,
anxiety, or depression. Often, behavior problems targeted early have a better prognosis;
therefore, it is critical to implement behavioral interventions as soon as possible.
School psychologists are skilled in behavioral observations across settings, a relatively
quick way to assist in determining needed interventions (Nabors, Proescher, & DeSilva,
2001; Nabors et al., 2004). School psychologists can perform functional behavioral
assessments, create behavioral intervention plans, and provide short-term supports
to target specific student behavioral needs. Homeless children may have attachment
issues related to trust and boundaries due to their life experiences (Weinreb et al.,
2007). In addition, this population often lacks strong and positive friendships because
of frequent changes in schools (Nabors et al., 2004). Homeless adolescents, especially,
may have peer problems due to their appearance and the social stigma of homelessness
(Morris & Butt, 2003). These students may lack appropriate modeling and coping
skills to deal with negative emotions and social interactions—issues that can be
targeted through interventions specifically focused on skills and modeling of appropriate
methods of displaying emotions and interacting with others. School psychologists
possess the skills necessary to provide mental health services such as counseling
(Hicks-Coolick et al., 2003); developing problem solving, conflict resolution, and anger
management skills (Nabors et al., 2004); and self-esteem and assertiveness training for
students (Nabors et al., 2001). To deal with emotions, school psychologists can also
encourage children to talk about their feelings and regulate their emotions (Arnold &
Comprehensive programming for homeless children. One example of a comprehensive
intervention for homeless children was provided in the Empowerment Zone
Project in the Baltimore City Public School System. This program targeted mental
health and health prevention for homeless children over the summer. Interdisciplinary
teams provided homeless children with academic enrichment, counseling and prevention
activities, individual and family counseling, character education, and vocational
training for adolescents. Classroom sessions focused on hygiene, health, physical activity,
violence prevention, drug risks, stress management, conflict resolution, emotions,
social skills, self-esteem, on-task behaviors, work completion, and behavior. Character
education interventions focused on making friends, teamwork, and cooperation (Nabors
et al., 2001; Nabors et al., 2004). Parent training, as used in this program, helped
parents cope with behavior problems, social and emotional functioning, discipline,
and mental health problems, and encouraged positive behaviors among their children
(Nabors et al., 2001).
Working with parents. Most often, the parents of homeless children are single
mothers. Many of these parents may lack or feel as though they do not have the skills
to advocate for their children or use school services (Hicks-Coolick et al., 2003). School
psychologists can encourage parents to participate in the school environment and advocate
for their children’s education, which can increase achievement and provide
empowerment (Morris & Butt, 2003). Parents need to know their child’s educational
rights under the law as well as available services within schools and their communities;
school psychologists can make this information available. School psychologists
can also provide parent training and workshops to address multiple topics simultaneously
(Nabors et al., 2004) and accommodate the limited amount of time and possible
lack of transportation and child care experienced by parents. Parent groups focused
on increasing knowledge about child development, education rights, school services,
school records, community resources, setting goals, successful communication, homework,
and behavior are beneficial for these parents (Hicks-Coolick et al.; Morris & Butt,
2003; Nabors et al., 2001; Wall, 1996; Yu et al., 2008).
Advocating. School psychologists have the skills to advocate for the needs of homeless
children within their employment settings. They can promote needed primary care
services, behavioral health services, basic “emergency” needs, and decreased stigma
associated with homelessness (Weinreb et al., 2007). School psychologists need to
inform administrators and other school personnel of the McKinney–Vento Homeless
Assistance Act to ensure that these individuals work toward the best interest of homeless
children and in accordance with the law. Ultimately, school psychologists need to
be proactive by identifying specific goals, time lines, and school personnel responsibilities
in order to reverse the trend of negative outcomes for homeless children.
School psychologists can also become involved in public policy changes by writing
grants (Toro et al., 1997), encouraging early education programs and preschool (Rescorla
et al., 1991; Shinn et al., 2008), reducing educational obstacles (Weinreb et al.,
2007), and promoting social reform and funding (Shinn et al.). Funding can best be
achieved through grants that propose interventions that are both market- and sciencedriven
(Arnold & Rotheram-Borus, 2009). School psychologists can contact their local,
state, and national political leaders to create laws that act to reduce homelessness.
Because of an increase in the number of homeless children throughout the United
States, this population has unmet needs that can be targeted in school settings under
the guidance of school psychologists. School psychologists have the knowledge, skills,
and training necessary to work with school personnel and parents, to advocate for and access services, and to evaluate students to determine their academic, behavioral, and
social–emotional needs. School psychologists are in an ideal position to work with
school-based teams to effectively implement academic, behavioral, social–emotional,
and parenting programs and interventions designed to target the multitude of risk factors
encountered by homeless children.
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