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Academic Support of Homeless Children and Youth: An Overview


photo of a boy holding a notebook According to the January 1993 issue of Access to Success: Meeting the Educational Needs of Homeless Children and Families produced by Homes for the Homeless, Inc. from data on New York City's homeless population:
Homeless children are nine times more likely to repeat a grade; four times more likely to drop out of school; three times more likely to be placed in a special education program; two times as likely to score lower on standardized tests than non-homeless children (pp. 1–7).

Children who are homeless do not perform as well in school, have lower achievement scores, and more academic failure than housed students. These children need the stability of school and rely on academic support provided to them. The classroom needs to be a safe and consistent place for homeless children and youth. Children need to feel welcome, accepted, and included, like they belong and are understood.


Children who are homeless experience many educational challenges and barriers. To name a few, children who are homeless experience health problems, hunger, and a lack of adequate clothing and school supplies that frequently result in low attendance rates. In addition, the school system can create barriers to enrollment when children who are homeless need records of immunizations, physical exams, birth certificates, proof of guardianship, residency requirements, and transportation.

Needs According to Age Group

Children also need tutoring services, school supplies/clothes, school counselors, access to after-school extracurricular programs (that provide food, supplies, shelter, and transportation), and transportation to and from school. Specific needs according to age group are outlined below:

Early Childhood: Preschoolers are at greatest risk. Homelessness increases the likelihood of chronic health problems, developmental delays, lower academic achievement, and emotional difficulties. Children need to be read to and interacted with in order to stimulate brain growth and development. Programs like Even Start/Head Start are beneficial to children who are homeless.

Elementary Education: Children who are homeless have needs for personal space, a predictable structure, and a sense of belonging. It is important for teachers, school counselors, and other school personnel to provide children with a safe place for their belongings, allow children to work at a desk instead of the floor, make school supplies available for children, establish some routine, and maintain connections with students who leave.

Secondary Education: Children in this age group may present with developmental lags. Students may not disclose homelessness due to lack of trust, embarrassment, or other reasons. Teachers, school counselors, and other school personnel should encourage students' commitment to further their education and job training/placement. School personnel may find it necessary to be flexible in school policies. Students may need additional services,such as childcare, transportation, and emotional support.

Special Education: When working with students who are to be tested for special education services, it is important to rule out poverty as a cause for disability. Students who have been or are homeless may experience lags in development due to lack of a consistent learning environment. These students may have been exposed to lead paint or other toxic materials in their living environments. Teachers, school counselors, and other school personnel should make a special effort to retain copies of testing materials, IEPs, and other paperwork as students may be transferred to other schools (from The Compendium of Research & Information, 1999).

Ways to Support Students Who are Homeless

Principals and administrators can provide support by ensuring that students who are homeless have access to school. This support would include the cooperation of school personnel in records and admissions, as well as the department of transportation. Teachers and school counselors would need to attend to students' personal needs: physical, social, and emotional. Of course, all school personnel will need to coordinate with other agencies for additional services and to raise awareness in the community.

Other recommendations are to keep children in their school of origin whenever possible, collaborate with local shelters, minimize enrollment delays, and provide timely access to educational and in-school support services. Another important resource to draw upon is the family of the student. Family support services should be made available as well. Provide staff development and sensitivity training when necessary. Teachers can be advocates for students who are homeless. Establish a teacher, school counselor, or other school personnel as the homeless liaison for your school district. Finally, early intervention programs are key to address cognitive development and health issues of students who are homeless.

Identify Successful Programs

There are several successful curricula and programs for students who are homeless. (1) The Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (CALLA); (2) The Brownstone School and SKHP's Discovery! Club have developed tutoring and theme-based activities and the Integrated Learning Arts Package (ILAP) with literacy, math, and science themes; (3) Life Skills for Kids; and (4) The Atlanta Children's Shelter Curriculum. More information about these programs can be located in the Annotated Bibliography section for this topic area.

Other Recommendations

Other ideas for curriculum and instruction are to: foster resiliency through reducing risks, limit exposure to stress and decrease stressors; provide awareness projects that include all students; encourage connections (students to school, school personnel with each other and students, homeless students with other students); provide peer tutoring; and encourage goal setting and self-monitoring. ⇑ back to top
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The National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) is the U.S. Department of Education's technical assistance center for the federal Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) Program. NCHE is housed at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

This website was produced with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, on contract no. ED-01-CO-0092/0001. The content of this website does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Education or the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

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