Leah Davies

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Educating Homeless Children

Children with no permanent residence lack a sense of security, are frequently ill, unable to concentrate and may exhibit unruly or withdrawn behavior and below average academic performance. 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.
by Leah Davies, M.Ed.
www.kellybear.com
Regular contributor to the Gazette
March 1, 2009

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.
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About Leah Davies...

Leah Davies received her Master's Degree from the Department of Counseling and Counseling Psychology, Auburn University. She has been dedicated to the well-being of children for 44 years as a certified teacher, counselor, prevention specialist, parent, and grandparent. Her professional experience includes teaching, counseling, consulting, instructing at Auburn University, and directing educational and prevention services at a mental health agency.

Besides the Kelly Bear materials, Leah has written articles that have appeared in The American School Counseling Association Counselor, The School Counselor, Elementary School Guidance and Counseling Journal, Early Childhood News, and National Head Start Association Journal. She has presented workshops at the following national professional meetings: American School Counselor Association; Association for Childhood Education International; National Association for the Education of Young Children; National Child Care Association; National Head Start Association; National School-Age Child Care Alliance Conference.

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