Homelessness and the Learning Disabled Student Relationships

The Relationship between Homelessness and the Learning Disabled Student

When we think of homelessness we typically never consider the children that are involved. We see these people in our communities daily. They are often displaced for a variety of reasons. Some have mental illnesses and cannot take care of themselves and others are there for temporary monetary reasons. But what about the children? They are the small victims of something that is out of their control.

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More than 1.6 million U.S. children are homeless each year and about 40 % of children residing in shelters are under the age of 7 years (National Center on Family Homelessness 2011), (Haskett, M., Armstrong, J., & Tisdale, J., 2016). Federal law defines children and youth who are homeless as individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence (McKinney-Vento Act, 2009). Could they overcome their mental, behavioral and emotional obstacles if they had a more structured lifestyle?

Poor child health is associated with the timing of homelessness across three specific critical developmental time periods: prenatal only, postnatal only, or both prenatal and postnatal versus never homeless. The hypothesis is that homelessness during any time period would be associated with poor child health outcomes, and those with both prenatal and postnatal homelessness would have the greatest adjusted odds of poor child health compared with those who were never homeless, those with prenatal homelessness only, or those with postnatal homelessness only. (Sandel, M., Sheward, R., Ettinger de Cuba, S., Coleman, S., Heeren, T., Black, M., Casey, P.H., Colton, M., Cook, J., Belker Cutts, D., Jacobs, R.R., & Frank, D.A., 2018). Schooling, however, may ameliorate some of the negative consequences of homelessness, and special education programs with more individualized teaching may be particularly beneficial. (Zima, B. T., Bussing, R., Forness, S. R., & Benjamin, B. 1997).

Youngsters who are homeless are twice as likely to have a learning disability and three times more likely to manifest emotional problems than their classmates who are not homeless. (Gargiulo, R.M., 2006). While we do not have all of the answers, there has been some research done that gives the reader a better sense of knowledge on how children who have learning disabilities may not have such disabilities if their quality of life was better. The research also demonstrates the effects of homelessness and how it effects the learning disabled student. Inadequate transportation may be a barrier in certain geographic areas because families may need to access services that are in more than one physical location, especially in the hypothetical case of a child with physical health needs, behavioral health needs, and educational support needs. (Lynch, S., 2018).

When children start to feel the effects of homelessness their self-esteem tends to dwindle. They often feel useless and become depressed. Addressing risk for mental health problems in homeless children requires insights of child development, psychiatry, mental health services, and social and economic development. (Marcal, K.E., 2017). A number of studies suggest that children experiencing homelessness tend to be characterized by low intellectual functioning, developmental delays, and poor school performance. (Haskett, et.al, 2016). More often than not, the student will have to change schools and they could possibly lose what they have gained in retention and comprehension.

Research indicates that students who change schools due to unplanned residential mobility, such as that associated with homelessness, score lower on standardized tests and have lower overall academic achievement (Kerbow, 1996; Lash & Kirkpatrick, 1990); Mantzicopoulos & Kautson, 2000); (Melman Heinlein, & Shinn, 2000); (Rumberger & Larson, 1998); (Julianelle, P. F., & Foscarinis, M.,2003). The children are often misunderstood due to the delay in school records being sent to the newest school. Determination of eligibility for special education, the first step to accessing programs, may be especially problematic for homeless children because of their transiency and lengthy Individualized Education Program timelines for evaluation and placement. (Zima, B. T., Bussing, R., Forness, S. R., & Benjamin, B. (1997).

In December 2001, Congress reauthorized the McKinney-Vento Act, as part of the No Child Left behind Act. Educators and advocates from across the country, including NLCHP, were directly involved in the reauthorization. In fact, virtually all of the changes in the reauthorization were based on model practices in schools and school districts. Educators, advocates, attorneys, and policymakers united behind these successful practices, working to ensure they would be incorporated into the law for the benefit of schools and students across the country. (Julianelle, P. F., & Foscarinis, M., 2003). The McKinney Act did not establish separate educational program for homeless children, rather it reinforced their right to participate in existing public school programs. (Gargiulo, R.M, 2006). Most of the other changes in the reauthorization of the McKinney-Vento Act were designed to limit the negative effects of school mobility on children and youth experiencing homelessness. They strengthened and clarified the Act’s historic emphasis on educational stability, access, and success. (Julianelle, 2002).

Past federal initiatives tailored to address the complex needs of IDEA eligible students suggests that the federal government is equipped with the legislative tools to respond to the plight of homeless students meaningfully. (Abdul Rahman, M., Turner Jr., J. F., & Elbedour, S., 2017). The following are some of the key elements of the reauthorization. (Julianelle, P.F., & Foscarinis, M., 2003). The McKinney-Vento Act requires school districts to allow students in homeless situations to remain in their schools of origin for the entire time they are homeless, regardless of their residential mobility. The McKinney-Vento Act requires schools to enroll homeless students immediately, even if they lack documents typically required for enrollment. This provision enables unaccompanied youth to enroll in school without a legal guardian. The key provision ensuring educational success is a new requirement that every school district designate a McKinney-Vento liaison to work with children and youth experiencing homelessness. (Julianelle, P.F., &Foscarinis, M., 2003). Effective programs that serve youngsters who are homeless and disabled typically address not only the child’s educational needs but also their physical and emotional needs as well. (Gargiulo, R.M., 2006). Where the McKinney-Vento Act is being implemented, children and youth are reaping immense rewards. School provides the obvious benefits of intellectual, emotional, and social stimulation, and academic achievement. By offering educational stability and access, the McKinney-Vento Act helps children and youth experiencing homelessness realize these benefits. Yet, even beyond these school-based opportunities, the Act’s education provisions are also a critical element in ending the root cause of the students’ mobility: homelessness. (Julianelle, P.F., & Foscarinis, M., 2003).

Bronfenbrenner’s ecobiodevelopmental framework elucidates the physiological mechanisms namely, stress reactions by which adverse household conditions negatively impact child development and mental health. (Marcal, K.E., 2017). Few studies, however, have described the level of need for special education services among homeless children, the first step toward designing interventions that may improve access to special education programs. (Zima, B. T., Forness, S. R., Bussing, R., & Benjamin, B. 1998). Almost one half of sheltered homeless children have been found to have acute and chronic health problems, including elevated blood lead levels, placing them at additional risk for learning problems (Alperstein, Rappaport, & Flanigan, 1988; Miller & Lin, 1988). Frequent school changes and poor attendance may make it impossible to differentiate an adjustment reaction from signs of an emerging behavioral or learning problem. (Zima, et., al. 1998).

Children who are homeless are a heterogeneous group; therefore, it is difficult to anticipate every need or situation that may arise within the educational environment. (Yamaguchi, B. J., & Strawser, S. 1997). In Los Angeles, almost one half of sheltered homeless children (46%) screened positive for at least one disability requiring special education services, with BD being the most prominent (30%). (Zima, et. al.1998). Less than two percent of the states demonstrated adequate services for promoting the physical and mental health well-being of children and less than 30% met minimum standards for advancing the educational well-being for children in their systems. (Rouse, H., Fantuzzo, J., & LeBoeuf, W., 2011). Children experiencing homelessness often had high rates of grade retention and school mobility and lower than average grades or test scores. (Masten, A.S., Fiat, A.E., Labella, M.H., & Strack, R.A., 2015).

The average homeless school-aged child experiences a number of emotional challenges. (R.A.Hall, 2007). High levels of psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and psychosis have been identified in populations of homeless youth (Kamieniecki, 2001). Family situations such as displacement of mother and fathers can also be traumatic for these children. The unbalanced lifestyle of the homeless youth can often lead to more dire circumstances as they get older. The students are not functioning as the typical student their age does and that too can lead to exacerbate the emotional unwellness of the child and impede their learning capability. Some caregivers accept a wide range of behaviors as normal, and might not consider a particular clinical threshold as necessarily worthy of intervention, because other more pressing need for food, shelter, or work may take precedence. (Lynch, S., 2018). The self-esteem of children who are homeless must be considered in the design of educational programs within the school environment. Findings indicate that homelessness occurring during the first 2 years of life is worse for academic outcomes and school attendance, compared to homelessness first occurring after children are 2 years of age (Perlman and Fantuzzo 2010).

Children who are homeless may feel alienated from schoolmates. (Yamaguchi, B. J., & Strawser, S. 1997). Homeless children have significantly higher rates of psychiatric symptom and disorders, predominantly anxiety and mood disorders. (Yu, M., North, C.S., LaVesser, P.D., Osborne, V.A. & Spitznagel, E.L. 2008). Check in/check-out (CICO) often is used as a targeted intervention for youth who display problematic behavior at school and might benefit from receiving additional attention and opportunities for positive reinforcement (Hulac, Terrell, Vining, & Bernstein, 2011). Early intervention partnerships between educators, social service providers, homeless shelter services, and other public health providers create a capacity for better access and better coordination of services for children experiencing multiple risks to their educational success. (Rouse, H., Fantuzzo, J.W., 2009).

However, the lack of knowledge about service availability along with confusion with navigating the healthcare system may prevent homeless youth from seeking services. (Sulkowski, M., Michael, K., 2014). Other factors can include the embarrassment from lack of adequate clothing and personal hygiene needs. Children who do not have the means to take care of their own personal hygiene needs often develop mental health problems. Since personal care is such a basic need, the students often become withdrawn and develop emotional problems. With consent from a custodial guardian or a recognized caregiver, a school psychologist or counselor can identify homeless students who have elevated levels of anxiety and recruit them in a therapy group that follows an evidence-based cognitivebehavioral therapy (CBT) treatment protocol. (Sulkowski, M., Michael, K., 2014). Interventions to address mental health problems in the schools often involve proving individual counseling of therapy. Because of the wide range of psychiatric and mental health problems that homeless youth display, a large percentage of these youth likely could benefit from receiving indicated intervention services. (Sulkowski, M., Michael, K., 2014). Educators must also be prepared to translate their assessment results into immediate instructional goals and objectives due to student’s poor attendance. (Yamaguchi, B. J., & Strawser, S. 1997).

There is also a cultural and racial disadvantage to homelessness. In one study of the United States, the population of homeless families is different from the population of homeless individuals. Fewer than half (45.4%) of the overall homeless sheltered individuals in the United States are White and not Hispanic, whereas the largest proportion of homeless sheltered families is African American (47.9%). (Lynch, S.,2018). The largest population are the black families. They are 55.9 percent of the shelter population. (Jones, David, R., 2015). Children from economically disadvantaged and minority families consistently perform below their non-poor, non-minority peers in both reading and mathematics. (Rouse, H., Fantuzzo, J.W., 2009). There are other risks the children face associated with homelessness that may impede their overall cognitive skills. Some of the risks include crime and the mal-treatment of the child because the family is in dire circumstances. For young children living in vulnerable environments, multiple biological and social risk factors interact bi-directionally with the development of early academic and behavioral skills. (Jaffee, S., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T., Dodge, K., Rutter, M., Taylor, A. 2005), (Tremblay, R.E., Nagin, D.S., Seguin, J.R., Zoccolillo, M., Zelago, P.D., Boivin, M., 2004), (Rouse, H., Fantuzzo, J.W., 2009).

The parents of the homeless child’s mental state can also factor in how a child gains perspective. If the homeless child has a cognitively impaired parent, the results for the child gaining access to academics can be little to none. Lower educational level of mothers is associated with disruptive behavior disorders in their children. (Yu, M., et.al, 2008). There are also higher rates of psychiatric disorders (especially substance use disorders and PTSD) among homeless than domiciled mothers. (Yu, M.et, al., 2008). Family issues, such as family violence, parental alcohol or other drug use, and parental mental health, also may play a role in causing and prolonging homelessness and, in their interplay, compound poor outcomes for children and families. (Moore, T., McArthur M. & Nobel-Carr, D., 2011).

The newest research models are constantly striving to find the best practices for children who are homeless. The students who have learning disabilities are at the most disadvantaged but there are steps that the educators and administrators are taking to ensure that every child succeeds. Contemporary research has attempted to isolate the effects of homelessness on education, with mixed results. (Tobin, K.J., 2016). New research linking stress to learning difficulties is relevant because the homeless experience is often correlated with great stress. (Tobin, K.J., 2016). While stress can certainly cause a host of problems for individuals, being homeless without knowledge of where you may sleep that night would be one of the toughest problems facing someone. Academics can often be the last thing on a child’s mind when they have no idea where their basic needs such as food is coming from. With all of the necessary luxuries life can be touch to manage, it can be tougher if you feel as if you have to fight, prostitute, or haggle someone for a meal or a place to rest. Homeless children are the most vulnerable people. They often face crime, addictions, poverty and feel as if they have little if any chance of survival. Schools need the resources to be able to instill into children the means to get themselves off the streets and integrated into society as productive members. But for some school, the resources to help the disabled homeless child may be too great a feat unless more laws are enacted.

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Homelessness And The Learning Disabled Student Relationships. (2019, Mar 26). Retrieved December 9, 2022 , from

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