Ask An Expert: Working with Homeless Students

Question: On yesterday, I received a new student in my classroom. His mother brought him to school on the first day and informed me that they were homeless. She said she doesn’t want her son’s education to suffer because of her family’s predicament. To my knowledge, I have never had a student in my room that was homeless. How can I support this child’s unique educational, behavioral and emotional needs, etc.? Kathy G.

Answer: Thank you for your question and for taking a proactive approach to this situation. Homelessness is another step down on the ladder of poverty and it is a very real problem faced by 1.5 million children in the United States. Many homeless families live in shelters in rural or urban areas. With one income, high rent and living expenses, many families are just one emergency away from disaster. As a result, even children who still have a home to go to could lose it in a heartbeat.

For instance, a single mother trying to make ends meet cannot go to work because her child gets sick. She must be with her child, as she has no one to help. On top of this, she has medical bills piling up. Even if she has a job to return to, she may not be able to afford her rent.

Homeless children still need to receive an education. Yet, when they get to school each morning, they are often hungry and tired. Like many children living in poverty, homeless children move frequently, and are exposed to drugs, violence, crime and more. Also, transportation might be an issue for some homeless children and they miss a great deal of school.

When they are able to attend school, they may be teased for the clothes they wear and the fact they fall asleep in class. They may have difficulty making friends or a fear of participating in an activity in front of the class. Although many homeless children are with their families, older homeless children may be runaways or may have been kicked out of their homes. Many have been abused sexually and/or physically.

Teachers who have homeless children in their classroom need to know how to help and support children without a permanent home. Homeless children may be needy emotionally and due to lack of access to bathtubs or showers and little food, they may be unclean and unfed. Teachers can be an anchor for homeless children by showing them compassion and understanding.

It may also be a challenge to communicate with parents who don’t have regular access to a phone. Of course, the most important thing for homeless children is that their families find a home. Teachers might be able to help by working with local agencies, children, and their families to find a solution to their problem.

Homeless children deserve a quality education just like all students. Teachers are the first line of defense but we all have to pitch in and do what we can to ensure that all of our country’s children have the chance to lead happy, healthy lives. If you implement the strategies that I have outlined in this column, you will have no problem working with homeless students and their families.

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