Parent-Student Education Needed for Homeless Families, Studies Say

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 10, 2014 2 min read
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A strong relationship with parents can make the difference in whether homeless students thrive in spite of their disadvantage.

Most homeless-education workers understand this, but experts at a symposium in the American Psychological Association meeting here argued those workers don’t often link effective training and support for children and parents dealing with their own trauma. Structural limitations in family homeless shelters may leave a unique opening for schools to help homeless children and parents connect.

“We want to promote positive parenting in the context of homelessness,” said Staci Perlman, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Delaware and the 2013 visiting scholar at the People’s Emergency Center, a homeless shelter provider in Philadelphia.

Insufficient Support at Shelters

In June, the center’s task force on parenting while homeless launched a study within the National Survey of Emergency and Transitional Housing Programs aiming to determine what parent-child education programs are available for homeless children.

Only 45 percent of participants have completed the 55-item survey so far, but Perlman pointed to some initial findings:

  • Most parenting-education programs are intended to take 18 weeks, but more than half of families stay in a given shelter 12 weeks or less.
  • Nearly all programs were created by shelter staff and focus on topics including reducing corporal punishment and improving parent coping skills.
  • While a majority of programs listed increasing time between parents and children as a goal, only about half actually had joint sessions in which parents and children learned together.
  • All of the shelter-based programs focused on helping children ages 6 and younger.

Leigh Wilson of the People’s Emergency Center argued that shelters that work with children need fundamental changes, particularly for boys. After in-depth interviews with 376 boys, mostly black, in the center’s emergency and transitional housing programs, Wilson found very limited expectations of success for boys as opposed to girls, and very few male role models. For example, she found very few family shelters admit fathers, and a majority will not admit older boys—some as young as 16.

It could be difficult to change those rules, as Carmela J. DeCandia of the National Center on Family Homelessness estimated that more than 60 percent of homeless mothers became so because they were fleeing domestic violence.

Need for School Support

Yet that provides clear opportunities for schools serving homeless students to incorporate family time into services they provide under federal McKinney-Vento homeless education grants, as well as to recruit homeless parents into parent-child education programs.

Because Perlman found a majority of homeless families stay at a given shelter for three months or less, schools may be the most stable and consistent site for families to receive education and keep in touch with each other. Under federal rules, homeless students have the right to stay in their home school even if their family moves out of the attendance zone.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.