Posted: Fri, 09/30/2011 - 9:14am Updated: Fri, 01/23/2015 - 4:43pm

You may not know who they are, but chances are you have some homeless students in your class right now. Homelessness has become a pervasive problem in our modern society, which leaves no aspect of life untouched for the students experiencing it. Unfortunately, this means that often homeless students struggle to succeed academically. As persons uniquely invested in the academic achievement of homeless students, teachers can face challenges in reaching these students. One way to help identify the homeless students in your classroom is to work with your district’s McKinney-Vento Liaison. The goal of this page is to provide you with some other resources for the classroom that help bridge the gaps.

The constant change in the lives of homeless children can make the importance of school take on a whole new meaning for them. For many homeless students, school is the one stable and reliable thing in their lives. Teachers can foster that sense of security by creating a homelike environment in their classrooms without actually singling out any one child or group of children. The following strategies were discussed at a conference held by Horizons For Homeless Children in the spring of 2005:

  • Friendship Buddies: Homeless families move much more frequently than permanently housed students. By providing new students with Friendship Buddies, the new school and class can seem less threatening and more stable.
  • Transitional Items: Homeless students frequently lose all or nearly all of their possessions when they lose their homes. This can produce a great deal of anxiety, especially for young children. Allowing homeless students to keep a small item that reminds them of home or makes them feel safe in their desk or locker can go a long way to decreasing anxiety, which helps allow students to focus on the academic tasks at hand.
  • Giving Them a Place of Their Own: Homeless children may literally be living in their cars. Even children living in homeless shelters do not have a space or place to call their own. Giving students a place with their name on it, such as a locker, cubby, or coat hook, can give homeless children a sense of security and ownership.
  • Pictures: Some children experience separation anxiety when they have to leave their parents to come to school. Allowing the child to keep a picture of their mom or dad with them at all times can reduce this.
  • Lunch Choices: Homeless children have chaotic lives that seem out of control. As a result, many children act out in an attempt to control things. If children are given some limited options to choose their breakfast, lunch, or snack, their internal loci of control can be reinforced.
  • Sensory Exploration: Children who are homeless have extremely limited options for exploration and play. Young children especially may spend their entire time with their parents in a child carrier. This can lead to developmental delays. Giving children the chance to get "down and dirty" provides sensory experiences they may otherwise lack.
  • Accidents Happen: Because economic and emotional resources are so strained in homeless families, many children become extremely upset when seemingly insignificant events happen. Some teachers reported purposely spilling milk or creating other "accidents" to model adaptive behavior for the children when "accidents happen."
  • Consistent Staff: When possible, having regular substitute staff helps children gain a sense of stability.
  • Homework File: Teachers can keep a file containing recent work that students have done to send with the students if they move to a new district. This gives the new teacher an immediate point of reference for where the student is academically.
  • Goodbye Books: When a teacher has warning that one of her students is leaving, a Goodbye Book can be created to send good wishes with the student. It can include letters, pictures drawn by the other students, signatures, or pictures of the students.
  • Stationery: Pre-addressed and stamped envelopes and paper can be sent with transferring students so they feel the link to their friends is still open.
  • Hideaway Spaces: Homeless students may never get to be alone or have any down time. By creating safe hideaway spaces in the classroom for free time, students may get away from it all while still being monitored by their teacher.
  • My Class: Pictures can be taken of all the students and placed together in a display to give ownership.
  • Community Service: While they often receive help at Thanksgiving and Christmas, people in need are often overlooked during the rest of the year. Community service projects can be used to teach academic skills, about homelessness, and civic responsibility.

Lesson Plans

Lessons can also be designed to incorporate homelessness as a topic to raise awareness about the issue. This is frequently a way for other students to be identified, especially in advanced grades. Once students learn more, they frequently will self-identify to the school counselor or identify friends to get help.