Assistant Professor, DCU Institute of Education
Dr Ger Scanlon
Assistant Professor, DCU Institute of Education
Home Works: The Educational Needs of Children Experiencing Homelessness
In Ireland, 3,778 children are living in homelessness accommodation, with many experiencing poor physical and mental well-being, low self-esteem, and social isolation that affects school attendance, engagement, and participation. In the absence of a coordinated response from the government, how can schools respond to the needs of homeless children and their families?
In Ireland in 2019, children are the largest and fastest-growing group living in emergency and temporary accommodation. The ‘official’ number of children experiencing homelessness has increased from 880 in December 2014 to an unprecedented 3,778 in July 2019. While almost 75% of these children are from the greater Dublin region, child homelessness beyond the capital is increasing exponentially, from 154 in December 2014 to 1,002 in July 2019 (Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, 2015, 2019). In September 2019, Focus Ireland reported that at least 2,250 children across Ireland started or returned to school from emergency or temporary accommodation, such as bed and breakfasts, hotels, and family hubs.
Figure 1 Children living in emergency accommodation, 2014–2019 (Source: Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government)
Nationally, principals, teachers, public health nurses, social workers, and paediatricians continue to report the deleterious impact of homelessness on children’s physical health, psychological well-being, and educational development. The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) states that ‘school children who are homeless are seriously struggling in school while their teachers struggle to help them to cope’ (Nunan, 2018, p. 10).
The Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) surveyed over 1,000 school principals in 2018 and found that 27% are currently making educational provision for children living in homeless accommodation. Schools reported that children living in homeless accommodation are suffering from poor physical and mental well-being, low self-esteem, exhaustion, and feelings of isolation that affect their school attendance, engagement, and participation (IPPN, 2019).
What are the educational needs of children experiencing homelessness?
International and national educational research on homeless children spanning the last thirty years has consistently identified homelessness as a serious risk to children’s educational participation and success. Risks include academic underperformance, reduced school attendance, poor health and nutrition, difficulty in completing homework, challenges in building and maintaining relationships with teachers and peers, and poor mental health (Keogh et al., 2006; Buckner, 2008). Children experiencing homelessness share additional risk factors that affect educational access and participation, including multiple school transitions, loss of community and friendships, persistent poverty, and the social stigma of being homeless (Masten et al., 1997).
Family and child homelessness in Ireland is a relatively recent phenomenon, and there is a dearth of studies that document the risks of insecure housing and homelessness on children’s educational access and participation in this context. The Home Works study (Scanlon and McKenna, 2018), commissioned by the Children’s Rights Alliance, provides insights into the lives and educational experiences of thirty-six children experiencing homelessness in the Dublin region, as well as the perspectives of parents, teachers, principals, and school staff. Almost three-quarters of the children were attending primary school, with half of the group attending schools that are part of the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools initiative (DEIS).
The Home Works study found that despite the best efforts of parents and teachers, children who are homeless in Ireland are experiencing a unique set of challenges and difficulties that threaten their educational access, aspirations, and enjoyment of school life. Homelessness has negatively affected the children’s health and well-being, school attendance, friendships, relationships with teachers, academic achievement, and educational participation.
The study highlighted that for children living in homeless accommodation, the function of the school shifted from a place of learning to a place of safety, routine, and predictability. Overwhelmingly, despite a lack of advice, support, and resources available to schools, parents who participated in the Home Works study reported that their children valued school, because of the predictable routines and the safety, security, and positive experiences offered by the children’s teachers and peers.
Schools as a ‘safe haven’
Despite the educational risks posed by insecure housing and homelessness, existing literature in the field indicated that schools provide children with havens of safety, stability, and care. The Home Works study offered many examples of principals, teachers, and school support staff who made every effort to protect, help, and support children and families.
Principals spoke of advocacy on behalf of parents and sourcing information and advice about homeless services and supports. School staff gave children clean clothes, uniforms, and winter coats, as well as breakfast and snacks after long journeys to school on public transport. Parents described schools that opened their doors to families and made parent rooms available throughout the day. Some principals created safe, cosy corners in classrooms, and sensory rooms where tired children could rest and in some cases sleep during the school day.
Despite the many positive actions and innovative approaches that schools undertook, principals, teachers, and school support staff consistently reported significant challenges to supporting children and families through their existing roles, responsibilities, and meagre resources. These concerns have been repeatedly echoed by educationalists, teachers, and advocacy organisations but have not yet resulted in a coordinated response from central government.
How can schools support children and families experiencing homelessness?
The Home Works study makes five recommendations for school-based practice arising from its findings and from international literature on the educational needs and evidence-based responses to children experiencing homelessness.
The Home Works study makes five recommendations for school-based practice arising from its findings and from international literature.
Recommendation 1: Schools and educational settings require support to develop policies and procedures that outline their response to children and parents experiencing homelessness. This should include advice for parents and children on how to notify the school of their circumstances, and clear guidance on how this information is shared and responded to by educational professionals in the school setting.
Recommendation 2: Schools and educational professionals can support the basic needs of children who are homeless through inclusive practices that are sensitive to the unique context of children and families. Teachers and professionals working directly with children would benefit from information, training, and resources to help identify children’s needs, as well as guidance on how to promote safe and secure school environments, strategies to support pro-social relationships, and flexible learning opportunities for students who may be absent, unable to complete homework, or at risk of educational under-achievement.
Recommendation 3: Children living in homelessness accommodation feel embarrassment and shame that result in social withdrawal and isolation. A positive school climate can enhance children’s relationships with their peers through peer-mentoring and befriending schemes. Schools should be encouraged and supported to develop pastoral care practices specific to the identified educational needs of children experiencing homelessness.
Recommendation 4: The educational experience of children extends beyond school hours and includes opportunities for extracurricular participation in the wider school community. Schools may wish to consider opportunities to offer extended services to parents and children who are experiencing homelessness, including: a family room for parents, adequate space and support to complete homework, opportunities for children to participate in extracurricular activities, and the provision of meals, including breakfast and lunch.
Recommendation 5: Despite the adversity that children are experiencing, indicators from parents and educators show a commitment to engagement and positive participation in educational experiences for children who are experiencing homelessness. Recognition of children’s efforts, positive relationships and achievements, and parental commitment to educational success should be supported and encouraged.
Homelessness in the Classroom: A resource for primary schools’ offers practical guidance that may help children and families experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
The recommendations from the Home Works study have been further developed by the INTO and Focus Ireland with the publication of ‘Homelessness in the Classroom: A resource for primary schools’ in September 2019 (Focus Ireland and Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, 2019). The resource offers practical guidance that may help children and families who are experiencing or are at risk of homelessness. It includes guidance on how to respond to children’s basic needs and mental health and well-being, strategies to support school-based security, predictability, and routine, and advice on supporting children’s and parents’ relationships with peers and staff.
While the publication of guidelines for primary schools is welcomed as a much-needed resource, the Home Works study confirms the need for a sustained and coordinated approach from multiple government departments, statutory agencies, schools, and voluntary and community-based organisations to ensure children’s access to and participation in education. Meaningful attention to the educational needs of children experiencing homelessness has not been forthcoming at government level.
Despite the efforts of individual principals and teachers, the educational needs, access, and participation of the growing number of homeless children require appropriate and dedicated measures to ensure that children can access and participate in education irrespective of their family circumstances. The response to children experiencing homelessness must be separate and distinct, with input from all relevant government ministries, agencies, organisations, and services working with and for children and families (Scanlon and McKenna, 2018).
Buckner, J.C. (2008) ‘Understanding the impact of homelessness on children: Challenges and future research directions’, American Behavioral Scientist, 51(6), 721–36. doi: 10.1177/0002764207311984
Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government (2015) Local Authority Build by Area 2004–2015 (Annual Report No. 1). www.housing.gov.ie/housing/social-housing/social-and-affordble/overall-social-housing-provision.
Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government (2019) Homelessness Report July 2019, p. 3. www.housing.gov.ie/housing/homelessness/other/homelessness-data.
Focus Ireland and Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (2019) Homelessness in the Classroom: A resource for primary schools (no. 1), p. 20. www.focusireland.ie/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Homelessness-in-the-Classroom.pdf.
Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) (2019) ‘Schools becoming a safe haven for Ireland’s 4,000 homeless children’. 21 February. www.ippn.ie/index.php/advocacy/press-releases/7777-schools-becoming-a-safe-haven-for-ireland-s-4-000-homeless-children.
Keogh, A.F., Halpenny, A.M., and Gilligan, R. (2006) ‘Educational issues for children and young people in families living in emergency accommodation: An Irish perspective’, Children & Society, 20(5), 360–75. doi: 10.1111/j.1099-0860.2006.00015.x
Masten, A.S., Sesma Jr., A., Si-Asar, R., Lawrence, C., Miliotis, D., and Dionne, J.A. (1997) ‘Education risks for children experiencing homelessness’, Journal of School Psychology, 35(1), 27–46. doi: 10.1016/S0022-4405(96)00032-5
Nunan, S. (2018) ‘Irish National Teachers’ Organisation in response to Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton TD at INTO Congress 2018’. Irish National Teachers’ Organisation Congress 2018. Killarney, Ireland. www.into.ie/ROI/NewsEvents/Conferences/AnnualCongress/AnnualCongress2018/Speeches/SpeechbySheilaNunan.pdf.
Scanlon, G. and McKenna, G. (2018) ‘Home Works: A Study on the Educational Needs of Children Experiencing Homelessness and Living in Emergency Accommodation’. Dublin: Children’s Rights Alliance. https://www.childrensrights.ie/resources/home-works-study-educational-needs.