The Interconnected Nature of Homelessness, Physical Health, Mental Health, and Academic Success
By: Jake Schwartz, AmeriCorps VISTA Member
Children who face homelessness often find themselves forced to work through numerous challenges in their lives. These challenges are readily apparent in many facets of their daily lives, particularly when thinking about the ways in which their living situation directly and indirectly impacts their ability to perform at school. As it relates to academic performance, homelessness simultaneously creates and exacerbates barriers to a child’s educational success by negatively affecting their physical and mental health while also weakening their underlying support system.
When thinking about the physical effects of homelessness in a given child, it can be argued that some underlying issues could take root even before the child is born: pregnant women who face homelessness are at higher risk of developing chronic health complications, often lack adequate prenatal care, and can inadvertently expose themselves and their fetuses to environmental hazards due to unsafe living conditions. As a result of these aforementioned issues, children born into homelessness display higher rates of premature birth, developmental delays, and physical disabilities (Hart-Shegos, 1999). While these adverse effects may not be impossible to manage, they become compounded when factoring in the tendency for those facing homelessness to also be food-insecure. The effects of malnutrition through underlying food insecurity manifest in a variety of ways, most notably through the lack of critically important micronutrients that support cognitive function (Fanjiang & Kleinman, 2007). Lacking adequate nutrition is never ideal, but it is especially damaging when these deficiencies are constantly present during critical stages of cognitive and physical development in children.
Mental health and physical health are often highly intertwined with each other, so it is equally important to spend time reflecting on the adverse effects of homelessness on mental health as well. As a natural consequence of lack of adequate and/or consistent shelter, children facing homelessness tend to find themselves exposed to more overall risk and adversity than their peers, and this lack of safety/security can have a direct negative impact on a child’s social and emotional wellbeing (Lafavor, 2018). There may not be concrete ways of measuring social and emotional wellbeing directly, but these aspects can be indirectly measured by observing behavioral patterns that could reflect such negative effects.
Instances of lessened social/emotional wellbeing can manifest in an academic setting as a variety of traditionally unacceptable behaviors, including excessive absence/tardiness, unregulated emotional outbursts, and general antisocial behavior (Manfra, 2019). As is too often the case, school staff tend to be less educated - often through no fault of their own, to be clear - on how to effectively understand and support students working through traumas linked to homelessness. Without that base of knowledge, school systems rely on more traditional, overly-punitive discipline to enforce rules and standards -- further alienating homeless students and contributing to lower social and emotional welfare (Chow et al., 2015).
With all this in mind, there are a few clear, concrete steps that must be taken in order to lessen the impact that homelessness has on a child’s academic success. As mentioned previously, there needs to be a more intentful and cohesive effort by schools and educators around the country to learn how to effectively support students that are facing homelessness. This learning process is multi-faceted and must include strong consideration for changes in discipline policy, increased sensibility and awareness towards students with atypical socialization and emotional regulation. In addition, more work must be done to ensure educators have strong foundational knowledge of the existing support systems for families facing homelessness (Havlik et al., 2014). Taken as a whole, processes like these will allow educators to best provide for students that face the countless pressures and stressors of homelessness.
National Center for Homeless Education | (800) 308-2145
Greater Chicago Food Depository | (773) 247-3663
Chicago Public Schools | (773) 553-1000
Chow, K. A., Mistry, R. S., & Melchor, V. L. (2015). Homelessness in the elementary school classroom: Social and emotional consequences. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 28(6), 641–662. https://doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2015.1017855
Fanjiang, G., & Kleinman, R. E. (2007). Nutrition and performance in children. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 10(3), 342–347. https://doi.org/10.1097/MCO.0b013e3280523a9e
Hart-Shegos, E. (1999). Homelessness and Its Ef ects on Children. Family Housing Fund, Midwest Plaza West, Suite 1650, 801 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN 55402. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED453321
Havlik, S. A., Brady, J., & Gavin, K. (2014). Exploring the Needs of Students Experiencing Homelessness from School Counselors’ Perspectives. Journal of School Counseling, 12(20). https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1034769
Lafavor, T. (2018). Predictors of Academic Success in 9- to 11-Year-Old Homeless Children: The Role of Executive Function, Social Competence, and Emotional Control. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 38(9), 1236–1264. https://doi.org/10.1177/0272431616678989
Manfra, L. (2019). Impact of Homelessness on School Readiness Skills and Early Academic Achievement: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Early Childhood Education Journal, 47(2), 239 249. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-018-0918-6