Supporting Homeless and Highly Mobile Students—Part One

Read the recent coverage of Ann’s research in the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, MinnPost and Connect Magazine.

My research for ICD (Institute of Child Development) at UMN CEHD reveals the many challenges children face as a result of homelessness and how to best support homeless and highly mobile students in the classroom. I’m especially intrigued by the phenomenon of resilience among these students. My team at ICD has been motivated more by the success we’ve found rather than failure. As we try to understand the “big picture,” we’ve studied what makes a difference for students and how we can help promote school success among homeless and highly mobile students.

We recently published one of our big picture studies last month in the journal Child Development. This study resulted from years of collaboration with the Minneapolis Public Schools, where the number of children who have experienced homelessness continues to grow. Last year, more than 8% of the students in the district were identified as homeless or highly mobile by Federal guidelines. Minneapolis is not unique. Nationwide, that figure surpassed one million students.

Our latest study followed more than 26,000 students in grades 3-8, for up to five years of testing, comparing scores on a standard test of reading and math. We found persistent academic gaps for children who were homeless. The homeless children had significantly lower achievement than all other groups studied—including children who qualified for free lunch due to poverty—no matter when the homelessness occurred. Homeless kids often start behind and struggle to catch up. Findings include:

  • Homeless students showed lower math and reading scores over time than students who qualify for free lunches (those below 130 percent of the federal poverty line who were not mobile or homeless).
  • Among homeless students, learning in math suffered a slow-down in growth the years immediately following mobile years.
  • Students who qualify for reduced-price lunches (those below 185 percent of the federal poverty line but above 130 percent and not homeless) did better than the homeless or free lunch groups, scoring close to the national norms for reading and math.
  • Higher-income students who were not homeless or mobile scored well above national norms.
  • Although the average achievement was low, there was great variation in the homeless and highly mobile group, with some children showing strong math and reading skills over the years.

Highly mobile students are those who report moving at least three times in any given year. According to federal standards, homelessness includes living in a shelter, doubling up with friends or relatives, or living in motels, abandoned buildings, on the street, or in temporary foster care. Among the students included in the study, close to 14% were identified as homeless or highly mobile. Addressing the achievement gap in our schools clearly requires attention to these mobile children.

Yet many homeless kids do succeed despite the risks in their lives, including unstable housing, food insecurity, low parental education, or a very young parent. The study found that 45% of homeless or highly mobile students tested close to or above the norm despite the disruption in their lives. Some simply fare better, but how?

That’s what we’ll look at in next Friday’s blog. We’ll consider how parenting skills and children’s own skills of self-control, memory or flexible thinking (known as executive functions) may help homeless and highly mobile children overcome setbacks.


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Ann Masten

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Ann Masten, Ph.D.

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