New Findings on Homelessness and High Mobility in Children
New Findings on Homelessness and High Mobility in Children
December 2012

The December issue of Educational Researcher includes a special section with four scientific articles on homelessness and highly mobile children. The articles together provide accessible, new findings essential to educators, social service professionals, and policy makers at the state and federal levels engaged in addressing the rising tide of homelessness and mobility among low-income students.

This ER special section, “Mobility and Homelessness in School-Aged Children,” reports on the effects of the experience of homelessness on academic outcomes and what can buffer students’ risks. Three of the articles use administrative data and yield remarkably consistent findings. They find that achievement gaps related to homelessness and residential instability emerge early and persist.

Janette Herbers, University of Minnesota, and collaborators focused on early reading skills and academic achievement. They observe gaps in first-grade reading scores, with homeless and residentially mobile students being at even higher risk than children from low-income families who have not experienced homelessness or residential fluctuation. The authors concluded that while early reading skills are important for the later achievement of all students, they are even more important for the success of students whose future achievement is threatened by homelessness and extreme poverty. They believe that the significance of oral reading in first grade is both an early indicator of risk and a potential protective factor.

The study by Adam Voight and coauthors, of Vanderbilt University, found that early residential mobility in Grades K–2 predicts later achievement test scores for reading and math in Grades 3 to 8. The authors concluded that residential moves in the early elementary years have a negative effect on math and reading achievement in third grade and a negative effect on reading scores. They also found a negative effect of mobility on math scores in third through eighth grade but no such effect on reading scores.

A third article, by John Fantuzzo, University of Pennsylvania, and collaborators, reported that homelessness and mobility are risk factors for academic achievement, with gaps beginning early and persisting.  Through their longitudinal study, the authors found sustained effects of unique risks for behavior problems related to homelessness and school mobility, with the worst outcomes for students experiencing both.

This special section points to solutions and opportunities for intervention that can reduce or buffer risk. Stability of the school environment despite homelessness and residential mobility can afford a context for working with students who experience persistent residential instability. 

A fourth article, by Ann Masten, University of Minnesota, and colleagues, examined executive function skills as a potential resilience factor for homeless children. Focusing their research on five- and six-year-old children living in emergency shelters, they report that neurocognitive skills such as voluntary control of attention and memory are predictive of later academic achievement and school adjustment reported by teachers.

The Masten et al. research speaks to the importance of executive functioning skills in general, including for children experiencing homelessness as well as poverty for achievement disparities. Seeing opportunities for intervention, the authors emphasize the growing evidence that these skills can be improved through targeted practice and early education.

All four articles present data and frame issues important to addressing the educational challenges experienced by homeless and residentially mobile children. They point to the fact that poverty and residential mobility in urban school districts are inextricably linked and need to be addressed together. School-based strategies and interventions, however, are also feasible, as emphasized in the introductory and concluding comments by Ann Masten and John Buckner, respectively. Buckner is at Harvard University.

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