Moving Hearts, Changing Minds About Homeless Students: NAEHCY’s Annual Conference

By Perry Firth, project coordinator, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness and school psychology graduate student

Paving the way image 1 

Caption: This poster from the conference just about sums it up: all children, including those who are homeless, deserve equal access to educational opportunity. Image from NAEHCY.org

As a first-time attendee at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAECHY) annual conference in Kansas City, October 25-28, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

But the opportunity to learn about where the field of “homeless education” is going, and what that might mean for the work we do on the Project on Family Homelessness, was just too exciting and important to miss.

It turns out my premonition was correct. The conference sparked ideas that I was able to apply very soon after my return, in a discussion about a local school district that is struggling to support its children who are homeless.

NAEHCY: An advocate for homeless students

NAEHCY has been committed since 1989 to improving the educational outcomes of children who are homeless, and provides a range of services and supports to professionals in the field, as well as policy advocacy and resource generation.

Their efforts are important: Compared to higher income peers, children in the bottom 20th percentile are five times more likely to drop out of high school. And this can have long-term consequences: of adults who are homeless, 2/3 don’t have a high school diploma. (This is something I wrote about at length in my Firesteel series on poverty and homelessness in the public education system).

Finally, with 2.5 million children experiencing homelessness nationally, now more than ever we need strategies to help this population of learners.

Therefore, the NAEHCY national conference provides an important opportunity for committed advocates from all professions (especially psychology, education and social work) to share their latest successes and hurdles around supporting kids who don’t have homes.

It also provides a valuable opportunity to observe where the field is going, and what we on the Project on Family Homelessness need to do to stay on its cutting edge.

THE CONFERENCE: THEMES AND OBSERVATIONS

 There were definitely some clear themes that emerged, like:

  • The importance of providing stabilizing services;
  • Educational best practices;
  • How to coordinate different agencies, and
  • Innovative ways to improve child and youth outcomes.

Conference materials image 2

Caption: There were some great materials at this conference, including storybooks produced by the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness that explain homelessness to children in accessible, safe ways. Photo credit: Perry Firth.

 So given the numerous workshops in these areas, it seems safe to say that despite the best efforts of many committed advocates, what the public school system is doing currently isn’t working. Or, it is working for some children—but not for all.

This was mirrored in my conversations with conference attendees. For instance, people felt that they are working in silos and that what we need is more coordination between organizations working with these young people. I also heard the need for an organizing framework and language around how to describe the impact of homelessness on children to administrators and educators.

Relatedly, the movement toward trauma-informed care and education had some attendees pretty excited, because it may provide a unifying way to conceptualize how homelessness can impact children across contexts.

A quick definition of trauma-informed education: It is a framework used to describe how trauma can show up in school, and impact everything from a child’s behavior to their academic skill development. Therefore, it is also about understanding what might lead a child to behave in certain ways, rather than resorting to punishment. A more detailed analysis of this emerging trend is beyond the scope of this blog, but if you are interested in learning more, read the article Why Schools Need to be Trauma Informed.

STIGMA AND STORYTELLING

I also observed throughout the conference the ongoing reality that stigma around the causes and outcomes of homelessness continues to be an ongoing problem. While there are many educators and administrators who understand that a family’s homelessness is a result not of laziness but a myriad of other factors, there are still those in the school setting who equate homelessness and poverty with laziness. And this then impacts how they interpret behaviors like sleepiness and unfinished homework.

Which is where one of our project’s favorite topics comes in—the importance and power of storytelling to confront bias and break down barriers!

Yes, stories can be powerful—something that the 2014 NAEHCY Scholarship Program Awards Ceremony highlighted. A selection of young people who have experienced homelessness and received the LeTendre Scholarship are flown out to the conference to share their experiences with attendees during an awards ceremony and luncheon.

NAEHCHY scholarship image 3
Caption: There was a lot of emotion in the room as the scholarship recipients told their stories. For the advocates, hearing about these young people’s success gives them the energy to keep going. Photo credit: Perry Firth

 HIGHLIGHTS OF THE SCHOLARSHIP CEREMONY

 I think I speak for more than just myself when I say that hearing the LeTendre scholars share the many obstacles they’ve overcome was more illuminating than any research paper.

 Hearing how these students have managed to achieve their goals despite significant obstacles is inspiring. After all, academic achievement for students who are homeless is exponentially more difficult than for those who are housed.

Therefore, the scholarship ceremony provides a venue to recognize the strength and success of these students, while providing much-needed inspiration to the advocates in the room.

We heard about how these students committed themselves whole-heartedly to their education even as they went hungry. We heard about the long-term thinking that enabled them to connect good grades to their ability to get into college. I was also moved by how determined these students were to find a good job and reach their goals. Finally, the students all had mentors and teachers who made a real difference in their lives.

It is clear that these students have experienced significant adversity. Yet just as clear is the determination which led them up and over obstacle after obstacle. That is what really jumped out at me: the persistence and will it takes to keep going when you are that young and have so little control over so many aspects of your life.

LeTendre scholar image 4

Caption: LeTendre scholars are connected to a network of resources and supports, including access to other students who have experienced homelessness. During the awards ceremony, many of the students discussed how meaningful and inspiring it was to meet students “like them.” Image from NAECHY.org.

However, even as I listened to their stories, I couldn’t help but think about all the other students out there who don’t achieve their full potential.

After all, the goal is that ALL students who are homeless achieve their goals and receive the level of support that these students do. The LeTendre scholar shouldn’t be the exception, but the rule.

 INCREASING ACADEMIC SUCCESS THROUGH REDUCING STIGMA

The need to reduce stigma is something that was re-emphasized for me recently. I attended a meeting with local providers about how to better serve children with overlapping needs — those who are both in poverty/homeless, and have also been in the foster care system.

These children also face overlapping barriers. Further, sometimes children who are homeless end up in foster care, and vice-versa.

In this particular meeting, we discussed the importance of helping educators and administrators understand how homelessness and family disruption can influence child behaviors.

Unfortunately, sometimes school professionals don’t know enough about how homelessness and foster care influence children’s ability to succeed in the school environment, and thus they hold misperceptions about children in this population.

This is especially the case for those professionals who aren’t used to working with diverse populations.

Since they aren’t used to working with these kids, their confusion is understandable. At the same time, from the conference I know that sometimes this confusion and frustration veers into bias (e.g., “these are bad kids”).

This can hurt children. After all, it is much harder for children to succeed if the adults in their school stigmatize them and don’t like them, especially if they already are facing other barriers.

little boy image 5

Caption: Children who like their teachers, and who know their teachers like them, will do better in school. Image from pixabay.com

 Therefore, having recently attended the conference and hearing the importance of breaking down stigma through storytelling, it occurred to me that we need a framework that effectively helps school professionals develop a new way of thinking about hard-to-serve children. Of course, stories should be a huge part of this.

But what other elements lead to shift in understanding? For me, research around how toxic stress influences child development and externalizing behaviors is essential. With homelessness now an increasingly common experience for children, working knowledge of toxic stress and trauma will be essential for schools to meet their needs.

CONCLUSION

 The great thing about new experiences is that they can continue to yield benefits long after they’ve passed. That was certainly the case with NAECHY’s conference. Thanks to some great workshops and interesting conversations, my wheels were already turning around how best to communicate how homelessness hurts children.

So clearly there is a need for storytelling and research around child development. But how do we best integrate these two things so they are effective in shifting perceptions? Especially when schools have very little time and funding?

There are no easy answers here, but this conference enables us to ask the right questions and connect to others who are doing this work.

ACTION STEPS

 1. Without financial support, it is very hard for children experiencing homelessness to attend post-secondary institutions. Therefore, spend some time on the LeTendre Scholarship page of the NAEHCY website. Especially for those who work directly with youth, knowledge of this scholarship is a valuable resource.

2. Go to the 2014 conference section of NAEHCY’s website to peruse various conference handouts. Topics range from how best to support young homeless children in school, to helping youth experiencing homelessness transition to college.

3. Read my Firesteel blog series on Poverty and Homelessness in the Public Education System.

4.  Watch the American Refugee animated film shorts. Designed to facilitate conversation around family homelessness and break down barriers, these beautiful films show that “storytelling” can be done in many different ways. Don’t forget to use their associated discussion guide.

5. Spend some time on the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness site. This organization has some great resources, including scholarly journals on homelessness, poverty, and children.

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