Rethinking the Effects of Homelessness on Children: Resiliency and Competency

By Douglass, Anne | Child Welfare, November/December 1996 | Go to article overview

Rethinking the Effects of Homelessness on Children: Resiliency and Competency


Douglass, Anne, Child Welfare


An urban family shelter in New England operates an on-site early childhood education program for the children of shelter residents and families living in the community. In contrast to the findings in much of the research on young homeless children, the case examples presented here illustrate the strengths and the coping strategies of homeless children, along with their similarities to their peers in the program who have homes. The importance of understanding the complex and varied experiences children and families have with homelessness is discussed, as well as implications for early childhood teachers, researchers, social workers, and child advocates.

Much of the research evaluating and describing children who are homeless has reported alarmingly high levels of developmental delays, emotional disturbances, and psychopathology among this population [Bassuk & Rubin 1987]. The research, however, has focused almost exclusively on deficiencies and psychopathology in this population, virtually ignoring competency and strengths [Fox et al. 1990; Hunter et al. 1993; Rescorla et al. 1991]. In addition, procedural difficulties and oversights in the research call into question many of the findings and conclusions drawn from it.

Based on the research, some educators and advocates have begun to develop special schools and day care centers for children who are homeless [McCall 1990]. These programs are generally premised on a belief that children who are homeless present problems not normally found in the general population, and are best served in a program designed specially for them. The question of whether children who are homeless actually differ significantly from low-income children who have homes is critical because it affects the way in which programs are developed and funded, and it informs social policy and attitudes about children who are homeless.

This article reviews the current literature on children who are homeless and describes an early childhood education program that serves low-income children who are homeless as well as those who have homes. It highlights the struggles and successes of preschool-age homeless children, illustrating the ways in which children who are homeless use coping strategies to manage stress. The importance of distinguishing between coping strategies and developmental delays or emotional disturbances when evaluating these children is discussed, and a model is presented for early childhood education programs that endeavor to meet the needs of all children, homeless and housed.

Literature Review

A number of researchers have used a variety of standardized assessment tools to conduct assessments and evaluations of children living in shelters and in welfare hotels/motels. Much of this research found widespread developmental delays and emotional disturbances [Bassuk & Rosenberg 1990; Bassuk & Rubin 1987; Fox et al.1990; Grant 1990]. For example, Whitman et al. [1990] found a group of 139 homeless children, who ranged in age from five months to 18 years, scoring in a mentally retarded or borderline range at three times the expected rate, and exhibiting developmental patterns found in abused and neglected populations. Results of these studies have been publicized and cited widely in the media.

Several other studies, however, have found that children who are homeless score much the same on standardized assessments as children with homes. Lewis and Meyers [1989] surveyed a group of 213 preschool-age children similar to the group in Bassuk and Rubin's study [1987], and found the scores of homeless children to be similar to those of children in the general population. Molnar and Rath [1990] compared homeless children with low-income children who had homes and found little difference between the two groups. The one significant difference was that children in early childhood education programs, whether homeless or not, scored better than children with or without homes who were not enrolled in these programs.

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