Whether we are working with a homeless family or not, stability is the great enabler of academic success. This fact is overlooked by many adults (and teachers), but stop for a moment to consider our own lives.
When our home lives are stable, predictable and comfortable and no big events are looming, we can handle taking on a new task. In fact, we might even seek out something new to break the routine.
In contrast, when we are overwhelmed with changes to our routines such as family emergencies or car troubles or financial issues – or some combination of the above – our capacity and willingness to take on even one new thing that requires any thinking at all drops to zero.
So how eager to learn would you feel if you:
… slept on a neighbor's couch last night
… shared a bathroom with eight other people
… put on the same clothes you wore yesterday
… left home without eating
… showed up in a room where you didn't know a single person?
This is the homeless family reality every day.
Teachers provide stability
The greatest need of a homeless student is stability, and one of the most consistent aspects of any child's life is school. A child's school experience (including the friends and relationships that come with it) can become the most critical factor in overcoming the effects of homelessness.
A teacher's role is threefold:
1. Facilitate the stability of the school routine with transportation options
2. Accommodate the impact that homelessness has on the classroom routine
3. Ensure that the classroom community forms an anchor point for the student
As outlined on the homeless family law page, homeless students have a federal guarantee of attendance at their registered school. Helping parents understand this and working with your counselor or homeless benefit coordinator is the first step.
Transportation is the key to maintaining a familiar school and classroom routine for the children or teens from a homeless family. Your district homeless liaison is the coordinator for the bus or buses that pick up and deliver homeless children or youths.
While it's critical to arrange for a homeless bus to pick up your student, understanding what this means every day is a consideration that some teachers overlook.
The homeless bus in many cities and rural areas must drive a long and winding route to pick up and drop off students. This means:
- Students may arrive early or late to school
- Students may have to leave school early
A teacher's part is to be flexible and extremely understanding.
No child should ever feel uncomfortable if they must walk into the room late, interrupting the first (or second) lesson or task or the quiz in algebra. And no student should feel singled out with undue attention if they must leave ten minutes early.
Picture the last time you showed up late to a meeting. How did you feel when all heads swiveled to look at you and the person in charge gave you “that look?” What a contrast for a student to hear:
“Good morning, Quintilla! Let me know if you have any questions on the entry task.”
“Hey Jake… we barely started the lab. You're partnered with Samantha and she got the supplies set up.”
This doesn't mean putting the student's desk at the back of the room so they can slip in and out. It means:
- Considering how to to integrate them quickly into the routine, even if the first thing in the morning is fitness or music or a final exam.
- In elementary school, facilitating the storage of coats and backpacks in an efficient manner.
- Having homework ready to go a bit early.
Oversight and understanding
A homeless family situation always calls for more diligence from the teacher. Once you are aware of the student's situation, be ready to provide a little extra attention when they are obviously stressed out:
- Some chatting to help them express themselves and feel normal and worthy of a teacher's attention.
- Occasionally, quietly ask how they are doing. Home life is constantly changing for a homeless student and new issues will come up.
- Ask about their family. Students can be more willing to share about their brothers and sisters rather than talking about themselves. From the information, you can often infer their status as well.
In general, the role of a teacher is to keep tabs on the situation. Keep an ear tuned to conversations with their peers – often that is where you will get the most information about how they and their families are doing.