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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Against All Odds: Examining How Parents and Teachers Help Homeless Students Stay on Track Academically

  • Author(s): Chow, Kirby Ann
  • Advisor(s): Mistry, Rashmita S
  • et al.

This mixed-methods dissertation examined how a child's experiences within their primary developmental contexts--family, school, and peers--serve as pathways through which homelessness influences children's academic and socioemotional adjustment. This study focused on a developmental period (i.e., middle childhood - ages 5-12) and context (i.e., schools) that have received little attention in recent literature on family homelessness. Study 1 focused on a broad investigation of whether child behavioral processes and the quality of children's experiences with their family (i.e., parental involvement at school, warmth, and control), at school (i.e., perceptions of school belonging, school engagement), and with peers (i.e., victimization, loneliness) mediate the relation between residential mobility and children's academic outcomes. Participants were 78 children and their primary caregivers (n = 54) living at two family homeless shelters in Southern California. Results of a series of SEM path analyses showed that residential mobility negatively impacted parents' involvement at their child's school, which in turn, predicted lower academic achievement test scores. Children whose families had moved more often also reported lower levels of school belonging and, in turn, lower levels of school engagement. Study 2 provided an in-depth examination of teachers' perspectives working with homeless students. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 28 teachers who worked at the designated public schools for the family homeless shelters from which participants in Study 1 were recruited. A prominent theme from teachers' accounts was that homelessness is linked to more than just loss of housing and residential mobility, but also breaks in relationships with family and friends. These various forms of instability appeared to influence students' socioemotional adjustment in the classroom including difficulties developing relationships with classmates. Findings also demonstrated how frequent student mobility presented challenges for teachers, and how teachers' own social and emotional competencies (e.g., perspective taking) shaped how they responded to homeless students' needs. Overall, results suggested that schools should prioritize fostering supportive relationships with homeless children and their parents as a means to promote students' educational success. In order to protect the development of homeless children, policy and practice efforts must be aimed at strengthening the stability of homeless families.

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