The population of homeless students in the US increased dramatically since the recession of 2008. According to new federal data, there were approximately 1.36 million homeless students in 2013-2014 with 2,634 of those in the state of Hawaii, where homelessness is exacerbated by high real estate prices and one of the highest costs of living in the country.

The federal definition of homelessness includes children and youth who lack a regular fixed and adequate nighttime residence. It refers to youth living in shelters, transitional housing, cars, campgrounds, motels, and those sharing housing with others because of loss of housing, economic hardship, or similar reasons. Homelessness often goes hand-in-hand with other traumas including foreclosure, divorce, domestic violence, or loss, illness or incarceration of a parent (Dill, 2015).

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Education Act of 1997 was reauthorized in 2015 with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), with new regulations that took effect in October, 2016. The Act requires schools to communicate with homeless parents and families to inform them of their educational rights. This is to ensure that homeless children have access to education, school success and parental involvement. A key part of this legislation requires appointing liaisons to assist homeless parents (Swick, 2009).

Among other changes, the amended McKinney-Vento Act includes new requirements focused on supporting homeless students in school. (U.S. Department of Education Press Release, July 27, 2016). The requirements include:

  • Identification of homeless children and youths;
  • Making sure that preschool-aged homeless children have access to and receive supportive services;
  • Ensuring coordination with other service providers, including public and private child welfare and social service agencies; law enforcement agencies; juvenile and family courts; agencies providing mental health services; domestic violence agencies; child care providers; runaway and homeless youth centers; providers of services and programs funded under the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act; and providers of emergency, transitional, and permanent housing, including public housing agencies, shelter operators, and operators of transitional housing facilities;
  • Providing professional development and technical assistance at both the State and local levels;
  • Removing enrollment barriers;
  • Providing school stability, including the expansion of school of origin to include preschools and receiving schools and the provision of transportation until the end of the school year, even if a student becomes permanently housed;
  • Protecting privacy of student records, including information about a homeless child or youth’s living situation;
  • Improving the dispute resolution process for decisions relating to the educational placement of homeless children and youths;
  • Increasing the emphasis on college and career readiness; and
  • Establishing a new authority for local liaisons to verify the eligibility of homeless children, youths, and families for HUD homeless assistance programs.

Telltale signs of homelessness include panic attacks in class, chronic hunger or food hoarding, sleep deprivation, unkempt clothing, inadequate personal hygiene, and unmet medical or psychological needs. The experience of homelessness is often traumatic enough to bring about nightmares, emotional numbing, difficulty concentrating, sleeping and eating disorders, and difficulty maintaining emotional control.

As a result, homeless students need:

  •      Security
  •      Trusting relationships
  •      Personal mentoring relationships with educators to develop self-regulation
  •      Predictable routines
  •      Fair rules
  •      Provision of basic needs
  •      An understanding ear

(Dill, 2015)

Teachers and school counselors can help support homeless students by

  1. Building a strong personal relationship with the student.
  2. Framing problematic behavior as reflective of the student’s state of mind at the time, not his or her character.
  3. Working to build student confidence.
  4. Helping students to recognize, not run away from, their problems (Dill, 2015).

Effective parents also need a strong sense of self. Studies have shown that a strong sense of self encourages nurturing and warm behavior in parent-child relations, which in turns promotes higher attentiveness, satisfaction and happiness in parents, and harmonious lives for both the parent and child.

Unfortunately, homeless parents face many stressors that erode their self-esteem and reduce their ability to parent effectively. Victims of harsh judgment, homeless parents have lost control of their daily ritual, often have a history as victims of violence and struggle with substance abuse. Many homeless parents lack socio-educational skills, literacy skills, economic and psycho-social control, positive parenting role models, and supportive adults (Swick, 2009).

Teachers, counselors, and schools can support parental self-esteem by:

  • Communicating in nurturing, non-judgmental, responsive, caring, empowering ways.
  •  Involving homeless parents in identifying their needs.
  •  Encouraging parents to stay positively involved in their children’s lives.
  •  Working with shelters and other community groups to encourage activities that enhance parent self-esteem and increase community awareness.
  •  Fostering a school culture that values parents who are homeless as important people in the learning community through school and district initiatives

Schools can:

  • Provide Adult Education Provide adult education that enhances parental competence and confidence.
  • Offer Job Training Partner parents with parent-mentors who support parents gaining new skills, educational and job training, linking them to empowering services.
  • Maintain an Online Log Maintain secure, private online log records of family needs for teachers to share and report on specific needs they observe.
  • Accept Alternative ID Allow for alternative forms of identification such as letters from shelters or motel receipts to facilitate quick entry into schools.




Dill, V. (2015). Homeless–And Doubled Up. Educational Leadership, 72(6), 42-47.

Mohan, C. & Shields, C. M. (2014). The voices behind the numbers: Understanding the experiences of homeless students. Critical Questions in Education, Special Issue, 5(3): 190-202. doi

Swick, K. J., & Bailey, L. B. (2004). Communicating Effectively with Parents and Families Who Are Homeless. Early Childhood Education Journal, 32(3), 211-215.

Swick, K. J. (2009). Issues and Strategies Involved in Helping Homeless Parents of Young Children Strengthen Their Self-Esteem. Early Childhood Education Journal, 37(3), 183-187.

Total Number of Homeless Students Enrolled in LEAs with or without McKinney-Vento Subgrants – Total: 2013-14. Ed Data Express: Data about elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. https://www2.ed.gov/programs/homeless/data-comp-sy13-14.pdf

US Department of Education Press Release (July 27, 2016). Education Department Releases Guidance on Homeless Children and Youth. Accessed December 8, 2016 at http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/education-department-releases-guidance-homeless-children-and-youth


Discussion Group

Build trust through discussion groups with other parents or one-on-one conferencing.

Focus Group

Conduct focus groups with parents and observe the strengths of each parent. Meeting other families allows parents to see that they’re not alone and creates a forum to problem solve as a group.


In one-on-one discussions or group discussion, have parents tell stories about the things they enjoy doing.


Have parents keep a journal that highlights their achievements and strengths. Have parents chart their most successful activities.

Guest Speakers

Have successful parents return to tell other parents how the program strengthened their skills.

Interactive Journals

Service providers can communicate with partner parents through interactive journals which students take from home to school. Interactive journals give both parents and teachers a vehicle to understanding the child’s in-school and out-of-school lives while opening up gates of communication.

  1. Provide a blank journal for the student.
  2. Ask parents to write notes to the teacher or provider in the student’s notebook on what happened with the child/student at home.
  3. Respond to parent’s notes by jotting down what happened at school that day. Possible notes could include: an interesting insight the student made, positive progress the student is making, an upcoming project that the class is working on, or an upcoming school or community event that the student may be excited about.
  4. Initiate regular “Love Notes” that let the parent know when their child accomplishes a difficult task, masters a specific skill, behaves well in a challenging situation, supports a peer, demonstrates kindness to others, or shows another positive skill or behavior.

InTASC Model Core Teaching Standards

Standard #1: Learner Development

1(a) The teacher regularly assesses individual and group performance in order to design and modify instruction to meet learners’ needs in each area of development (cognitive, linguistic, social, emotional, and physical) and scaffolds the next level of development.

1(c) The teacher collaborates with families, communities, colleagues, and other professionals to promote learner growth and development.

Standard #3: Learning Environments

3(a) The teacher collaborates with learners, families, and colleagues to build a safe, positive learning climate of openness, mutual respect, support, and inquiry.

3(i) The teacher understands the relationship between motivation and engagement and knows how to design learning experiences using strategies that build learner self-direction and ownership of learning.

Standard #10: Leadership and Collaboration 

10(m) The teacher understands that alignment of family, school, and community spheres of influence enhances student learning and that discontinuity in these spheres of influence interferes with learning.

Survival Kit

Work with parents to create “survival kits” with parent and child IDs, and school and medical records. Survival kits can help reduce stress when this paperwork is needed for school or other services.

Because homeless or transitional families struggle to keep track of their personal and school paperwork, creating a survival kit of important personal paperwork can help reduce stress for families and social services personnel.

  1. Provide a shoebox or other container for the student to store personal paperwork.
  2. Personal paperwork can include:
    1. Documentation of recent medical check-ups.
    2. Documentation of immunizations received.
    3. Report cards from previous schools.
    4. A birth certificate.
    5. A social security number.
    6. Names, addresses, and phone numbers of family members, both local and those who live in other locations (grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, others).
    7. A history of schools attended, places lived, friends at each place/school (with contact information), accomplishments in school, accomplishments outside of school.
  3. If student drives a car:
    1. Driver’s license.
    2. Car registration.
    3. Car Insurance.
  4. If families no longer have this paperwork, work with students and families to identify the agencies they need to interact with in order to obtain the paperwork.
  5. If possible, assist families to complete the forms required to obtain the paperwork.

(Swick, 2004; Swick, 2009)

InTASC Model Core Teaching Standards

Standard #1: Learner Development

1(c) The teacher collaborates with families, communities, colleagues, and other professionals to promote learner growth and development.

Standard #2: Learning Differences

2(b) The teacher makes appropriate and timely provisions (e.g., pacing for individual rates of growth, task demands, communication, assessment, and response modes) for individual students with particular learning differences or needs.

2(f) The teacher accesses resources, supports, specialized assistance, and services to meet particular learning differences or needs.

Standard #3: Learning Environments

3(a) The teacher collaborates with learners, families, and colleagues to build a safe, positive learning climate of openness, mutual respect, support, and inquiry.

Standard #9: Professional Learning and Ethical Practice

9(d) The teacher actively seeks professional, community, and technological resources, within and outside the school, as supports for analysis, reflection, and problem-solving.

9(i) The teacher understands how personal identity, worldview, and prior experience affect perceptions and expectations, and recognizes how they may bias behaviors and interactions with others.

Standard #10: Leadership and Collaboration 

10(m) The teacher understands that alignment of family, school, and community spheres of influence enhances student learning and that discontinuity in these spheres of influence interferes with learning.