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Homeless students are met with substantial barriers to their academic achievement. Some notable barriers these children experience include a lack of permanent residence, parental absence, transportation problems, chronic absenteeism (missing 10% or more of the school year), caregiver instability, feeling socially disconnected, and having limited access to food, clothing, and other basic necessities. In addition to these barriers, homeless students often face many life challenges that can interfere with academic engagement and achievement. For example, on the word of Milburn et al. (2006), the majority of homeless students are exposed to adverse life experiences (e.g., being a victim of violence, having inadequate or impaired caregivers, experiencing sexual abuse) that negatively affect their academic, family, and psychosocial functioning.
Adverse Life Experiences
Moving on with substantial barriers, according to one study by Keeshin, a clinician researchers in the Division of Child Protection and Family Health at the University of Utah, where homeless persons aged between 18 and 23 filled out a questionnaire and participated in a structured assessment on histories of abuse, 84% of homeless youth screened positive for childhood physical and/or sexual abuse, and 72% of these students reported that they were still affected by their traumatic experiences 1 year later (Keeshin & Campbell, 2011). Moreover, research indicates that approximately 25% to 33% of homeless youth—compared with about 0.04% to 0% of their non-homeless peers—display symptoms parallel with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD; Dyregrov & Yule, 2006). Although a directional relationship has not yet been established, exposure to adverse life experiences (ALEs) increases the likelihood of developing psychiatric symptoms in youth. With this in mind, in a study investigating psychiatric morbidity in homeless students, 86% of homeless youth screened positive for psychiatric disorder as well as disruptive behavior disorder, and almost one quarter (21%) met criteria for a mood disorder (Cauce et al., 2000). These findings are notable because only about 10% of non-homeless U.S. youth meet diagnostic criteria for a psychiatric disorder at some point during their K-12 education.
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Collectively, adverse life experiences are barriers to academic success in homeless students. Although the specific ways in which these factors interact await further investigation, having to deal with a preponderance of them likely results in a cascading burden that overwhelms the individual. In other words, as ALEs and risk factors accumulate, succeeding in school and in other life domains becomes increasingly challenging, if not unachievable. As a more tragic outcome, according to some estimates, approximately 20% to 40% of homeless youth attempt suicide (Greene & Ringwalt, 1996). Moreover, compared with their non-homeless peers, homeless students have been found to be 11 to 40 times more likely to actually commit suicide (Roy et al., 2004; Shaw & Dorling, 1998). Even if these estimates are overinflated, it is clear that homeless students experience extreme adversity and that this adversity impacts their social-emotional functioning.
Despite facing extreme adversity, it is important to note that remarkable resilience in homeless students has been reported in recent research. According to Masten (2001), resilience refers to being able to display healthy adaptation during or after experiencing a threat or disturbance to one’s well-being. Therefore, resilience factors are protective, and they promote healthy adaptation to a challenging (if not hostile) environment. To date, some internal resilience factors have been identified in homeless students, including having healthy self-esteem, a positive outlook on life, and an internal locus of control (Cleverly & Kidd 2011; Milburn et al., 2009). Collectively, these resilience factors can be described as feeling good about oneself, being optimistic as a general trait, and feeling in control of one’s life. They are necessary for adapting to inhospitable environments.
Having above-average intelligence, good self-regulation skills, strong early literacy skills, and intact executive functioning skills have also have been found to buffer against the adversities associated with being homeless in childhood (Crossley & Buckner, 2012; Kidd & Shahar, 2008). Although these factors are less malleable than the former, emerging research suggests that they are still mutable and can help foster resilience in homeless students (Masten et al., 2015; Zelazo & Carlson, 2012). With this in mind, research currently is being conducted to test the efficacy of interventions designed to enhance executive functioning in homeless students as well as how it can enhance overall resilience.
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Finally, and perhaps most amenable to influence, having a close relationship with a competent adult has been shown to be an important resilience factor for homeless students (Kidd & Shahar, 2008). Essentially, believing that an important adult, such as a counselor or mentor, who is concerned about one’s well-being can help mitigate feelings of isolation, abandonment, and hopelessness. Additionally, feeling connected and socially bonded to a responsible adult can provide important mentorship opportunities, assist with navigating school and social service agencies, and provide support with learning and mastering functional skills to homeless students (de la Haye et al., 2012).
A pervasive stigma has been identified against homeless individuals, and a large proportion of the U.S. population harbors stigmatizing views toward homeless students (Toolis & Hammack, 2015). Homeless students often are viewed as being dysfunctional, unclean, lazy, criminally minded, socially irresponsible, and even dangerous (Kendall, 2005). One study by Harris and Fiske (2006) even found neurological evidence for these negative perceptions. This study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to study people’s neural activation patterns in response to being exposed to “extreme out-groups,” social groups with which an individual does not belong. In this study, exposure to images of homeless individuals elicited cortical activity associated with fear and disgust. Considering this finding, it is not surprising why homeless students often eschew being labeled as “homeless,” even if this term describes their current living situation (Harter, Berquist, Scott Titsworth, Novak, & Brokaw, 2004).
Although it is stigmatized, research suggests that many homeless students resist dominant social narratives, negative perceptions, and ostracizing identities associated with homelessness. In fact, a recent study by Toolis and Hammack (2015) found that homeless students often resist prevailing negative stereotypes to maintain a positive self-image and a sense of agency. This study found that many homeless students rejected “criminal” and “client” master narratives to affirm their value and their competence at fostering their own resilience, managing adversity, and developing practical survival knowledge. Thus, from preliminary research, in addition to facing remarkable adversity, many homeless students display considerable resilience, resilience that allows them to resist stigma, rejection, alienation, and neglect (Kidd & Shahar, 2008; Masten et al., 2015; Toolis & Hammack, 2015). They may be on their own, however, many of them have found ways to stand on their own two feet.
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