How can schools help children and families who are homeless?

Published: 13.09.2019


Recently 2,250 children who are living in emergency accommodation returned to school across Ireland. Despite repeated calls on the Department of Education to provide guidance and training to primary schools, teachers and principals have not been provided with any official resources to support children in school and their families. In this blog post, Fay White from the Advocacy Team will be outlining what Focus Ireland has been doing to support children in school who are living in emergency accommodation. 

Supporting Children Experiencing Trauma

Focus Ireland operates the Family Homeless Action Team (Family HAT) in Dublin, which supports families in emergency accommodation to find alternative accommodation. The main function of this team is to support families to move out of homelessness, therefore our case managers work mostly with the parent or parents in the family. Our child support workers engage with children and their families to assess and support child welfare and well-being, developing parenting skills and capacity and work with children who are experiencing trauma. Unfortunately over 90% of homeless children do not have access to a child support worker, however Focus Ireland is currently preparing a position paper on the trauma experienced by children in emergency accommodation. This report is currently being finalised.

over 90% of homeless children do not have access to a child support worker

The stress and practical difficulties of living in emergency or temporary accommodation mean that children are not arriving to school ready to learn. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are traumatic events which have been shown to have long-term negative impacts. A study of adult homeless service users showed significant levels of childhood trauma were reported – levels notably higher than those experienced by the general population in the original ACE study. Although homelessness is not currently listed as an Adverse Childhood Experience it is expected that it will be added once further study in the area has been conducted. The behavioural issues that children may experience and affect their behaviour in school as a result of toxic stress are explained in this video about ACEs. 

Although the cost of going back to school is an additional source of stress for parents in emergency accommodation, the start of the school year is a relief of the financial burden on parents during the summer trying to keep kids entertained. To make sure as many children as possible were prepared to go back to school, in August we put together 640 school packs for children in emergency accommodation who are going back to school. We put together a short video about this, available here.

Collaboration with the INTO

Focus Ireland is often contacted by teachers seeking guidance as to how they can not only support children in their school who are experiencing homelessness, but also who are looking for more information about the causes of homelessness and where to direct parents to if they are experiencing housing precarity. Focus Ireland and the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) decided to work together to develop a resource for primary schools to provide information to schools about homelessness, what external supports are available to families, and how to support children and families who are experiencing homelessness. The INTO is the oldest and largest teachers’ union in Ireland. It represents teachers at primary level in the Republic of Ireland and at primary and post-primary level in Northern Ireland. Child homelessness has risen by over 400% in the last 5 years and now teachers are acutely aware and concerned about the escalating homelessness crisis. They witness the impact on pupils in their class every day as it manifests itself in pupils’ school attendance, punctuality, academic achievement, participation, social engagement and educational aspirations.

Child homelessness has risen by over 400% in the last 5 years and now teachers are acutely aware and concerned about the escalating homelessness crisis

Schools have a very important role to play in supporting children who are experiencing homelessness, and therefore schools need to be supported themselves. A recent report commissioned by the Children’s Rights Alliance, HomeWorks, found that consistent routines and responsive schools often offered children a sense of stability and continuity amid the uncertainty of family homelessness. The report showed that simple goodwill gestures on the part of schools made all the difference to pupils and their families. HomeWorks reported that, despite the lack of guidance and support at system level, schools were considered to be ‘beacons of hope’ for children experiencing homelessness.

despite the lack of guidance and support at system level, schools were considered to be ‘beacons of hope’ for children experiencing homelessness

Although it is important that we do not normalise or accept child homelessness as something that cannot be solved, ensuring that children are supported in schools will help to reduce the long-term impacts of trauma such as those experienced in the ACES study.

The guidance document developed in collaboration with the INTO offers some practical suggestions dependent on the available resources in the school about how they can help to:

  • support children’s basic needs 
  • engage with parents in order to form trusting relationships 
  • support students who are struggling with attendance as a result of living in emergency accommodation
  • support students to achieve academically
  • support the mental health of children living in emergency accommodation
  • support students who are transitioning to another school

This document is supplemented with an online service hub where teachers, principals and educational welfare officers can go to see what supports are available in their local area for children and families, such as homework clubs, libraries and family resource centres. You can view this here.

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Tags: Child Homelessness, Education, Impacts

Author: Fay White

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