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Supporting Students Facing Homelessness and Trauma

The Department of Education’s homeless youth program: Part III of IV

Key points

  • School staff must illustrate sensitive language when interacting with youth who may be experiencing homelessness.
  • Educators should be that historical trauma and distrust, including generational trauma, may exist within a family.
  • Trust can be developed by following a parent-teacher home visit model.
lechenie-narkomanii/Pixabay, used with permission
Source: lechenie-narkomanii/Pixabay, used with permission

The U.S. Department of Education's Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program and funds are available to educators and community members wishing to help vulnerable youth.

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this interview, the U.S. Department of Education's and Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program’s John McLaughlin, EdD and Heather Denny, MEd, shared COVID’s impact on youth experiencing homelessness, as well as how support staff (such as school psychologists, counselors, social workers, and special education teachers and staff) can help such students. Here McLaughlin and Denny share more insights into what can be done to support students.

McLaughlin's answers begin first.

Earlier you mentioned trauma, which we know increased with COVID. What are the needs for trauma-informed care (or trauma-sensitive/responsive care) for students experiencing homelessness, and what is the provision of wraparound services for them under the American Rescue Plan Homeless Children and Youth Fund?

Heather can provide examples because she's been on the ground a lot more, but I will say that National Center for Homeless Education does have briefs on this topic. It's been a theme in our field prior to the pandemic (certainly the past ten years) where if you're a liaison in a large district (or even at a school) with a large number of homeless students, just doing intake and checking on people is hard when you have a large caseload per volume.

It's certainly possible that in that process, you're interacting with the youth in a way that's triggering: they're not connecting, they're not feeling “gotten,” and it's important not to speak in a way that would disengage them.

On top of that, we've always said you don't have to use the word “homeless” at any point. Even doing outreach and identification, there are many ways to talk about having lost housing, not being with your parents, or not being in a house that you've got the lease or deed on. There are sensitive ways to talk with students about that, to understand why they might be missing a deadline on homework or be tired in class. These are classic signs to try to understand first why that may be before going into the policies and penalties concerning homework and attendance.

What are some illustrations of where trauma-informed care makes a difference in relation to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act?

[Denny answers below]

You want to make sure that all staff are trauma aware because even when families come in and talk to the school secretary if that school secretary has not been trained in trauma, the secretary can immediately shut a family member or an unaccompanied homeless youth down as they walk in the door.

Another possibility to really be cognizant of (we certainly are here in Montana, where we have a large American Indian population) is the fact that schools as an institution have been historically used to assimilate certain populations of people. So we really need to help educators to understand that the reason this family doesn't want to come into your building is because they're psychologically traumatized by education as an institution.

So being aware of that historical trauma and distrust is important, and that can even be generational trauma within a family. If I'm a high school dropout who had a lot of conflict with educators, then when I come back as a parent, I'm still bearing the burden of that trauma with me. So it’s vital to help people to understand that, yes, just by existing schools can trigger trauma, and educators can trigger trauma without meaning to, just because of who they are.

There’s also the issue of family relationship to education. We've had some really specific examples in Montana. We had to go out and do some training around food and trauma. We do see a lot of homeless students (and children in poverty in general) who have been very food insecure.

Students may steal food from classmates or hoard food from the cafeteria to take home. When teachers are offering treats or snacks as a reward for completing a task, that can trigger trauma for a student and create confrontations. These students may have experienced situations where adults in their lives did not provide adequate food, and they lack trust.

We need to be mindful that there are just so many aspects to trauma and make sure educators understand adverse childhood experiences and that they really understand the circumstance of the local community they're in, because there are many communities that have faced different types of trauma that educators need to be aware of.

What are some practices that can be useful in those cases? [McLaughlin answers below]

We also recommend that liaisons and other school staff consider meeting people off of school grounds, like at a community center or public library for a community where many members are experiencing homelessness. It's a more neutral space. Of course, this is often after hours, as it's hard sometimes to get there during the school day. Things like that help. It is a little hard for district staff to have to accommodate that, as they have their families and their lives too, but it's so important for families experiencing homelessness.

[Denny answers below]

It really works well in schools that are implementing something like the parent-teacher home visiting model. You can train your staff on that model of visiting families and building positive rapport outside of the classroom. Then, prior to having to make any negative phone calls, you've already built that positive relationship.

There is definitely a need for constant awareness and comprehensive support.

Part III of IV. See Part IV to keep reading.