Homelessness and Students with Exceptionalities

A homeless child is any youth who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. He or she might be sharing the housing of others, living in cars, motels, campgrounds, homeless shelters, or bus stations or awaiting foster care placement. School is one of the few safe, stable places in their lives and provides hope to one day escape poverty.

How Do You Know a Student Is Homeless?

Because families often try to hide their homelessness, many homeless students never gain access to available benefits and services. Some signs that a child may be homeless include:

  • Wears the same clothes day after day.
  • Frequently late to school.
  • Doesn't have school supplies.
  • Tends not to want to go home.
  • Homework not done.
  • Notes not signed by parents.

However, some of the above signs can be indicators for other situations, such as abuse, neglect, or abandonment.

Students coping with the stress of being homeless often exhibit two different types of behavior: withdrawal/depression (in extreme cases they may become suicidal); and acting out with aggressive or inappropriate behaviors (taken to the furthest degree, these children may act out in violence).

Laws About Special Education for Homeless Students

McKinney-Vento Act
The McKinney-Vento Act requires states and districts to provide homeless children the same free education as other students. Each state employs a state coordinator to ensure all districts comply. If schools fail to comply, districts and states can be sued. All districts are required to designate a homeless education liaison who must help students enroll immediately, whether or not they have their previous school records; set up transportation; access health and other services; inform guardians about available services; and more. In addition, schools must:

  • Obtain records from the previous school.
  • Make placement determinations in the best interests of the child.
  • Make sure students with disabilities get needed special education services.
  • Help homeless students get free lunch and/or breakfast.
  • Provide English language learning services.
  • NOT ask families or youth about citizenship/immigration status.
  • NOT segregate homeless students.

Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Title I
Homeless students are automatically eligible for Title I of ESEA services. School districts must set aside funds for this, and each district's Title I plan must describe services to be provided to homeless youth. District Title I coordinators must collaborate with district homeless liaisons. Districts can use Title I funds for hiring special teachers or tutors for homeless students, facilitating parent involvement, funding after-school or summer programs, etc.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
The Child Find Rule of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) demands schools seek out, identify, and evaluate all youth with disabilities, whether or not they are homeless or enrolled in school. The school must communicate with parents if it appears their child may have a disability.

To-Dos for Teachers of Homeless Students with Exceptionalities
Arrange intake interviews when a new student enrolls. Meet the parents. Find out if the child has had special education before. Ask what the parents feel their child needs to succeed in school.

It is critical to provide a feeling of structure and security. Positive, pro-active discipline, clear rules, and strong classroom management skills help. Let the child know he or she is safe. And, convey a sense of acceptance: "We're glad you're here. You belong here." School counselors should let students know they can come to them any time they need to talk and that conversations will be kept confidential.

What Teachers Should Know about Homeless Students with Exceptionalities

Homelessness can exacerbate learning problems. Transitions are often hard for children with exceptionalities, and additional stress can exacerbate academic difficulties.

Special considerations and exceptions may need to be made for homeless students. Allow homework to be done in school. Be prepared to teach subjects such as hygiene and personal space skills.

Personal space and possessions are important for homeless children. In a homeless child's mind, his or her desk or locker becomes the child's "home." Violating that space is like breaking into his or her house. The child may become territorial, protective, or even hostile. Try to respect homeless children's boundaries. Let them put their name on their possessions and/or spaces.

IEP Considerations

  • Get a social worker onboard. The social worker can "follow" homeless students to different schools, coordinate with shelters, and provide school supplies and clothes.
  • Get a parent advocate involved. A social worker or other reliable person can help parents by providing a mailing address and phone number, transportation to meetings, and assistance with understanding their rights and the IEP process.
  • Be realistic. Realize that there may be some absenteeism and that it may require two years to complete a grade level.
  • List summer school and after-school programs on the IEP to make up for missed days that may cause a homeless student to fall behind.
  • List transportation on the IEP. Also consider:
    • Remedial services or tutoring.
    • Counseling.
    • School supplies.
    • Free lunch/breakfast.
    • Preschool programs.
    • Medical services.
    • Case management.
    • Staff development.
    • Agency coordination.
    • Parent training.

Strategies for School Administrators of Homeless Students with Exceptionalities
Administrators should get educated about homelessness and network with schools that deal with homeless students regularly. Designate one staff person as liaison with local shelters to help expedite enrollment and IEP management. Provide teacher training on educating homeless students. Also:

  • Train staff on the legal requirements for enrollment of homeless students with disabilities.
  • Develop short educational assessments to help with the immediate and appropriate placement of new students.
  • Host on-site immunization clinics.
  • Expedite special education referrals.
  • Provide needed remediation and/or tutoring without delay.
  • Have counselors meet with parents and students when registering.
  • Create an orientation video for students, parents, and service providers.
  • Establish routines for smoothing incoming and outgoing transitions.
  • Take the time to talk with and welcome students individually.
  • Assign faculty and peer mentors to new students.
  • Hand out a short, simple list of classroom rules and procedures.

Keep a portfolio of each homeless child's work that the child can take to a new school.