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Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change


Changing the Conversation

Science-Based Strategies to Support Children Experiencing Homelessness

11/17/16 01:02 PM | Katie Volk | Children, Homelessness

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Have you ever watched an infant play? I mean really observed them? Try it some time, and while you watch, contemplate this...

At birth, we have 100 billion neurons, most of which are not connected. Infants form 700 new neural connections every second – tens of thousands of pathways that literally build the architecture of their brains. Through their senses and their relationships, they come to know the external world, and their brain begins to build the systems to understand it. The attention they receive (or don’t) from their primary caregivers, stimulation they receive from their environment, stress they experience and the responses to that stress by those around them reinforce or prune away at their neural connections and promote or hinder cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development.Now consider this: the age a person in the US is most likely to experience homelessness is infancy. And, a person is next most likely to experience homelessness from ages one through five. The experiences of these children – who number in the millions – often include food insecurity, frequent moves, and living environments that often do not include safe places to play, explore, and rest. Their mothers – the people most frequently responsible for their care and well-being – are understandably under enormous stress and coping with the effects of a lifetime of trauma and violence which often manifests in clinical depression.

What we have learned from science does not match up with what is actually happening for these children – as is so often the case when it comes to social policy. Advocates, policymakers, and developmental specialists have articulated many solutions. Here are a few:

  1. Programs serving young children must create space that is developmentally rich. Lay down blankets for babies to crawl on. Give young children time to run and jump and explore (block off a hallway if you have to). Fill the environment with books and other literacy materials. Model self-regulation. Support parents in their effort to create close, warm, stable relationships with their children.
  2. Implement two-generation approaches. Homelessness impacts both children and their caregivers. When we work with one, we work with the other.
  3. Work across agencies. Families experiencing homelessness are often in touch with multiple systems – housing, education (school systems), income assistance (“welfare” or TANF), mental health, primary care. Agencies at local, state, and federal levels must work together to develop common solutions.
  4. Let the developmental science inform our interventions. Over the last two decades, our knowledge about early childhood has expanded dramatically. Use this knowledge to build services and systems – from early intervention and Head Start to homelessness and housing to primary care.
  5. Recognize families need more than just housing to thrive. They also need services that support their health and well-being.

“Babies are bundles of biology upon which culture is laid,” pediatrician and developmental scientist Emmi Pickler once said. What are we laying upon these developing brains? We must do better. Every second counts.

Learn More:

Neurobiology of child development: Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child

Federal policy about young children experiencing homelessness: Policy Statement on Meeting the Needs of Families with Young Children Experiencing and At Risk of Homelessness

Family homelessness and the role of services: Services Matter: How Housing and Services Can End Family Homelessness

Complexities of family homelessness: a t3 podcast with Dr. Ellen L. Bassuk:

Listen here! Image by eren {sea+prairie} (CC by 2.0).

Katie Volk

Written by Katie Volk

Katie Volk has been focusing on poverty and related issues since 2000. She is currently the Co-Principal Investigator on a Center for Social Innovation project to develop an online ecological risk and resilience assessment for young children in low-resource settings. Katie is the former Managing Director of t3 (think. teach. transform.) and has trained thousands of service providers in diverse settings, including the post-Katrina Gulf. Her primary areas of focus include homelessness, trauma-informed care, and child development.