Quality early childhood programs can change the trajectory of a child’s health and well-being, and help families experiencing homelessness regain stability. Early childhood programs are particularly important in the context of homelessness: the younger and longer a child experiences homelessness, the greater the cumulative toll of negative outcomes, which can have lifelong effects. Yet, even as the Every Student Succeeds Act placed more emphasis on access to preschool and early childhood programs for children experiencing homelessness, many schools
“Deeper Dives” for Schools: Practical Strategies to Serve Young Children Experiencing Homelessness
Co-authored with Kristi Byfield, B.S., M.Ed. Assistant Administrator, Multnomah Early Childhood Program, David Douglas School District, Oregon
#1: Collaborating for Success
Where to start: It’s all about relationships.
- Reach out! McKinney-Vento liaisons can make email or phone contact with early care and education programs in their communities. (Use our Pathways to Partnership tool to get started.) Early care and education providers can contact McKinney-Vento liaisons in local school districts. (Your McKinney-Vento State Coordinator can provide contact information.)
- Realize relationships are about people, not programs. It will take time (maybe years) to build relationships and develop rapport. Be persistent.
- Be available and positive. Say “How might we do it?” vs. “It can’t be done.”
- Designate a person who is passionate about young children and homelessness to do the work. I do this work because it is the thing that gets me up in the morning and brings me to work.
Ask to join existing meetings or set up your own meetings.
- Make sure the right people are at the table. Do they have the ability to change policy and procedures that might be getting in the way?
- Example: If you want to ensure children experiencing homelessness receive screenings and referrals for early intervention or early childhood special education: Are the team members who manage screenings and referrals present? Do they understand homelessness and associated trauma? Are they compassionate and understanding about what they might hear and see? Can they understand screenings may need to be done at a shelter, motel, public location or coffee shop? Can they make accommodations to work outside the “normal” work day (evenings, weekends, etc.) when families experiencing homelessness can be available?
- Set up regular meetings (monthly may be a good frequency to start) and attend every time. Show through your actions that this topic is important. The whole range of providers of early care and education should be at the table every time, not just twice a year, or when invited.
- Early care and education providers, as well as McKinney-Vento liaisons, should be asked to bring information and share resources as equal partners at the regular meetings. Everyone is a participant, not just an attendee.
- Get out of the office. Meet at shelters, schools and early childhood programs. Share information with those running the programs.
Keep the lines of communication open.
- Share resources and information often and openly.
- Share data on the number of families and children experiencing homelessness across programs and providers. Help each other gather data.
#2: Preparing staff and systems
The realities of homelessness can make it challenging for families to comply with standard policies of many early care and education programs. Families may struggle to organize documents; they may have challenges keeping children’s clothes clean. Children receiving classroom-based services may arrive late or early; they may forget their backpack; they may arrive without having eaten.
Think of the small things that make a big difference.
- Do your attendance slips say “tardy” or do they say “We’re so glad you made it today”?
- Do you have signs on your door that say “No entry until 8:00 am” or do the signs say “Come in. We are so happy to see you.” OR “This room will open at 8:00 am. You are welcome to go to _________ if you arrive before then.” (Designate a safe, comfortable, indoor space where children can go.)
- If possible, create a laundry space, with a washer/dryer that parents can use discreetly. Provide the detergent.
- Set up a computer that parents can use to fill out forms, job applications, and other documentation. They are unlikely to have this resource elsewhere, and offering it can help build a partnership with parents. Provide a printer with paper free of charge
Prepare your staff to understand and respond to the needs of families experiencing homelessness.
- Provide training on homelessness and poverty locally and trauma-informed care.
- This training should not be a “one and done” training, but ongoing.
- Provide information to staff in multiple ways, including paper copies, online resources, videos, and social media.
- Provide training on the differences between poverty and safety concerns. Staff might feel that something is a safety concern, when really it is a troubling but not dangerous consequence of the living situations families are experiencing.
Work as a team to meet the needs of children and families.
- Make sure whoever maintains data is identifying children experiencing homelessness and able to report that data.
- Help transportation providers understand the reality of homelessness and mobility, and their importance in making sure children can access services.
- Example: If a child needs a bus to access services, and the family is living in an unstable or hidden location (such as a park, car, or domestic violence shelter) does the transportation database support “little grocery store on the corner of X and Y Streets” for the transportation request? Does the transportation office know who to connect with if they run into problems arranging transportation for a child who is experiencing homelessness?”
#3: Streamlining enrollment and participation
Cross-train staff so every program is able to begin the enrollment and/or screening process for other programs, providing a single point of entry for early care and education.
- Early intervention and early childhood special education programs can provide training(s) on their screening tools to other early childhood providers, shelters and agencies serving families. Those programs can have the screening tools available on site. With training and supportive relationships with providers, those programs can assist the family to get the screening and referrals completed.
- Early intervention and early childhood special education programs can give other programs a direct phone line to someone who can help them if they get stuck in the process somewhere or need help.
- McKinney-Vento liaisons can provide housing questionnaires and school enrollment forms to early childhood programs and shelters, and train them to provide pre-enrollment for families with school-age children and to connect parents to the liaison immediately.
- Child Care Resource and Referral programs can train other early childhood providers and McKinney-Vento liaisons about how to help families access child care subsidies, including triggering the prioritization for families experiencing homelessness.
- Head Start and preschool programs can share their applications and contact McKinney-Vento liaisons and shelters immediately when they have an opening.
Make information and applications as accessible as possible.
- Make applications and screening tools available both online (including mobile-accessible) and in hard copy.
- Create a single source of contact information for all programs. Use our Pathways to Partnership tool as a guide.
- Include McKinney-Vento liaisons, child care resources, Head Start and Early Head Start, preschool, early intervention, and early childhood special education programs contacts.
- Post the information online, in schools, and in public locations, such as shelters, motels, libraries, health clinics, campgrounds, laundromats, and soup kitchens.
- Be sure the contact information will connect parents to a person who can answer questions and provide immediate assistance.
- Use person first language (families experiencing homelessness vs. homeless family), and be sure the information provided represents families respectfully. Be mindful of photos and images used on information sheets.
Share information appropriately to expedite services.
- Obtain releases of information at the point of intake or referral so you can talk with schools, providers, early care and education programs, and other agencies and stay connected with the family.
- With families’ permission, collect information that will streamline their enrollment in other programs and share it with programs for which children are eligible.
- Establish a system where shelters provide information daily about current residents and whether they have young children or school-age children.
#4: Working with families
Connect families to other services they may need quickly and effectively.
- Early care and education programs should ask parents if they have school-age children, and if they are enrolled in school. Offer to connect them to the McKinney-Vento liaison. If children are not enrolled, offer to meet them at the school or invite the liaison to visit the family at your program to enroll in school.
- Schools should ask parents if they have young children, and if they are connected to early care and education programs. Offer to connect them to those programs and assist them to complete screenings and enrollment documentation.
- Connect parents with peer programs, Child Care Resource & Referral programs, and information lines like 211.
- McKinney-Vento liaisons likely have resource lists they can share with early childhood contacts, such as resources for eviction prevention, utility support, and rental assistance. Programs can share that information with parents who need it.
- Early childhood programs can make sure McKinney-Vento liaisons are aware of resources for families with young children, such as diaper resources, child care subsidies, and parenting support.
Combine resources to provide holistic services to families where they are.
- Visit shelters with resources from many programs, such as volunteers from medical clinics and early intervention providers with screening and referral information.
- Work “both ways”, with schools sharing information from early childhood programs and early childhood sharing information about school.
- Work together to build successful partnerships with families. Whomever has the best relationship with the family should start the conversation. If no one has a relationship yet, providers should sit down together and determine who should try to start the conversation first, realizing this could change if it doesn’t work.
Build relationships with families together, across programs. Understand and accommodate the real stressors and trauma parents are experiencing.
- Do joint visits. Early childhood programs should invite McKinney-Vento liaisons to every meeting every time for every family experiencing homelessness, starting at birth. Start young and build relationships!
- Liaisons should try to attend or send a social worker or other representatives to those meetings, to facilitate children’s transition into kindergarten.
- Liaisons can bring resources with them to meetings with the families, such as a backpack for preschool or a winter coat.
- Stand outside in line with families before they gain entry into the shelter, regardless of weather. You will learn a lot.
- Be flexible, considering access issues such as:
- The hours of the day your phone lines are answered by someone: can someone be available between 5-8 pm?
- The hours and days of the week you are available: Can someone meet parents from 7-9 pm or on weekends?
- The days of the month you call or schedule appointments: Think of cell phone plans and when a family might run out of minutes.