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Homelessness Has Outsize Effect on Youngest Learners

Any teacher will tell you that a child's home-life impacts her ability to learn new material and perform well socially in school. When a child has no stable home though, the impact is even more acute.

Homeless children under the age of 5 are more likely to suffer from what's known as toxic stress, a prolonged activation of a child's stress response system, and run a heightened risk of starting kindergarten unprepared, according to a recent report by the non-partisan think tank, The New America Foundation.

"In 2010, 1.6 million American children were homeless at some point during the year. This problem has been worsening in recent years—according to The Hechinger Report, there was a 58 percent increase in student homelessness from 2007 to 2013 alone," wrote Abbie Lieberman, a program associate with New America's Early Education Initiative.

About 40 percent of homeless children are 5 years old or younger, Lieberman reported.

In addition to the services offered to homeless children through Head Start, several states have recognized this risk to children's welfare and are taking steps to minimize it. New programs in Massachusetts and Oregon were highlighted in a July report by the Administration for Children and Families, part of the U.S. Office of Health and Human Services. Both states are recipients of Race To The Top Early Learning Challenge grants and have used those funds to better coordinate health and education services for homeless children, according to the report.

Velma Chaney, a parent in Seattle, watched the effect of stress caused by homelessness on her own young children last year, reported Ann Dornfeld on the Seattle-based public radio station, KOUW. Chaney's youngest child, now 3, stopped talking and refused to be potty trained. Her middle child, now 5, suddenly wanted to be babied. Finally, the family was able to connect to education services that have helped both children recover, Dornfeld reported.

The good news, an expert told Dornfeld, is that children's brains are "remarkably plastic." Provided with the right support, children suffering toxic stress due to homelessness can recover.

A stable home helps too.

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