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Thursday 8 December 2016

What teachers need to know about pupils who are homeless

In my opinion by Alison Connolly

Published 11/11/2015 | 02:30

Focus Ireland Policy Officer Alison Connolly.
Focus Ireland Policy Officer Alison Connolly.

With rapidly rising family homelessness, an estimated 700 national school pupils in Dublin are currently homeless and it affects almost every area of the city.

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There are also pupils at second-level who are homeless and whose situation is having a serious impact on their education, but most of the families with whom we are working have younger children.

There are more than 700 families, including more than 1,400 children, living in emergency accommodation.

Families are spending months and even years living in hotels and B&Bs. About half of these 700 families are living in single rooms in commercial hotels, often located miles from where the family was living and attending school when they became homeless.

Many find themselves moved from hotel to hotel when there are other commercial bookings. In many cases, school is the only source of stability in a child's life, and parents go to enormous lengths to keep their children in the same school they attended before losing their homes.

This means that transport costs take a large chunk of the parents' income and families have to leave their accommodation very early each morning. This often means that they miss breakfast and have to buy less than healthy food en route, in turn affecting energy levels and concentration.

Entire families may be living in a single hotel room, which makes getting a full and uninterrupted night's sleep near impossible. The chaotic nature of living in emergency accommodation means that sometimes children arrive at school late, or don't arrive at all.

It is not surprising that living in emergency accommodation can have a particularly profound effect on educational outcomes.

Small changes to the school environment can make a real difference, and this starts with increasing our understanding of homelessness.

Teachers should be aware that parents and children are often reluctant to report their living arrangements for fear of stigma and bullying.

Where teachers and principals are aware of a family being homeless, they can use this knowledge to inform how they teach, support and discipline children. Guidelines from other jurisdictions, in particular Australia and the US, contain simple recommendations. These include keeping a stash of nutritious snacks in the classroom in case the child missed breakfast; recognising that children may not have a quiet space to complete homework; understanding that asking children to bring in treats or money may create difficulties; and not punishing children by excluding them from play time as this may be the only real exercise they get.

Families from every walk of life are finding themselves homeless. While the children in these families are facing huge difficulties, it is important that they don't get labelled as "homeless children", with the long-term damage that this may cause.

Mary, a home school liaison officer, has told us about how her school handled the challenges, including when the weather was bad, allowing a mother to stay in the staff room to dry out with her younger child. Different schools will have done other things, and it might be a good idea to share these experiences. Focus Ireland knows that teachers are already under enormous pressure and have limited resources, but we also know that national school teachers play an even greater than normal role in the lives of these children.

We are working with the INTO, the Department of Education and the child and family agency, TUSLA, to draw up resource materials and policy frameworks to help teachers. If teachers have particular concerns, it might be useful to contact Focus Ireland directly at schoolsupport@focusireland.ie.

Alison Connolly is Policy Officer with Focus Ireland

Irish Independent

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