Things we don’t want to think about, but need to.

by Lara on December 2, 2009

I was recently asked to give a brief talk to the students in our department’s Psychology Club, and I enthusiastically accepted. Psych Club is generally made up of our brightest, most motivated undergraduate students, and it’s a fun group. Feeling as though I had talked my own research to death recently, I decided to speak to the students about the effects of homelessness on child development, health, and achievement. This topic has been on my mind a lot lately as my husband and I continue to be involved with Positive Tomorrows, a nonprofit, tuition-free private school for homeless children in OKC.

I thought I would share here some of what I have learned about this topic. It’s sobering, but reminds us of the importance of prevention and intervention programs aimed at stopping the cycle of poverty. Much of this information comes from the National Center on Family Homelessness and empirical research conducted by experts in child development.

Effects of Homelessness on Child Development

  • Internalizing behaviors, such as anxiety/depression, social withdrawal, somatic complaints
  • Peer rejection and social ostracism
  • Homeless children are self-critical and have low self-esteem
  • Among adolescents, prostitution, drug use, and other forms of delinquency are common—which means that homeless teens often end up incarcerated.

Effects on School Achievement

  • Less than 25% of Oklahoma’s homeless teens graduate from high school.
  • The test scores of Oklahoma’s homeless children are far below those of middle-income kids.
  • Homeless children are far more likely to be retained at least one school year (often more than one).
  • Most homeless kids are below grade-level in reading and math.

One of the primary causes of these achievement-related outcomes is that homeless children are simply not in school regularly. The transient nature of a homeless family means that it’s difficult to keep a child registered in their (ever-changing) neighborhood school. Homeless parents are more likely to allow their children to stay out of school because of how difficult it is to keep them enrolled and attending. As a result, their children fall farther and farther behind—which means that when they eventually secure permanent housing and can enroll their children in school again, their children have fallen far below grade-level and cannot keep up with their peers. The frustration, embarrassment, and incredible academic challenge that results can lead to chronic academic underperformance, and eventually to complete school drop-out.

The solution to this enormous social problem is obviously complex and multi-faceted. But it has been incredibly encouraging and rewarding to be involved with an organization that’s changing the lives of homeless children, one family at a time. If you’re in the OKC area and looking to devote some time or money to a worthy cause, please visit Positive Tomorrow’s website and contact their executive director or volunteer coordinator.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Hugh M. Harrison December 30, 2009 at 5:19 am

Hi Assistant Professor Mayeux,

You are very correct that the overwhelming majority of underprivileged youth in society are disadvantaged through negative influence or social conditioning. I know this, because I was one of those individuals. As these youth are placed in precarious situations which only allows for negation rather than positive social conditioning or referencing, it becomes more so defense mechanisms which become attributes within those behaviors which determine future outcome. Possible integration of newer methods or attributes of behavior determining future outcomes relies on social conditioning. Although each individual is unique, gaining trust would be the first step in elimination of irrational defense mechanisms. After trust is gained, a positive authoritative system can be integrated. Positive self talk is key for good self esteem. Keep up the good work and always remember that the greatest elimination of negative thinking is achieved by helping others. I think it is great what you are doing!

Hugh M. Harrison – Psych Major at UMUC


beverly hills psychologist April 29, 2010 at 11:35 pm

I wish I could have attended your talk!! I’m a psych major and I am hugely interested in learning about child development. I love it!


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