News Release

Study IDs ways to better help children experiencing homelessness

Peer-Reviewed Publication

North Carolina State University

A new qualitative study of families experiencing homelessness suggests public service systems need to do a better job of working with parents to support homeless children. The study also identifies key barriers limiting children’s access to support programs, such as unrealistic eligibility requirements and a failure to make parents aware of existing programs.

“There’s a lot of research out there on social and emotional interventions, and on early childhood education,” says Heather Finster, corresponding author of a paper on the work and a Ph.D. candidate at North Carolina State University. “However, there is not a lot of research that looks at the accessibility of these programs for children experiencing homelessness – even though these children are at greater risk of social and emotional challenges. We wanted to get deeper understanding of these accessibility challenges by listening to the perspective of parents.”

For this study, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 47 parents experiencing homelessness who had at least one child younger than 9 years old.

“Much of the work on families experiencing homelessness views parents from a deficit-focused perspective, which means that it focuses on where parents are lacking in supporting their children. However, this study underscores the importance of acknowledging all of the things that these parents are providing,” Finster says. “They play an essential role in the development of their children’s emotional and social well-being, and help their children navigate challenges in accessing support systems. Based on first-hand research and clinical experience working in shelters, this is a critical finding that is worth highlighting.”

Study participants also reported a range of barriers that made it difficult for them to connect their children with high quality social-emotional health services. These barriers included:

  • Parents being unaware of available services and resources;
  • Cost and eligibility criteria that effectively made the services inaccessible;
  • Negative interpersonal experiences with service providers; and
  • Logistical barriers, such as a lack of transportation or child care.

“Understanding these barriers is important, because these are often challenges that can be addressed by improving existing systems,” Finster says. “For example, improved outreach could make more parents aware of existing services.

“This study’s take-away message is straightforward,” Finster says. “If we want to do a better job of helping children who are experiencing homelessness, a good place to start would be to do a better job of working with their parents to engage with the services and resources that already exist.”

The paper, “In parents’ words: Reflections on the social-emotional health system for young children experiencing homelessness,” is published in the journal Social and Emotional Learning: Research, Practice, and Policy. The paper was co-authored by Alexandra Buccelli and Erica Hobbs, both of whom are Ph.D. students at NC State; and by Mary Haskett, professor emerita of psychology at NC State.

The work was done with support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under grant number 93.434; and from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services ESSA Preschool Development Grants Birth-Five.


Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“In parents’ words: Reflections on the social-emotional health system for young children experiencing homelessness”

Authors: Heather Finster, Alexandra Buccelli, Erica Hobbs and Mary Haskett, North Carolina State University

Published: Dec. 30, 2023, Social and Emotional Learning: Research, Practice, and Policy

DOI: 10.1016/j.sel.2023.100023

Abstract: Even when high-quality, evidence-based social-emotional supports and services are available, accessing them can be challenging, confusing, or impossible for some families, especially for families experiencing homelessness. We utilized thematic analysis to explore the knowledge, skills, and networks (also known as community cultural wealth) that families experiencing homelessness use to promote their children’s social-emotional development. We also explored barriers to accessing needed services and families’ own recommendations to make the social-emotional health system more equitable and accessible. Parents reported that they were the most important people who promoted their child’s social emotional development and that their own personal strengths provided an avenue for buffering impacts of systemic challenges. Additionally, positive interactions with support people and positive experiences with programs were highly valued and impactful for families. Parents also reported barriers that interfere with receiving high quality social-emotional health services, including: (a) lack of awareness of available services and resources, (b) cost and eligibility criteria that were prohibitive, (c) negative experiences with service providers, (d) logistical barriers, and (e) personal challenges. Parents provided recommendations which guided our discussion of practice, policy, and research implications.

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