Kenneth V. Hardy Photo: Alyssa Haywoode Strategies for Children
Kenneth V. Hardy
Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children

Providing homeless children with what they need to thrive in the early years can mean tackling tough issues such as poverty, social justice and trauma. It takes “courage to talk about race and class in settings of early education,” Yolanda Coentro, Horizons’ chief operating officer explained at the conference.

To help providers do this work, Horizons for Homeless Children hosted “Young Children Without Homes,” a two-day conference with 430 participants at Harvard.  This year’s theme was the “readiness equation,” creating “a seamless transition from preschool to kindergarten, and family support throughout the first eight years of life,” Asa Fanelli, Horizons’ president and CEO, writes in the conference program.

More than 1.6 million children are homeless in America, according to Horizons and the National Center on Family Homelessness.  Here in Massachusetts, Horizons serves 3,000 children per week. These children need homes and early education programs that can ease the burden of their experiences while filling them with the joy of learning.

What often happens is that the bar gets set too low. Providers focus on helping struggling children get through the day, Coentro added, asking: “What’s the bar for children with all the privileges in the world? And do we bring that [standard] to our field with kids whose aspirations might be more depressed because of where they live and what they’re surrounded by?”

To raise the bar as high as it can go for homeless children, Horizons has formed partnerships to provide the children in its programs with activities such as yoga and exercise. Horizons is also working with Community Servings, a local nonprofit organization, to teach families about nutrition. Its other partners include Cradles to Crayons, Young Audiences Massachusetts and more than 150 shelters for homeless families.

Coentro hopes that the conference will help participants have more conversations and form their own partnerships in order to bring best practices and innovative programs to more children.

Featured speakers

Jack P. Shonkoff spoke on the first day about how the science of brain development in infants and young children can influence public policy.  We’ve written about his work here.

Day two’s featured speaker was Kenneth V. Hardy, a professor of family therapy at Drexel University and director of the Eikenberg Institute for Relationships.

“What we look for is what we see,” Hardy explained in his presentation. So instead of asking why a child is bad, it’s important to change focus and ask if a child is suffering.”

Hardy argued that children and parents can suffer from invisible wounds. The most debilitating wound is devaluation of one’s own worth: “The process by which an individual or group is stripped of the essentials of their humanity,” Hardy said.

Another wound is dehumanized loss: multiple experiences of loss that are not adequately mourned.  There are tangible losses such as losing a home or a parent. And there are intangible losses of respect, innocence, dignity and hope.  The final wound Hardy mentioned is rage, saying, “What I believe is that it is virtually impossible to suffer… without there being some rage.”

Working with homeless children requires addressing these socio-cultural traumas and validating the families’ strengths, Hardy said, adding that providers choose one of three roles.  Some choose to be jailers. These providers seek to emulate what good children do, medicate troubled children, and incarcerate bad children.  Others choose to be helpers — providers who fix problems, but play no role in prevention.  The third choice is to be a healer, someone who acts on the conviction that the way things are is not the way that they have to be.

Hardy’s hope is that more providers will choose to be healers.

A Sampling of Conference Workshops

Our own Amy O’Leary, Early Education for All Campaign director, moderated a panel discussion called “Developing Early Education Systems: A State-by-State approach.” The panel included Sherri Killins, former Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care; Sherry Cleary, Executive Director of the New York City Early Childhood Professional Development Institute; and Ellen Wolock, Director of the New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of Preschool Education. The panelists discussed how states have built early education systems as well as barriers to accessing early education. They also described their state’s unique responses to the educational needs of homeless children.

A workshop led by staff members from the Children’s Trust Fund focused on the “Strengthening Families” framework, a blueprint for helping families become stronger. Developed by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, the framework focuses on five developmental areas: building parental resilience; making social connections; increasing adult’s knowledge of parenting and child development; providing concrete support for families in need; and boosting children’s social and emotional competence. Used by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, the framework also provides a common language that providers can use to talk to each other as well as to funders and to state and federal government officials.

Linda Camp and Etta Rosen, the co-founders of Early Language Matters, an organization that runs professional development programs, discussed how to improve children’s oral language skills through intentional conversations, books and content-rich environments. Engaging children in a conversation is important, Camp and Rosen said, because children have to use more complicated sentences and words to express their ideas.  And story books are essential for building vocabulary, especially if adults introduce books and then read them out loud multiple times: once to get a sense of the story, a second time to talk about definitions of words and story context, and another time asking children to chime in with their own thoughts.  A fourth reading could include children acting out the story.

The Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, a research organization in New York City, shared the preliminary findings of its research on Head Start and housing instability.  The Institute’s research suggests that children who are homeless or highly mobile (those who move frequently) and enrolled in Head Start “do not, on average, reach the same level of proficiency as their stably housed peers, but their socio-emotional and cognitive outcomes improve during the course of two years in Head Start.” These findings underscore the importance of providing these children with high-quality early education and care as well as “intervening early to bolster disadvantaged children’s chances of success.”

Power Point presentations for some of the workshops are posted here.