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Lost in the shuffle: The impact of homelessness on children’s education in Toronto

The Community Social Planning Council of Toronto recently completed an in-depth study, Lost in the shuffle: The impact of homelessness on children’s education in Toronto, by Anne Decter, which provides many insights into the educational barriers faced by school-aged children living in temporary shelters. The researchers conducted focus groups and interviews with parents, children, shelter staff, teachers and school administrators, to assess the impact of homelessness on the children’s education.

The study reported that on average, families lived in a shelter for 4 to 6 months. During their stay, 58% of children changed schools three or more times. Most shelters were able to assist children to enroll in school within a few days, with the exception of children with special needs, where serious delays often occurred. The researchers identified changing schools frequently as a major barrier for the education of children living in shelters. Children with special needs or with no adult to navigate between the shelter and the school faced the greatest barriers.

The study also found that children living in shelters had less of a sense of belonging to their school, and tended not to participate in before- or after-school activities. Reluctance to disclose their living situation was a barrier for parents and children to access subsidies to assist with the cost of these programs. This may be due to the fear many children revealed in the study of being stigmatized, taunted, or bullied because they were living in a shelter.

The study reveals the complex emotional demands on children living in shelters. The report found that children may experience a sense of dislocation from losing all that was familiar to them, increased stress from living in a shelter, and a loss of self-esteem or interest in learning at school. Children who have witnessed or experienced family violence may be withdrawn, have poor concentration, or act out in destructive ways. These emotional difficulties make it harder for children to learn and harder for teachers to support them unless additional resources are provided.

The Community Social Planning Council of Toronto recommends that educators: (1) assign a school liaison worker to every homeless child,
(2) create a Transient Student Support Administrator to assist children, parents, and teachers with problems related to homelessness,
(3) promote links between schools and shelters to foster a welcoming environment, (4) offer teachers professional development training about the emotional impact of family violence on children, and (5) improve access to special needs programs. 

Source: Decter, Anne, Lost in the shuffle: The impact of homelessness on children’s education in Toronto: Phase 3 report of the Kid Builders Research Project, Community Social Planning Council of Toronto, September 2007.

Submitted by Margaret White,
March 25, 2008

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