Guest Blog by Launch Housing Lead Researcher Violet Kolar
Experiencing homelessness is overwhelming, scary and stressful, especially for children. In 2017-18, around 57,000 people, mostly women and children, sought support from Victoria’s specialist homelessness services due to domestic and family violence. These are serious and traumatic life events causing high levels of stress, with a devastating impact on children’s cognitive, social, emotional and physical development.
Access to and participation in school and learning is also severely disrupted. Without a home, remaining connected to one school becomes impossible. Estimates show that every time a child changes school, they effectively fall three to six months behind their peers.
For the thousands of school-children who access homelessness services, the risk of school disengagement and learning problems is high, putting them at an even greater risk of employment difficulties and homelessness in adulthood.
But a recent evaluation of the Education Pathways Program shows one way of breaking this cycle.
Education Pathways Program
The Children’s Specialist Support Service (CSSS) is run by Launch Housing in the southern metropolitan region of Melbourne. This child specific service provides therapeutic group work and psychological support to children and young people aged 18 years and under who have experienced homelessness and family violence.
An important component of the CSSS is the Education Pathways Program (EPP), which focuses on children in short-term accommodation, such as motels and hotels. It is one of the very few programs dedicated to re-engaging children with mainstream education and providing much needed material aid and financial assistance. The EPP was developed in 2015 after Launch Housing support workers discovered that most of the children accommodated in one particular motel were not attending school and many were not even enrolled in school.
Great outcomes achieved for children and parents
A recent evaluation found that the EPP is an innovative, quality program committed to ensuring that children are linked to schools as quickly as possible. A total of 187 children received support from the EPP over a three year period; 159 of these children were not enrolled when first contacted by the EPP. After working with the EPP 79% of these children were enrolled at primary school.
To ensure the children got to school, the ‘walking school bus’ approach was used whereby the EPP staff physically accompanied the children to school each day.
The practical support provided by the EPP in terms of children’s schooling, and physically getting the children to school each day, was hugely beneficial for parents. It immediately reduced the excessive stress and worry that overwhelmed parents as a result of their homelessness.
Hardship was common and educational gaps were huge
At the time of engagement, the children and parents were in crisis, without safe and permanent housing. Many were traumatised because of family violence.
More than half of the children (58%) were identified with a range of ‘very high needs’; this included a history of absenteeism from primary school; numeracy and literacy levels were well below their peers; and with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Worryingly, these children were typically many years behind their peers.
But improvement was possible
A key message from the evaluation is that providing support as early as possible is absolutely critical, and can provide immediate respite to the stress and crisis that families and children were experiencing. Practical and material assistance made a huge difference for parents.
Daily routine, stability and safety helped the children settle, reconnect with school and thrive on learning. Not only does school provide a safe haven and respite from the daily hardships, but it also offers the opportunity to learn the skills needed to develop and grow educationally.
Included in the evaluation report are emails from teachers to EPP staff providing heart-warming updates on how the young students have settled in and the progress they have made in their learning. Here is one such example*:
I am Paul’s Grade 5 teacher this year and I am just keeping you updated on his progress in the classroom this semester. He has socially been a delight and works well with pretty much anyone in the grade. He has settled in very well and has made some great new friends who are also great role models for working in the classroom. He definitely is making a great deal of progress and with his consistent work, is improving and building on his skills quickly…All in all he has been a great kid to have in the class so far this year. I hope I’ve managed to give you a clear picture of Paul this year. What a great kid.
Grade 5 Teacher”
* Name and some details changed to maintain anonymity.
Based on an extraordinary partnership
These positive outcomes would not have been possible without the very strong partnership between Launch Housing’s EPP and the local primary school, and the passionate commitment to ensure that the young students had a strong sense of belonging and connection. This local school community completely embraced them.
You can learn more about the achievements of the Education Pathways Program in the new Evaluation Overview and Report.