We always look at studies with an eye towards what we can apply to our own programming. The seventh research brief in the series from the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness shifts the focus to the children.
We have long felt that the best impact we can have on homelessness will be through the children.
The brief tells us that “poverty is linked to lower-quality parent-child interaction; children who grow up poor tend to have home environments characterized by more authoritarian parenting and fewer opportunities for in-home learning than those of higher-income families.” But, it goes on to say “enrollment in high-quality child care programs can moderate the negative impacts of poverty.”
The homeless mothers in this study were the least likely to obtain the subsidies that would help them afford child care. Even when they do get the child care subsidy, “poor parents with fewer economic resources are less likely to select center-based care and more likely to rely on relatives and less formal care arrangements than those with more resources.”
The decision to use the less formal child care arrangements has a lasting impact on their children.
“Center-based formal child care programs have been linked to positive developmental outcomes for poor children. High-quality child care can positively impact “language skills, cognitive growth, and socio-economic development among poor children.”
Would you be surprised to know that the brief reported that only 3% of the homeless mothers in their study enrolled their children in Head Start? While there is a grain of truth in the myth that the educational benefits of Head Start fade-out over time, according to Steven Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research, “nearly all studies that measured school progress find lasting impacts on grade repetition, special education and high school graduation.”
We have long guided our families to enroll their children in the wonderful non-profit day care up the street from us. The study reinforces the value of our plan to add a collaboration with another non-profit that can help place the kids in Head Start programs.
We’re also trying to teach alternatives to the authoritarian parenting style often seen in poor families.
In a 1995 book called Meaningful Differences, Betty Hart and Todd Risley wanted to understand why a curriculum they helped design gained only mediocre results for the children in a poor black Kansas City neighborhood. It led them to conclude that differences in parenting factor into the gaps between upper- and lower-income children.
Hart and Risley found that the average number of words heard in an hour by professors’ kids was 2,150, 1,250 for working-class children, and 620 for children in welfare families. More than that, the parents didn’t just talk less, they didn’t talk as kindly to their kids and communication could be summed up in the word “no.”
But parenting style can change, when the parent grasps the impact on her children. Our Senior Director of Programs was thrilled to read a response to a family problem solving question for one of our life skills modules. The mom said she wanted to change the way she disciplines – from yelling to talking in a calm and clear way to her children. She wants to stop punishing, and begin disciplining her kids. With a mom who takes responsibility and "owns" her role like that, there is lots of hope for her kids.