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U of M researchers find early reading, executive function skills key for homeless/highly mobile children to succeed

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that early reading and executive function skills are key indicators of academic success for homeless and highly mobile (HHM) children. Both studies were published today in the journal Educational Researcher, as part of a special section that underscores the scope and significance of achievement problems related to residential and school instability, while also looking at factors of resilience among HHM children.

Addressing the needs of homeless children is a growing imperative for school districts across the country. Over one million students were identified as homeless in the most recent data reported by the National Center for Homeless Education at the Department of Education. 

Findings from a longitudinal study led by the U of M’s Janette Herbers used administrative data from 18,000 students in Minneapolis Public Schools to indicate that achievement gaps are present in first grade reading scores, with HHM students at even higher risk than children who qualify for free lunch based on low-income status but have never been identified as homeless or highly mobile. Reading scores in first grade predicted later achievement in grades 3 to 8 on standardized tests of reading and math, both for level of achievement and learning rate over time.

Reading well in first grade is particularly beneficial for high-risk children, showing a protective effect on later learning.

"While early reading skills are clearly important for the later achievement of all students," Herbers said, "they are even more important for the success of students whose future achievement is threatened by homelessness and extreme poverty."

Executive function skills were studied as a potential resilience factor for homeless children in a study led by Ann Masten and colleagues from the U of M. These neurocognitive skills, which include voluntary control of attention, flexible thinking, memory, and self-control, are important for learning and getting along with peers and teachers at school.

The study tested 138 five and six-year-old children on site in three emergency shelters for families during the summers of 2008 and 2009. Scores from a battery of these tasks proved to be broadly predictive of later academic achievement and school adjustment reported by kindergarten and first grade teachers of the children, with unique and distinctive effects compared to traditional IQ measures.

"These findings together with other recent research on executive function skills are exciting," said Masten, a U of M professor and expert on resilience, has studied homeless families since 1989. "There is growing evidence that these skills can be improved through targeted practice and early education."

Masten is now working closely with a team of faculty and preschool teachers from the university, community educators, and shelter providers to develop preschool interventions to boost executive function skills as a strategy for promoting school success.

"This shared research helps us to better understand and respond to the strengths, challenges and special needs of our preschool learners who are homeless," said Elizabeth Hinz of Minneapolis Public Schools. "We can differentiate educational and social supports to develop new services that will support children’s healthy development to ensure they are ready to be successful in school."    

"If we are serious about breaking the cycle of poverty for homeless and highly mobile children, we must focus on their executive functioning skills and emotional resiliency," Daniel Gumnit, CEO and Executive Director of People Serving People, which partners with the U of M team and Minneapolis Public Schools on this effort. "This collaborative work helps us prepare the homeless preschoolers in our shelter for kindergarten and sets them up for a greater chance of success in the long run."   

The special section in Educational Researcher includes both U of M studies along with research from Vanderbilt University and the University of Pennsylvania, plus commentary on the topic from John Buckner, a leading scholar in this area on the faculty at Harvard University. You can read the special section here.

In October, U of M researchers, including Masten, had a first-of-its-kind study published in Child Development that found persistent achievement gaps for reading and math related to homelessness and high mobility.

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