“Do Whatever you Can to Try to Support that Kid”: School Counselors’ Experiences Addressing Student Homelessness

Added March 14, 2018

Students experiencing homelessness face basic, emotional, and academic needs that impact their education (Havlik, Brady, & Gavin, 2014). To address these needs, school counselors can build systemic interventions that draw upon the strengths of the school, family, and community in order to coordinate resources (Bryan & Henry, 2008) and to increase knowledge and awareness of resources and support systems available (ASCA, 2010; Gaenzle, 2012). Critical to supporting students experiencing homelessness is having knowledge of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which is the primary piece of federal legislation that addresses the barriers faced by students experiencing homelessness (U.S. Department of Education, 2016).

McKinney-Vento (42 U.S.C. 11431 et seq) requires states to address the barriers to the enrollment and/or attendance of students experiencing homelessness and to ensure that they have access to services and a high-quality education to meet their state’s standards for achievement. Under this law, schools are required to provide transportation for students to their school of origin and assign a local homeless liaison, who assists in the identification of students experiencing homelessness and provides supportive services. Schools also should enroll students identified as homeless quickly without required paperwork and provide transportation to students’ school of origin, and assign a local liaison who assists in the identification of students experiencing homelessness and provides supportive services. (U.S. Department of Education, 2016)

The present study explored the shared experiences of school counselors (N = 23) meeting the needs of students experiencing homelessness. Through qualitative methods, two general themes emerged: (a) school counselors as the first line of support and (b) the desire to help while feeling helpless. The results of this study provide insight into school counselors’ shared experiences in serving students experiencing homelessness. The themes highlight school counselors’ focus on addressing students’ basic needs and their reliance on other school personnel to provide more comprehensive support. The results demonstrate school counselors’ challenges in working with students experiencing homelessness, with participants experiencing difficulty identifying students and feeling underprepared to help.

The findings of this study suggest that school counselors may need to increase their engagement in counseling interventions for students experiencing homelessness. To support students’ social and esteem needs, they should include students experiencing homelessness in individual and group counseling interventions that involve creative approaches such as play (Baggerly & Jenkins, 2009; Strawser, Markos, Yamaguchi, & Higgins, 2000), art, or biblio-therapy. Topics may include goal setting, communication, and anxiety and stress management (Havlik, Brady, & Gavin, 2014). Further, school-wide interventions that focus on friendship, acceptance, and conflict resolution may benefit students experiencing homelessness.

School counselors can support students’ academic needs through developing school-based programs such as tutoring (Grothaus, Lorelle, Anderson, & Knight, 2011). They can also monitor the enrollment process at their schools to ensure it does not present barriers for students experiencing homelessness, to confirm appropriate course placement, and to advocate for students to remain at their schools of origin or coordinate transportation to a location that is a better fit (ASCA, 2010). School counselors can also consult with teachers to ensure their policies and practices are not hindering the success of students, as well as coordinate academic services (Grothaus et al., 2011). School counselors should engage in supporting students experiencing homelessness through career and college planning because they may have limited knowledge of post-graduation options and rely on counselors to better understand their options.

Having support systems available for students experiencing homelessness can influence whether or not they are successful (Huntington, Buckner, & Bassuk, 2008). This may require partnering with the school social worker (Gaenzle, 2012) and visiting specific resources in the community to see what is available for families. Identifying and building relationships with resources such as community organizations, businesses, and mental health services can be particularly helpful in providing comprehensive support for children and their families (Bryan & Griffin, 2010). Since participants in this study reported that the stigma of homelessness often stops families and students from identifying themselves, school counselors need to find ways to connect with families. One way to help families build trust with the school is to design programs where parents and children can engage and learn (Swick, 2008). Finding ways to get parents into the school or to connect with them in the community will help create a stronger system. Lastly, school counselors should seek additional training on homelessness by regularly reviewing the McKinney-Vento policy documents (U.S. Department of Education, 2016) and identifying further education or web resources such as the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. Findings also support the need for increased graduate education on homelessness.


Stacey A. Havlik is assistant professor at Villanova University, Patrick Rowley is assistant professor at Kean University, Jessica Puckett is school counselor at Lincoln Middle School in Dunellen, NJ, George Wilson is a graduate student at Old Dominion University, and Erin Neason is school counselor at the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School in West Chester, PA


Stacey A. Havlik PhD, Patrick Rowley PhD, Jessica Puckett, George Wilson, Erin Neason