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Assessing How Parents Experiencing Homelessness Make Preschool Decisions: Policy and Practice Implications

Front Cover of A Qualitative Assessment of Parental Preschool Choices and Challenges Among Families Experiencing Homelessness: Policy and Practice Implications

Research suggests that early childhood education can help mitigate the developmental delays and decreased academic achievement often observed in children experiencing homelessness. Yet very few of these children are enrolled in preschool, and the reasons why have not been fully explored. In a recent study, “A Qualitative Assessment of Parental Preschool Choices and Challenges Among Families Experiencing Homelessness: Policy and Practice Implications,” researchers interviewed families who had recently experienced homelessness to determine what factors influence preschool participation. Based on their findings, the researchers make policy and community practice recommendations to facilitate preschool enrollment for children experiencing homelessness.

Implementing the Study

Researchers conducted interviews with families who had recently experienced homelessness to identify common themes concerning preschool enrollment and participation. The study defined preschool as an early childhood education program that promotes cognitive and social development, including Head Start, as opposed to “daycare” or “childcare,” which lacked an educational component. Researchers conducted an initial round of focus-group and individual interviews with 28 households: 14 in Atlanta, Georgia, and 14 in the Bridgeport–New Haven area of Connecticut. Researchers restricted participation to families with children under 6 years of age who had been enrolled in HUD’s Family Options Study, a multi-site random assignment experiment designed to evaluate the impact of various housing and services interventions for families experiencing homelessness. Twenty-two of the study participants were African American, two were white, three were Native American, and one was of unknown race. Females headed all but one of the participating households. One head of household was married, 19 were single and never married, and 8 were separated or divorced. After the first round of interviews, researchers contacted participants to engage in more detailed followup discussions, with 6 households in Connecticut and 10 in Georgia ultimately taking part.

Researchers structured the initial and followup interviews to learn participants’ views on their opportunities for and barriers to preschool enrollment while experiencing homelessness. The first round of discussions explored how families identified, pursued, and participated in preschool options as well as the role of homelessness program staff and early childhood service providers in these activities. Followup interview questions examined these issues in more detail.

Study Findings

The interviews revealed that multiple factors, both positive and negative, influenced the preschool choices of families experiencing homelessness. High housing instability and the absence of social supports and networks often encountered by those experiencing homelessness were key determinants to preschool enrollment. Systemic barriers presented additional obstacles; foremost among them were long preschool waitlists. The lack of information on enrollment periods and the absence of meaningful information on preschool options in general compounded the problem. A lack of affordable or accessible transportation to preschool facilities, lack of tuition subsidies, and complex bureaucratic processes also had negative impacts. Frustration with systemic barriers contributed to high parental stress levels, another factor limiting preschool enrollment.

Stable, affordable, and safe housing as well as access to positive social networks and supports were factors that encouraged preschool enrollment. Services that facilitated preschool participation included subsidized tuition, easy access to transportation, and basic information about educational opportunities and referral support. All of these factors helped parents focus on preschool options for their children.


Based on their findings, researchers recommend that shelter staff and early childhood educators more actively publicize preschool opportunities. Few of the parents interviewed, for example, were aware that Head Start programs prioritized the enrollment of children currently or formerly experiencing homelessness or that they offered case management for enrolled families. Shelter and preschool providers could help families complete preschool applications and alert them to application deadlines. Researchers also recommend greater incorporation of preschool options and enrollment mechanisms in shelter case management protocols, including strategies to help families transition from one preschool or Head Start program to another and information on preschools in wider geographic areas. Reducing systemic barriers to preschool enrollment by ensuring that program information is accurate and up to date, simplifying the application process, prioritizing children experiencing homelessness on waitlists, and providing transportation assistance would help boost enrollment. Researchers also cite a need for greater collaboration between homelessness service providers and educators. They suggest that educators actively participate in shelter programs and that homelessness service providers be included in educational planning. In conclusion, the researchers encourage further evaluation of interventions that link housing assistance and early education support for families experiencing homelessness, believing that such studies would yield valuable information.