Marisa Agha visits the Precious Lamb Preschool, which serves an especially vulnerable group: homeless children between the ages of two and six.
Federal law protects older homeless children by ensuring (formally, at least) that they are in or have access to school, but there is “not as strong a safeguard” for those younger than six, says Sheila Smith, the director of early childhood at the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “They should be considered an exceptionally vulnerable group,” she adds.
About half of those 2.5 million homeless kids are under the age of six, Bassuk says. President Obama has called for expanding access to preschool for all children through federal-state partnerships and existing Head Start programs, but despite substantial increases in access, his plan has yet to close the gap between the need and the spaces available for young homeless children, Smith says. More funding is necessary to expand high-quality preschools and day-care programs, hire trained teachers, and provide staff development.
Since their parents can be highly stressed from trying to provide basic needs like food and shelter, young homeless children often don’t receive vital early verbal interaction and play. The result might be a delay in the development of language skills and reading comprehension. “It’s almost like lacking an essential nutrient,” Smith says.
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