Summer Slide Threatens to Hinder Homeless Children’s Education

summer slide and homeless youth

“Right now, I’m concerned about students who are at risk of summer learning loss, known as ‘summer slide.’ Over time, ‘summer slide’ can leave students up to 3 years behind.”

– Siobhan A. Reardon, President and Director of the Free Library Fund

For many Americans, mid-summer is a time of relaxation. It might include vacations or day trips, BBQs, graduation parties, and visits with family and friends. For most children, the excitement of summer is difficult to contain. They spend those last few weeks of school in a hazy, daydream-like state, knowing the possibility of pool parties, hermit crabs, carnival rides, and ocean breezes is just a few more math problems away.

Homeless children, however, cannot afford for summer to be a daydream. The harsh reality of their daily routine would not allow it. In some cases, for homeless youth, school is a safe haven. It offers a space where they can socialize and grow, a place where nutritious food is readily available and harsh weather stays where it belongs – outdoors.

The Education Department projects that homelessness within the public school system has increased by an astounding 70% in the past ten years. This poses problems when the school bell rings, but those issues don’t dissipate when class is not in session.

During those hot summer months when there is no safe place to go and no vacation awaiting, homeless children become vulnerable to a phenomenon known as summer slide.

What is Summer Slide?

Summer slide is how children of school age lose knowledge they gained during the school year while on summer break. This phenomenon was introduced into the education sphere in the mid-’90s and has since been nationally recognized.

The gradual nature of summer slide is what makes it so harmful. It is often difficult to detect in the beginning during elementary school, a time when it is incidentally causing the most damage.

Studies have shown that low-income children fall victim to summer slide at disproportionate levels, a testament to their lack of educational resources during those summer months. Children enduring the horrors of homelessness have even fewer resources available for them. This is because many summer education programs require both money and a verifiable address.

Unique Problems Faced by Homeless Youth that Increases the Risk for Summer Slide

It’s easy for children who get wrapped up in the delights of summer to forget or ignore their studies temporarily. However, the vulnerability to summer slide comes less from forgetting and more from remembering for homeless children.

The halls, classrooms, and cafeterias of school can help distract homeless children from the chaos of their daily lives. Once those distractions are removed, the writing on the wall becomes clearer.

In addition to a lack of educational resources, homeless children are left in their summer lonesome to deal with:

  • The root cause of their homelessness. Whatever caused their homelessness to begin with, whether it was poverty, domestic violence, the sudden loss of a loved one, etc., was likely a traumatic experience. With no books to study and no recesses to attend, a summer alone with those thoughts can be truly agonizing.
  • Depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and other emotional disabilities. Homelessness doubles a school-aged child’s risk of developing an emotional disability. This is the direct result of having lived through serious trauma.
  • Learning disabilities. Children experiencing homelessness are three times more likely to develop a learning disability that will hinder their future and the rest of their life.
  • Isolation. Not having a safe dwelling space to call home can leave children feeling very alienated from their peers. The seemingly invisible walls drawn between homeless children and their housed counterparts take on real-life physical applications quite often. From this perspective, this state of isolation carries with it both emotional and physical forms.
  • Lack of connectivity. A lack of internet access is one example where isolation is more than just emotional. Homeless children, many of whom cannot access the internet, particularly during the summer months, are cut off from their peers in all of the following environments:
    • Social media
    • Interactive learning websites
    • Virtual touring
    • Printable lesson plans
    • Learning apps and much more
  • Disparities in health and wellness. For all individuals surviving without a safe place to live, health inequalities abound. In general, homeless people exhibit significantly shorter life expectancies and higher rates of illness and hospitalization. When you pair this physical trauma with psychological trauma, it becomes clear that the odds are already stacked against homeless children. For many of them, a perilous future awaits.

Education Inequalities are Already on the Rise for this Generation

The pandemic created an atmosphere that hindered learning for most members of the coming generation. It hit youth hailing from low-income families hardest. Brookings has dubbed it an “educational equity crisis.”

Heather J. Hough, executive director of PACE, made the following summarizing statement this past April:

“Some students have found themselves without a safe, stable place to live, lacking basic necessities, and disconnected from needed services and supports when schools—a primary avenue for public service delivery—closed for months on end.”

It is worth noting that those schools are also closed for summer.

When It Comes to Our Children, the Bare Minimum in Anything is Simply not Enough

We have information about youth homelessness at our fingertips, but our elected officials could not be further from the truth when we search for answers. Contact your state representatives today and demand they make housing a human right so young minds can grow no matter what season it is.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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