The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
December 7, 2016

Schools are essential partners in identifying and addressing instability

December 8, 2016

Over the next two weeks, Urban scholars are reflecting on how different aspects of children’s lives affect family instability and their healthy development. This team of scholars recently released a report laying out insights from an exploration of what research is needed to stabilize the lives of children and families. This work is part of Urban’s Kids in Context Initiative.

Schools can play a critical role in stabilizing children and parents who face myriad challenges, but to help schools become even more effective partners, we must better understand how factors outside the classroom affect a child’s school experience.

For children, schools can provide a stable place to learn, grow, and interact with peers, supportive teachers, and school staff. For adults, schools offer a safe, supportive place for their children, allowing these parents to work or deal with challenges in their lives so they can strengthen family well-being. Yet, instability in a family’s life caused by something unrelated to school can make regular school attendance difficult, increasing the likelihood of academic issues and dropping out.

To help schools better address instability, we need to better understand how certain destabilizing factors converge to impact families and children. Our recent review of knowledge gaps about instability offers some ideas for both research and action:

  1. Gaps remain in our understanding of how factors outside the classroom interact with each other and affect student outcomes. Research has explored singular instability factors—mobility, housing, health—and how they affect student success. But this work does not always show the whole picture of how families struggle day to day and how challenges interact and can have a cascading effect on families and children. For example, this work does not connect how unstable work schedules can play a role in family logistics and school transportation and ultimately influence student attendance and outcomes.
  2. Schools need help monitoring instability. Federal agencies, states, and school districts have improved important measures related to instability (e.g., mobility, parent engagement, school environment). Many school districts have proven their ability to assess how such factors influence student success (e.g., student mobility and student performance, health and absenteeism). However, there is still much work to be done in standardizing and understanding instability measures at a more nuanced level to capture accurate and actionable information.

    Much of the literature on school mobility highlights the negative effects of mobility on school performance but does not look in-depth at the reasons parents are moving (e.g., school choice, housing moves, location of school, and transportation). Updating and improving screening tools to frequently gather important contextual information could help schools and communities better address the causes of instability.

  3. Understanding the experiences of parents who face multiple hardships could inform strategies. Using ethnographies, surveys, interviews, and discussion groups to better understand family instability and how it relates to student success would provide a multidimensional perspective on supporting families. It would allow for more intentional intervention strategies that account for the different reasons behind parental actions (e.g., reasons for a move, leaving a child home to care for younger siblings).

​Education providers and researchers have increasingly focused on identifying struggling students to help target interventions. Many districts have turned to early warning systems for attendance, behavior, coursework, and academic preparedness to identify at-risk students. This work has demonstrated the value of identifying and supporting at-risk students and is an important first step to support children at school.

Additional research and better tools could help districts, schools, and communities focus on how to stabilize families and the impact that outside factors have on students. 

Librarian Sue Bloom reads stories to kindergarten students before the children break into learning center groups at Peabody Elementary School on Wednesday, February 25, 2015, in Washington, DC. Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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