Substandard Housing a Barrier to Learning

By Victoria Kindle Hodson and Mariaemma Pelullo-Willis

Without emotional safety, there can be no learning. For students, adequate housing ranks high on the scale of psychological security.

In the 1950s, I (Victoria Kindle Hodson) was growing up in a neighborhood of modest but new homes in Everett, Wash. Just two blocks away, a father and two sons lived in a three-room shack surrounded by the growing housing development.

A fourth grader, the younger son was small for his age. He walked with his hands in his pockets, his shoulders slumped, and his eyes downcast. He wore the same ragged, soiled black pants day after day, the same run-down shoes, and the same dusty, black leather jacket. He had no friends and was never chosen for teams. Neighborhood kids ostracized both of the brothers, throwing stones at them and verbally taunting them.

During my school years, we waved to each other when he passed by my house. Eventually, he stopped waving…about the time he quit school in junior high.

No security, no sense of belonging and no equality led to no education for this young man. For me, the experience affirmed an obvious link between education and poverty.

Today, as educators and consultants, we have seen that a positive home environment can elicit positive results. A school principal in southern California, for example, discovered that one of his school families was living in substandard housing. Because he saw potential in the children and was concerned that their housing would hurt their school performance, he helped obtain adequate housing for the family and better employment for the father. The family began to thrive, increasing their self-confidence and their sense of dignity. Subsequently all five of the children did well in school, and as of this writing three are attending college.

Schooling is a primary means of stitching us into our communities, providing a social foundation for learning that supports us as we acquire skills and become contributing members where we live and work. However, doctors, psychologists and educators have discovered that we cannot learn when we don’t feel emotionally safe. Substandard housing threatens this sense of security and becomes a liability in the academic life of a student.

Positive, nurturing, stimulating environments lay the foundation for learning. While an adequate house doesn’t guarantee a successful learning experience, substandard housing guarantees that learning will be difficult at best, because in response to a physically or emotionally unsafe environment families must focus first on survival and can’t “waste” energy on learning.

Inadequate housing hinders education because it undermines a student’s ability to feel safe enough to learn. In today’s classrooms thousands of children spend the majority of their time in heightened emotional states, inwardly or outwardly protecting themselves due to duress over personal situations, including housing.

According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, humans have a set of needs, which rise in importance from personal security to a sense of belonging, equality, capability and independence. Beyond the basic need for safe housing, human learning depends on our feeling that we “belong” in our respective classrooms. Housing that is precarious or inadequate underscores how different we are from others, causing us to doubt whether we belong.

In turn, students who lack a sense of belonging cannot feel equal to their classmates. This perception of inequality can stimulate feelings of hostility, anger and fear—all barriers to learning.

Considered functionally, a house is a platform for living, learning and giving something back to our communities. City planners have long noted the connection between stable households and a strong civic life. Neighborhoods with few stable households typically record higher rates of vandalism and more serious crime. Not surprisingly, neighborhood schools whose surrounding housing stock is substandard also are characterized by substandard academic performance from students.

Substandard housing not only imposes hardships on the children living within. It can be a crippling force, causing them to miss important classroom time because of illness or other effects of an impoverished environment, and, ultimately, to “learn” that learning is not for them. This only extends the cycle of low academic achievement and poverty living conditions.

—Having worked in the field of education for a collective 50 years, Kindle Hodson and Pelullo-Willis are the authors of Discover Your Child’s Learning Style and the co-directors of the Learning-SuccessTM Institute in Ventura, Calif. For more information about their work, visit their web site at ©2002 Reflective Educational Perspectives.

Making a Difference: Habitat and Education
Julie McDonald, a Habitat homeowner in Sheboygan, Wis., found new opportunities for education in her Habitat house. In 1995, she wrote, “We moved into our Habitat home in November 1993, just in time for Christmas. …[later] I earned a high school equivalency diploma and went to college for one year. I hope to return once both our children are enrolled themselves. …Our children are the very first generation in my family to live like this.”

Since then, McDonald has finished her degree in business administration and marketing and hopes to return for a master’s. Also, her children improved their school performance when they moved to their Habitat house from the overcrowded, stressful conditions of inadequate housing.

Just the Facts

Nearly 1 billion people are illiterate. (UNICEF)
More than 110 million children of school age are not in school. (UNICEF)
If the world were to invest an extra 30 cents of every $100, all children would be healthy, well nourished and in primary school. (UNICEF)

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