Trajectories of Early Childhood Development in Children Experiencing Homelessness


The experience of homelessness early in life can potentially disrupt childhood development. Enrollment in early education has been identified as a buffer to promote adequate development. Nevertheless, there has not yet been a quantitative assessment of the developmental trajectories of children experiencing homelessness receiving early education.


We compared the development of children from birth to 6 years old enrolled at a high-quality early education center, against a US representative sample and the acceptable ranges of developmental indicators. Further, we studied predictors of developmental trajectories in children exposed to homelessness. A total of 459 children enrolled at an early education center, Horizons for Homeless Children (HHC), between 2017 and 2022, between birth to 6 years old, were included in the analysis, with an average follow-up time of 22 months. We assessed the development in six domains, including Socio-emotional, Motor, Language, Literacy, Cognitive, and Mathematics, using the scaled scores from the Teaching Strategies GOLD system. The scores of children at HHC were compared with the norm scores from a US representative sample and the expected scores for different ages. We assessed developmental trajectories and included child and family covariates in a linear mixed model to examine developmental differences over time.


The scores of HHC students on Teaching Strategies GOLD assessments were lower than those of a US representative sample and frequently did not meet age group expectations. Within the HHC cohort, boys scored lower than girls. Socioeconomic characteristics remained a factor associated with development; specifically, having older primary caregivers and having parental education below High School were associated with worse developmental trajectories. Earlier enrollment into HHC was associated with higher scores for all domains and faster developmental progress for the Literacy domain over time.

Discussion and Conclusion

Even in the context of a high-quality early education program, the developmental delays of children who experienced homelessness did not attenuate in the first six years of life compared with a normative sample. Furthermore, within a population experiencing homelessness, there are developmental differences associated with socioeconomic status, including parental education. Early enrollment in education centers may reduce the developmental delays of homeless children. This actionable determinant of development supports enrollment into schooling as early as possible.

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Children and Youth Services Review