Resources & Support for Students with Challenges at Home

Challenges outside the classroom including divorce, poverty, and violence can impact a student’s performances inside the classroom. Learn how to spot which students might be struggling and how they can find support.

Last Updated: 11/03/2020

Meet the Expert
RebeccaNewman
Rebecca Newman

Social Worker &
Psychotherapist

View Bio

Rebecca Newman, MSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and writer, specializing in eating disorders, anxiety, depression, infertility, substance abuse, grief and loss, gender and sexuality, trauma, and adjustment to life changes. She earned a BA in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania, where she received the John Hope Franklin Award for Combating American Racism. She works as a clinical supervisor and psychotherapist for an academic hospital system in Philadelphia.

Regardless of age or education level, students often experience struggles outside the classroom that impact behavior and academic performance in significant ways. These include domestic violence, homelessness, and lack of technology among other challenges. Recent research in Michigan, for example, found that maltreatment and other factors consistently lower academic outcomes. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only made these concerns more noticeable, leading to spikes in domestic concerns and presenting new challenges in education.

Addressing these challenges is imperative but not always easy. This guide helps with that by detailing some of the most common challenges at home and discussing their effects on K-12 and college students. For each issue listed we provide resources that can help students and their families overcome it.

Challenge: Divorce of Parents or Caregivers

With nearly half of marriages ending in divorce, many students likely witness these challenges in their peers or experience them firsthand. Studies have consistently shown that divorce lowers educational attainment levels, leaving students more likely to be held back and less likely to earn a college degree.

The challenges present themselves in a variety of ways and often stem from unstable environments. Younger children who spend several days a week in a different home may have difficulty concentrating or completing homework, showing signs of distress or separation anxiety. Older students may express anger, at times taking on the emotional demands of their parent or caregivers. Teenagers and college-age students may display increased aggression, negativity, and apathy.

Solutions and Support: K-12

Teachers are one of the most effective resources for support. They work on the front lines and because they spend so much time with students they’re often in a good position to identify when issues first arise. Most school counselors also receive training designed to address these challenges and some may even have additional expertise in this area.

Whether you’re a teacher, student, or caregiver, one of the most important things you can do is keep the lines of communication open. Separate homes and different contact information for each parent makes it easy to misplace report cards or progress reports. Teachers and families will need to work together to develop a plan puts the child’s needs first.

Solution and Support: College

College students are not exempt from the effects of divorce or separation. Making the move to college life is a significant transition itself and it can often cause past issues to resurface or make present circumstances more difficult to manage.

Virtually every college or university extends a counseling or wellness center for to students. These are crucial resources that can help you navigate significant challenges. Some schools may offer specialized counseling services for family issues like divorce. Peer and classmate support can also be a great tool. Many schools provide structured support groups related to divorce, but you can also seek alternatives or start your own.

Resources

Challenge: Violence in the Home

Researchers estimate that over 15 million children in the U.S. live in homes where domestic violence has occurred at least once in the past year. Seven million live in homes where severe violence has occurred. The COVID-19 pandemic appears to be contributing to these trends, with many students and families forced to stay at home.

Domestic violence makes a significant impact on children and can lead to long-term physical and mental health issues. Younger students may struggle with feelings of guilt, low self-esteem, and lack of motivation in completing classroom work. Students in middle school or high school are likely to engaging in risky behaviors, pick fights, and simply skip school.

Solutions and Support: K-12

Challenges in this area often have a ripple effect, contributing to lower performance in the entire classroom not just the individual student. Teachers and counselors play an important role in mitigating these effects and the positive, learner-centered space they create may be the safest environment some students experience.

Mandatory reporters (like teachers) are often the best and most immediate people to help with this, but they are not the only resources out there. Most state departments of education and family services keep listings of local resources and many implement initiatives designed to address domestic violence. You can use tools offered by the Department of Justice and the National Child Abuse Hotline to find resource specific to your region.

Solution and Support: College

College students often deal with past trauma related to domestic violence, current experiences of violence at home or on campus, or both. Prompted by increased awareness of Title IX provisions, many schools have begun to develop programs dedicated to combating these forms of violence by offering student support.

In addition to standard counseling services, some schools provide students with guides and resource listings while others extend white papers and awareness initiatives. Organizations like Futures Without Violence aggregate a listing of great support tools by location. It is not exhaustive by any means, but a great place to start your search.

Resources

Challenge: Substance Abuse and Addiction in the Home

Addiction and substance abuse can negatively affect anyone, but children and youth are especially susceptible. The current opioid epidemic has only made this situation worse. The CDC observes that 128 people die every day from opioid overdoes alone while 15% of high school students report using or misusing those substances.

Because students’ brains have not fully matured, the effects of substance abuse can be especially significant, contributing to impaired cognitive development. The effects include memory loss, concentration difficulties, and inability to process information, all of which impact academic performance. Likewise, substance abuse by family members or caregivers can contribute to an unsafe, unstable learning environment.

Solutions and Support: K-12

Proper treatment and care are the best solutions for substance abuse in any context. K-12 students can (and should) report issues to teachers and counselors who can advocate for them and aid in seeking help. They may not be drug counselors themselves, but these professionals often have additional training that can help.  

Some school systems will be programs or initiatives design to address substance abuse. The departments of education in Texas and New York, for example, offer concrete action steps and enlist a staff of drug prevention specialists who provide services to affected students.

Solution and Support: College

A recent peer-reviewed study found that 42% of college students misused drugs or medication. Substance abuse and binge drinking can lead to lingering cognitive deficits that contribute to interrupted sleep, missed class, and reduced academic performance.

The college experience can be isolating for some and substance abuse can make it even more difficult to find your footing. Peer support can go a long way in addressing these issues. Many colleges and universities offer these opportunities, but students can also form their own based on existing social relationships. In addition, most schools offer recovery services, substance abuse treatment programs, and searchable tools to find extra help.

Resources

  • American Addiction Centers – This site serves to connect those suffering from substance abuse with proper treatment.
  • Campus Drug Prevention – Sponsored by the Drug Enforcement Administration, this resource focuses on substance abuse prevention on college campuses.
  • Partnership to End Addiction – This nonprofit connects individuals and groups with family and community-centered treatment services.
  • Shatter Proof – Driven by scientific best practices, this national organization advocates for those in recovery and connects people with transformative treatment.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) – SAMHSA extends a treatment center locator, a program database, and gathers recent data on substance abuse.

Challenge: Lack of Internet or Other Technologies

Access to the internet and other connective technologies are crucial to any learning experience, leading some to consider these resources public utilities like water or electricity. Most schools and teachers regularly use these technologies them to communicate with students and deliver content. This has only increased due to COVID-19.

Lack of internet and other technologies at home can cause students to fall behind in their studies. UNICEF reports that low-income students and those in rural areas suffer the most from this digital gap. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), these barriers hinder students’ ability to fully participate and engage in their education.

Solutions and Support: K-12

Due in part to the coronavirus pandemic, many K-12 schools have begun to rethink internet access and expand connectivity efforts. Some implement internet access programs at no cost to qualifying students or family members. Service providers like Comcast and AT&T also extend incentives and discounts for eligible households without internet access.

Some state and local governments also provide resources, including internet access initiatives and programs that provide computers and inexpensive wi-fi hotspots to those in need. In states like Texas, education officials have compiled guidelines for school districts designed to increase connectivity and access to technology.

Solution and Support: College

Virtually every college these days extends nearly ubiquitous on-campus wi-fi to all students. Students attending school remotely can also use the resources listed above and detailed below to increase their connectivity at home.

Most schools also have updated computer labs and libraries with integrated technologies for students who do not own devices. Your tuition expenses and technology fees fund these efforts and provide you with complete access. Some schools may also have their own technology stores where students can purchase devices at a discounted rate. Big-box stores like Best Buy extend similar opportunities.

Resources

  • Connected Nation – With a focus on rural families, this organization strives to provide every student with internet access through advocacy and state-based initiatives.
  • Digital Bridge K-12 – This initiative works with local school district to expand reliable internet access to K-12 students across the country.
  • Everyone On – Founded in 2012, this nonprofit aims to bridge the digital divide by providing affordable computer and low-cost internet to students.
  • Office of Educational Technology – A U.S. Department of Education entity, this office provides educational technology resources to school districts and the students they serve.
  • Student Access to Digital Learning Resources Outside of the Classroom – Published by NCES this executive report details some of the effects of technology and suggests some methods to improve access.

Challenge: Poverty, Homelessness, and Home Insecurity

Economic recession, stalling job growth numbers, and related crises continue to contribute to already alarming poverty and homelessness trends in America. Lack of basic resources adversely affect education outcomes. According to NCES, in 2018 18% of students came from families living in poverty. Another study found that nearly half of children live at or near the national poverty line.

These realities often led to a vicious cycle where impacted students are at a greater risk of dropping out of school or falling behind. Poverty and homelessness can make students feel alienated. It reduces motor skills and attentiveness, and can lead to poor physical health conditions that prohibit meaningful engagement.

Solutions and Support: K-12

Teachers and counselors can help identify at-risk students and point families to local initiatives, but they often lack the resources necessary to address poverty and homelessness. Recent legislative efforts like the Every Student Succeeds Act include provisions designed to help students suffering from poverty or homelessness. The National Education Association provides a handy infographic with more information on this.

Some local K-12 schools deliver programs for families in need with the help of state and federal governments. These programs offer care, public advocacy, and aim to remove educational barriers. Other organizations offer guidelines for proactive behavior management and intervention practices.

Solution and Support: College

Many higher education institutions support students struggling with poverty and homelessness by engaging in public advocacy efforts to raise awareness. Some colleges and universities go a step further by creating poverty and homelessness guides designed to connect students with local resources.

For students attending school in person, on-campus housing can provide resources to help mitigate homelessness in some cases. Additionally, work-study placements, paid internships, and other employment opportunities on campus can help provide financial stability. Many schools extend these opportunities but availability can be limited.

Resources

Challenge: Food Insecurity

Food insecurity often results from poverty or homelessness and poses similar challenges to students. Researchers at the Brookings Institution recently found that nearly 14 million school-aged children do not get enough to eat each day. A similar report by Forbes indicates that the number of food insecure households more than doubled this year alone.

The effects on education make a lasting impact. Lack of food and proper nutrition can be damaging to health and slows brain development. For example, kindergarteners experiencing food insecurity often fall behind their peers cognitively and emotionally. Older students and those in college report similar issues and an overall decrease in psychosocial health.

Solutions and Support: K-12

Local food pantries and soup kitchens supported by charities or other nonprofits are excellent resources to help combat food insecurity. Some states have even implemented measures that allow in-school food pantries geared toward students in need. Feeding America has a handy tool to help locate resources in your area.

The best resources by far are school-based nutrition programs subsidized by state and federal governments. These programs provide eligible students with the food they need (normally breakfast and/or lunch) using school resources. The USDA offers one such program and this tool can help you find similar initiatives in your own state.

Solution and Support: College

College students facing food security can take advantage of similar government programs like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) which provides income-based benefits for food purchases. The U.S. Government Accountability Office offers additional tools and is working to expand and clarify SNAP benefits for college students.

Local food pantries and other resources are a great help as well. Some schools even maintain their own pantries for student access. Others provide reduced dining plan options, guides, and other toolkits that you can use to overcome food security.

Resources

Challenge: Family Responsibilities

Many students act as caregivers, making it challenging to balance academic progress with other demands at home. According to the AARP, over half of students enter school knowing they will need to balance caregiving with other responsibilities. While caregiving can provide a unique sense of purpose, over a third of students were concerned about keeping a healthy balance and 86% had to work part-time in addition to school and caregiving.  

Demands like these can make it really difficult for students to perform well in school. Academic deadlines, when combined with financial concerns and emotional stress, can lead some students to wonder whether they can continue school at all.

Solutions and Support: K-12

In K-12 settings, student caregivers often have pressing responsibilities thrust upon them that they don’t know how manage. This often leads to neglected homework, interrupted study, and other effects that can hurt educational outcomes. It can also lead to a lack of self-care and emotional support.

Teachers and school counselors can help address these challenges by offering support to student caregivers and connecting them with the resources they need to succeed. The Caregiving Youth Project offers some specific strategies for this, including intervention practices and screening measures to help identify students in need. Some school districts have expanded those guidelines and developed their own programs.

Solution and Support: College

Communication with professors and academic officials is the most significant obstacle college students face in meeting this challenge. The AARP study found that four out of ten student caregivers keep their responsibilities to themselves and a third felt it was not necessary to inform their schools for fear of being misunderstood. Those that did often felt discriminated against because of their responsibilities.

These gaps contribute to lower academic performance and increased isolation. College educators can help close those gaps by encouraging clear and open lines of communication with students. In addition, many schools offer specialized services, resource guides, and financial support for student caregivers.

Resources

Challenge: Health Issues

The CDC reports that healthy students are better, more focused learners with higher cognitive skill. Health issues at home – either on the part of the student or a family member – make it difficult to maintain these benchmarks and negatively impact overall student success.

Attendance and chronic absenteeism are the biggest factors in this regard. Students dealing with illness or long-term health conditions aren’t able to attend school as frequently as their peers and run the risk of falling behind. Likewise, if parents or primary caregivers are sick they may have trouble keeping a regular schedule which can affect student transportation, help with homework, and other school-related demands.

Solutions and Support: K-12

Teachers and other school officials need to be reasonably informed about family health issues that could impact student progress. Most schools use qualified nurses and other health services to help address pressing issues. School counselors can also help students cope with the mental and emotional stresses that might stem from persistent health issues.

If the health issues occur at home (a family member or caregiver) students and parents should closely communicate with teachers to develop a solid plan of action. This could mean homework to replace in-class assignments or an individualized education plan to support student learning.

Solution and Support: College

Approximately 600,000 students report some type of health issue or a persistent medical problem. Because many college students are living on their own for the first time, these challenges can contribute to increased isolation and alienation. Those living with family often face increased responsibilities at home that can make it hard to strike an even balance between life and school.

To combat this, some colleges and universities offer student support groups organized around common health issues that might affect academic performance. Virtually all schools keep a robust student health or wellness services centers designed to help learners struggling with sickness or other ailments.

Resources

Challenge: Absent Caregiver

Coping with an absent parent or caregiver is one of the most serious challenges students can face at any education level. This could be due to death, military deployment or work travel, incarceration, or any number of reasons. Sudden or prolonged absences can impair emotional health while continued involvement enhances social functioning.

These effects can lead to decreases in academic performance and motivation, separation anxiety, and increased risk for mental health problems later in life. Abruptly placing students in new caregiving situations, even if it is a family member or a close friend, can disrupt their regular routines, making it hard to focus. If the underlying reasons for the separation are particularly intense or traumatic then the situation can be even more challenging.

Solutions and Support: K-12

At this level, consistency and communication are key. Family members, new caregivers, and education professionals will need to work together to ensure that students’ living and learning environments maintain as much stability as possible. School counselors can help with this and may enlist additional services from case workers and other professionals if necessary.

Parent-teacher conferences are a great way to establish rapport between students, teachers, and new caregivers. This will help support a sense of normalcy amidst the challenge while focuses on student needs and learning objectives. If the situation allows, keeping absent parents in the loop here can help as well.

Solution and Support: College

Some post-secondary schools extend guides and other support tools for this, but many of them are geared toward college students who are themselves absent parents. Your school’s mental health initiatives or counseling centers are also a good place to look and will have trained professionals at the ready.

Like the other challenges we’ve mentioned, the biggest obstacle here may be increasing alienation and loneliness. One of the best things you can do to combat this is to reach out to your peers and classmates and stay connected. Establishing new relationships can help as well, especially if you know someone on campus who may be struggling with similar issues.

Resources

Insight from an Expert on Students Facing Challenges at Home

RebeccaNewman

Rebecca
Newman

Rebecca Newman, MSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and writer, specializing in eating disorders, anxiety, depression, infertility, substance abuse, grief and loss, gender and sexuality, trauma, and adjustment to life changes. She earned a BA in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania, where she received the John Hope Franklin Award for Combating American Racism. She works as a clinical supervisor and psychotherapist for an academic hospital system in Philadelphia.

Q: In your experience, what are the biggest and most significant challenges students face at home and how do those challenges affect their academic success?

A: In general, losing the structure of the academic milieu is difficult for students adjusting to remote learning. For post-secondary students, the informal nature of being at home as well as the distance from the instructor makes the experience less immersive and more distracting. Since most content is asynchronous, students are often tempted to save time by watching their lectures at 1.5x regular speed which may limit information retention. Synchronous learning requires an instructor to engage students over the digital platform. If students are able to keep their camera off participation can be difficult to solicit.

Similarly, younger learners respond well to the structure of a classroom, its norms, and the support services offered by schools. For K-12 students, the support structure of school can facilitate learning if the home environment is higher-energy with fewer dedicated spaces for learning. If a student is less able to focus on their work or remain engaged with their teachers, it may limit their ability to progress through a curriculum.

Q: Keeping those issues in mind, what is one thing you wish families or caregivers knew about the professionals that work to help students overcome their challenges?

A: Classroom instruction requires not only expertise in the applicable content area, but skills in classroom management, conflict resolution, providing reinforcement, and a significant amount of energy to keep students engaged.

Working as an educator requires a different skill set than being a parent. There is some overlap in terms of the compassion required, but professionals that work with students are better equipped with research and dedicated study on specific, often evidence-based, strategies for improving student outcomes.

Q: We still don’t know what many of the long-term effects of COVID-19 will be, how long they will last, or how they will force us to reconsider education. The pandemic has already led to major changes in instruction, with many schools turning to hybrid or virtual models. What advice would you offer to those struggling with challenges at home under new remote learning conditions?

A: A significant amount of what has been frustrating about the impact of COVID-19 is the drastic and sudden way in which all of our systems changed, seemingly overnight. While some students might have considered or were previously happily engaged in remote learning, the imperative of this model left a lot of individuals and families struggling with adopting it out of necessity. We may return to having more choice in the future, including utilizing virtual instruction. To that end, as a student (or parent), take particular note of the aspects of remote learning that are working well. After taking inventory of your experiences, lean into some of the strengths you were able to identify during this time, while looking for ways to incorporate classroom-based strengths.

Q: Is there a specific challenge or set of challenges that may be especially hard for teachers to recognize in classroom environments? What can they do more readily identify those challenges and better support affected students?

A: While teachers can postulate about a home environment based on student reports or parent/teacher conferences, they never can exactly see into the world in which a student lives. However, with remote learning, teachers have been able to observe students in their home environments, including how parents and caregivers interact with the child at home, etc. With this in mind, educators may be better able to formulate interventions for students or changes that could be implemented. In future classroom-based learning, teachers could lead activities that strengthen social and emotional learning, as well as implementing restorative discipline practices in their classrooms.

Q: From your perspective, what is one of the best resources for students dealing with these challenges that most educators and caregivers may not know about?

A: Educators and administrators should try to form liaisons with emotional and mental health support resources that are readily available to their school communities to provide some of the ancillary support that school staff offer to students outside of the classroom. While there may be existing online platforms for psychotherapy, identifying appropriate age-specific resources where referrals can be processed in a timely fashion would be most helpful.