Homeless Children: Update on Research, Policy, Programs, and Opportunities. Resilience


Resilience in children has been defined as "achieving desirable outcomes in spite of significant challenges to adaptation or development" (Masten & Coatsworth, 1995, p.737). The prerequisite for evidencing resilience is to have faced a major adversity of some sort. Of the many published studies of resilience involving children and adolescents, relatively few have examined children's resilience in the context of poverty.

Buckner, Mezzacappa, and Beardslee (2003) conducted a study comparing 45 resilient to 70 non-resilient youths from extremely low-income families in Worcester, Massachusetts. A third of these school-age children had been homeless within the past two years and all were from households with incomes below the poverty line. Hence this study has applicability to children meeting the HUD and ED definitions of homelessness. Resilience was operationally defined in a multidimensional manner using well-established instruments that measured children's emotional well-being, behavior, competence, and level of functioning. Children deemed resilient showed positive adjustment in each of these realms, whereas those determined to be non-resilient evidenced significant problems in one or more of these areas. Although participants in this study all lived below the poverty line, there was still substantial variation in the quantity of negative events and chronic stressors they had experienced in recent years. Because these adversities were predictive of outcomes in expected directions, it was necessary to statistically control for them in order to better understand the independent contributions of inner and external resources to predicting resilience.

While this study was limited to a cross-sectional comparison of children, a decided strength was its extensive assessment battery, which comprised data collected directly from the child as well as from a parent and an external rater. In combination with multivariate analyses, this allowed the investigators to examine the relative contribution of an array of variables, reflecting both inner and external resources of a child, in predicting their resilience status. Among inner resources, self-esteem and, especially, self-regulation skills emerged as independent predictors of resilience. Likewise, among external resources that were examined, parental monitoring stood out as a predictor, controlling for all other explanatory variables. The parental monitoring variable tapped into a parent's proclivity to pay close attention to the whereabouts of a child when away from home and with whom the child was spending time. Of note, the nonverbal intelligence of a child, while associated with resilience status in some analyses, was not a predictor of resilience status in multivariate modeling. Instead, self-regulation (which was positively associated with intelligence) was the much more potent predictor.

Similarly, Obradovic (2010) examined the relationship between effortful control, assessed in laboratory tasks such as the ability to play “Simon Says,” and adaptive functioning for 58 homeless children who were entering kindergarten or first grade and were sampled in shelter. Effortful control, a skill closely related to self-regulation, was strongly related to all four measures of adaptive functioning rated by teachers (academic functioning, peer competence, low levels of internalizing behaviors, and low levels of externalizing behaviors), controlling for IQ, parenting quality, and risk levels. Further, age and effortful control were the only predictors of resilience, defined as showing adaptive behavior across all four domains.

Both theory and recent empirical findings are supportive of the argument that self-regulation skills may be an important inner resource for children, including those who are currently homeless or otherwise living in poverty (Buckner, Mezzacappa, & Beardslee, 2009). Self-regulation refers to an integrated set of meta-cognitive skills that draw from both executive function and emotion regulation capacities, which are invoked in the service of accomplishing both proximal and distal goals. While associated with intelligence, self-regulation is a somewhat separate construct that may have closer links to adaptive functioning in children and adults. An appeal of self-regulation is that it can be conceived as a set of skills that can be improved through intervention. (e.g., Diamond, Barnett, Thomas, & Munro, 2007).

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