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This resource discusses issues surrounding the development of behaviors in low-income and homeless children.
Objectives.  To describe the characteristics of homeless and low-income preschool-aged children, and to identify family and environmental determinants of their behavior.

Methods.  An unmatched case-control design was used to recruit a sample of sheltered homeless families and a comparison group of low-income housed families who were never homeless in Worcester, Massachusetts. Seventy-seven sheltered homeless and 90 low-income housed mothers with preschool-age children were assessed using a comprehensive interview protocol. Information about mothers' housing, income, service use, parenting practices, and children's father was obtained. Data about children's background, health, and life events were included. Standardized instruments were administered to assess mothers' mental health and their children's behavior. Comparisons of homeless and low-income housed families were used to describe the sample of 167 preschoolers. Multiple linear regression was used to examine the association of various stressors, such as homelessness, and family factors with their behavior.

Results.  Although homeless preschoolers were significantly more likely to have experienced stressful life events, undergone a care and protection investigation, and been placed in foster care when compared with low income preschoolers, differences in adverse behaviors were minimal. Although homeless children scored higher than housed children on the internalizing, externalizing, and total problem score on the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) (52.5 vs 49.9, 54.8 vs 51.2, and 54.4 vs 51.1, respectively), approximately equal numbers of children from both groups scored in the clinical range. With regard to determinants of behavior, mothers' emotional status was one of the strongest independent predictors of negative behavioral outcomes on both subscales. Foster care placement and death of a child's friend were predictors of adverse internalizing behavioral outcomes on the CBCL. After controlling for housing status, parenting practices, child's age, child's history of physical abuse, and specific life stressors predicted adverse externalizing behavioral outcomes. For both subscales, housing status and behavior were only marginally associated in the multivariate model.

Conclusions.  Both homeless and low-income children experienced significant adversity in their lives, with homeless preschool children facing more stress. However, differences in behavior as measured by the CBCL were minimal. Mothers' emotional status, in addition to various stressors, strongly predict children's negative outcomes for both CBCL subscales. These findings emphasize the importance of preventive family-oriented interventions that address the needs of preschoolers and their mothers. (Authors)
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A program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services