The Academic and Social-Emotional Impact of Multiple Moves on Students in Poverty

The Academic and Social-Emotional Impact of Multiple Moves on Students in Poverty

The Stress We Feel When Moving is Exponentially Higher for Disadvantaged Students

Dear Colleagues,


   Even as the pandemic continues, the number of people and families who move each year is striking.

   Indeed, according to a January 19, 2022 moving industry article, about 8.93 million people in the United Stated have moved homes since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. . . an increase of about 94,000 when compared with 2019’s statistics.

   In general, 9.8% of us—or, 15.3 million American households with an average size of 2.3 family members—move annually.

   But moving is not just a physical act. It is also an emotionally stressful act.

   And on a personal level right now, I can totally relate.

   That’s because, for the past five months, I have been immersed in the process of moving.

   That means, among a whole host of things:

  • Buying, financing, and preparing to move to a new home (including changing addresses and insurances, completing inspections and renovations, connecting utilities and arranging billings);
  • Selling, packing, and preparing to move out of our current home (including dealing with keepsakes and memories, responding—again—to inspections and doing repairs, and disconnecting utilities and arranging for final billings);
  • Contracting with movers (and then dealing with the fact that they are not terribly concerned about safeguarding your prized possessions); and
  • Saying good-bye to friends, neighbors, merchants, routines, and other support systems.

   Critically, all of this has occurred at the same time that I continue to run a business, travel to consultations, and respond (gracefully???—not always!) to unexpected delays, roadblocks, and transitional crises.

   Yes. . . moving is incredibly and cumulatively stressful.

   But the good news is that this is my first major move in over 18 years. Moreover, it is voluntary, supported by my wife, not related to any family or other life crisis, and our final destination is a “homecoming” of sorts.

   According to the moving industry study cited above, the average American moves approximately 11.7 times in their lifetime with approximately 80% of those moves within the same state.

But These Statistics Do Not Reflect Students and Families in Poverty

   Significantly, educators need to understand that the statistics above do not reflect those for students and families living in poverty.

   Moreover, educators need to be sensitive to the fact that, for many of these students, the stresses that we experience during our infrequent lifetime moves are magnified both in depth and breadth as they make frequent moves during their school-aged years.

   Let’s look first at the contexts within which families that live in poverty move. . . and then at the myriad ways that multiple, often unexpected moves impact students who live in poverty.

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The Contexts

   Because the first two years of the pandemic involved a “shelter in place” existence for most in our country, the more recent contexts reflecting how often and why families in poverty moved may be misleading.

   Thus, it is best to look at the pre-pandemic data.

   Here, the best single study was published in October 2020 by Stefanie DeLuca from Johns Hopkins University:

“Poor Families Must Move Often, but Rarely Escape Concentrated Poverty”

[CLICK HERE for the Abstract to this Study]

   DeLuca analyzed 17 years of information collected by her team involving 1,200 low-income households in five different cities: Baltimore, Seattle, Cleveland, Dallas, and Mobile, Alabama.

   Overall, they found that economically-disadvantaged families, who live in racially-segregated neighborhoods and whose children attend racially-segregated schools, make repeated moves—often triggered by unforeseen circumstances and/or due to family or housing crises. Moreover, the heads-of-household often complete their family moves without investigating the new neighborhood options available to them or considering their children’s best options for school.

   Summarizing this, DeLuca reported that “low-income families are forced by urgent crises to choose the safest, most convenient locations necessary for immediate survival, rather than taking the time to find neighborhoods with great schools and job opportunities.”

   DeLuca also noted that, “these unpredictable shocks often include housing quality failure, housing policy changes, landlord behaviors, income changes, and neighborhood violence.”

How Multiple Moves Impact Students Living in Poverty

   As a practical matter, when students enter a new school, their parents or guardians typically complete a formal enrollment process that includes certifying their address, providing birth certificates and vaccination records, and filling out forms that provide a brief educational history—including the name and address of the last-attended school. Additional information on the student’s language of origin, special education and/or medical needs, and free lunch qualification status are collected.

   Even with just this enrollment information, teachers receiving new students—at any time during the school year—should immediately be alerted to any academic or social, emotional, or behavioral concerns that may negatively affect new students’ transitions into their new schools and classes.

   Once again, as noted earlier, educators need to be sensitive that students—especially those living in poverty who make frequent moves during their school-aged years—may experience more stress and disruption than we experience when we, ourselves, move.

   This stress may be due to (a) why the move was needed; (b) how quickly or under what conditions the move occurred; (c) the number of moves experienced by the student over (a short period of) time; and (d) the loss of friends, support systems, or feelings of safety and security.

   For students who have experienced many family and school moves, teachers should closely monitor four significant student transition areas.

Disruptions of Background and Information

   Under normal conditions, it often takes an inordinate amount of time to transfer students’ cumulative records from school to school. While many such records are now secured in electronic Student Information Systems, these systems are not always compatible from district to district, and for students making frequent school moves, these records are often not up-to-date.

   The point here is that new teachers need to know the comprehensive background information and history of frequently-moving students—especially those who live in poverty—as quickly as possible. The most-recent and cumulative information about a student’s schools, attendance, grades, test scores and proficiency, conduct and discipline, and interventions provided and successful is essential to a smooth and successful transition.

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Disruptions of Academics and Instruction

   Frequently-moving students sometimes move into new schools that are using different curricula or instructional approaches, for example, in literacy, mathematics, science, and writing. Sometimes, these curriculum and instruction differences have occurred across multiple moves and multiple schools to the extent that students have not learned and mastered critical skills not because they can’t learn, but because they have not had consistent opportunities to learn.

   Teachers need to know the curriculum and instruction history of their new, frequently-moving students as quickly as possible.

   While they should complete screening assessments to determine these students’ current academic skills, status, and standing, this history will help identify the existence of instructional gaps so that teachers can differentiate between (a) students who have learning challenges, and students who can learn but have not had consistent opportunities to learn; and (b) under what past learning conditions and circumstances their new students have learned best.

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Disruptions of Peer Networks and Social Supports

   Frequently-moving students—especially those living in poverty—often have fewer long-lasting friendships, and the peer support networks that they establish are typically disrupted by their many moves. As a result, some of these students are hesitant to establish new relationships—assuming that they will be short-lived anyways, and other such students are just emotionally “worn out” due to the repeated necessity to “start over” with respect to peers and other social supports.

   Teachers need to be aware of these potential peer circumstances, going out of their way to discuss them with their new students so that they can actively encourage and support them. As appropriate, peer “ambassadors” can be provided to new students—to orient them to school and classroom routines and processes. . . and different formal and informal social and team (re)building activities can be scheduled so that new networks and support systems can be established in natural and comfortable ways.

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Disruptions of Situational Stress and Emotional Coping

   Throughout this Blog, we have emphasized that any move results in some degree of stress on a family’s members, but that unpredictable, unplanned, and repeated moves—especially when they occur in unsafe or unknown locations—are situationally and cumulative even more stressful.

   To quantify this, we reference the Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale for Youth which rates a student’s “Change in Residence” at a stress rating of 15 on a 100 point scale.

    While that doesn’t seem too bad. . . the reasons for the move and other conditions related to poverty, changing schools, being or going into debt, changes in independence or responsibilities, and modifications of one’s academic course of studies all add to the total stress rating to the point that the stress may impact the student’s attitudes, beliefs, expectations, judgement, decision-making, and social, emotional, behavioral, and physical health.

   Teachers need to assess the past and current level of stress in their new students—especially those who are at-risk, living in poverty, or experiencing frequent moves or life changes. They need to evaluate these students’ academic struggles or social-emotional challenges in the context of their history or the presence of stress. And they should be a ready resource as needed. . . or a referral source for students to the mental health specialists in their school as appropriate.

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   Clearly, students and their families are on the move all the time, and it sometimes feels like we have revolving doors in our schools and classrooms with new students coming in every day.

   While this creates stress for us as educators, it is important to (as Covey would say), "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

   Many students—especially those living in poverty—are not in control of the moves and transitions in their lives.

   This lack of control adds to the student stress that we have already discussed throughout this Blog. And many students do not have the stress-reduction skills, resources, or support systems that they need to address the stress—both in the short-term as well as in the long-term—so that they can function more effectively in their academic and social lives.

   For frequently-moving students, teachers, support staff, and administrators must go beyond the emotional support that these students need. . . they must recognize that the moves may also create disruptions in (a) the past and present Student Information System data for these students, (b) the academic and instructional status and needs of these students, and (c) these students’ social supports and their interactions with their new peers and peer networks.

   All of this needs to be a team effort. . . from getting a student’s previous cumulative records as quickly as possible to determining the presence or need for multi-tiered academic or social-emotional services, supports, or interventions.

   In this context, adapting the Covey quote above, we need to:

“Seek first the information and data that we need to fully understand a new student, so that we can then organize the instruction, services, and supports that are needed to facilitate progress and success.”

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   As always, I appreciate those of you who read these Blogs, and I hope they are useful to you.

   If I can help you, your colleagues, your school, your district, or those in your professional setting to address your students’ social, emotional, or behavioral challenges, send me an email and let’s set up a time to talk. This first consultation hour is on the house.