Residential mobility in the United States is associated with highly prized concepts such as freedom, opportunity, and entrepreneurship. Yet the circumstances surrounding a move, and the reasons for it, make a profound difference in how it affects families, especially young children. For example, when a family moves to a new neighborhood or across the country to be nearer to extended family, to allow a parent to pursue a better job, or to allow the children to attend a better school, children may benefit, even if their lives are temporarily disrupted. On the other hand, frequent moves for reasons such as family turmoil, a house foreclosure, or other economic disruption, particularly if these moves also require frequent changes in schools, are more likely to have a negative impact on young children. The concepts of residential mobility (frequent household moves) and school mobility (frequent school moves that are not the result of promotion to the next grade) overlap significantly in the context of concern about students’ welfare, in part because frequent school mobility is often brought about by family residential mobility. Although these are distinct phenomena, both can have adverse consequences on children’s development and academic progress, and it is these effects that are the focus of this report.
Policy makers and educators have long worried about the negative consequences of residential and school mobility but have lacked a clear and detailed picture of their effects. Collecting information about the hard-to-reach population of mobile children and families presents methodological challenges, and it has been unclear how the effects of mobility
might be disentangled from associated factors—including the factors that lead to the mobility—that also have negative effects on young children. Still more challenging is to establish causal mechanisms to explain apparent connections between school and residential mobility and negative outcomes for some children.
The Board on Children, Youth, and Families, with the support of the Strategic Knowledge Fund, a partnership of the Foundation for Child Development and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, held a workshop in June 2009 to examine issues related to mobility and to highlight the principal themes in the available research.1 The goal for the workshop was to “review research on the patterns of change and mobility in the lives of young children (ages 3 to 8 years) and to examine the implications of this work for the design of child care, early childhood and elementary educational programs, and community services for neighborhoods and vulnerable populations that experience high rates of mobility.” The workshop focused primarily on young children. This stage is often overlooked by researchers and policy makers, compared with early childhood and adolescence, yet the first few years of school set the stage for later academic development and are critical to children’s life prospects. The workshop also focused particularly on educational outcomes for children at risk because of poverty, homelessness, and other factors; it did not address health or social service issues or socioemotional development.
It is important to note that this report documents the information presented in the workshop presentations and discussions. Its purpose is to lay out the key ideas that emerged from the workshop and should be viewed as an initial step in examining the research and applying it in specific policy circumstances. The report is confined to the material presented by the workshop speakers and participants. Neither the workshop nor this summary is intended as a comprehensive review of what is known about student mobility, although it is a general reflection of the literature. The presentations and discussions were limited by the time available for the workshop. A more comprehensive review and synthesis of relevant research knowledge will have to wait for further development.
This report was prepared by a rapporteur and it does not represent findings or recommendations that can be attributed to the committee members who planned the workshop. The workshop was not designed to generate consensus conclusions or recommendations but focused instead on the identification of ideas, themes, and considerations that contribute to understanding the impact of frequent moves on student achievement.
Papers commissioned for the workshop and speaker presentations are available at http://www.bocyf.org/children_who_move_workshop_presentations.html.
The first part of the report (Chapters 1 through 3) describes the scope of the issue, the circumstances that influence the effects of mobility on children, what is known about the consequences of mobility, and approaches to supporting vulnerable children who move. Chapter 4 describes some of the methodological issues related to disentangling the effects of mobility itself from the many other factors likely to influence the lives of disadvantaged children. The report closes with a discussion of potential policy directions and priorities for future research, looking first at the scope of the problem and then the potential impact of mobility in the context of young children’s development. Appendix A provides the workshop agenda and list of participants. Appendix B is a selected bibliography of relevant literature.
Residential mobility rates in the United States are high compared with those of other industrialized nations (Reynolds, Chen, and Herbers, 2009a), but definitions and measures of mobility are not consistent, and there is no single source for data on the numbers of young children who experience high rates of mobility. It is also not always obvious when children’s education and well-being are at risk because of their mobility, in part because there are so many different reasons why children and their families move. In addition, highly mobile children are frequently omitted from research studies and administrative data sets. Nevertheless, a variety of indicators suggest that residential mobility affects many children.
First, it is clear that housing instability is a continuing problem for low-income families. According to data collected by the federal government, nearly half (43 percent in 2007, up from 40 percent in 2005) of households with children have at least one significant housing problem. These problems include housing that is physically inadequate or crowded and housing that costs more than 30 percent of household income (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2009).2 Although the percentage of homes that are physically inadequate or overcrowded has remained stable or even decreased slightly, the percentage of households paying more than half their income for housing has increased from 6 to 16 percent since 1978.
These indicators, which extend through 2007, may look even worse
when they are updated to reflect the effects of the 2008-2009 housing crisis and recession. Information is emerging on how the lack of affordable housing is affecting families with young children (Roy, Maynard, and Weiss, 2008). A surge of foreclosures has stressed low-income families and pushed many into an expensive rental market; in some of the most populous states, housing costs have risen much more sharply than national averages. In 15 states, more than 20 percent of children under age 6 live in households that spend more than half their income on rent.3
What index should be used to identify potentially problematic mobility rates? In general, the U.S. population is quite mobile (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004). Although the rates of mobility have decreased slightly in recent years, approximately 40 million people in the United States, or 14 percent of the population, moved between 2002 and 2003. Among the segment of the population living below the poverty level, 24 percent moved that year. This translates into high rates of school mobility for children in certain population groups—as high as 100 percent in some schools and neighborhoods (Roy, Maynard, and Weiss, 2008). Anecdotal accounts suggest that foreclosures and unemployment have triggered surges of homelessness and mobility in individual counties that have severely stressed the systems designed to support children in these circumstances (Eckholm, 2009).
Measuring residential mobility may be somewhat easier than measuring school mobility, as discussed in Chapter 2, but it is likely that significant numbers of the children whose families move because of housing pressure and other economic stresses are compelled to change schools. As a starting point for discussion of ways to measure school mobility—as many of the presenters took pains to explain—it is important to distinguish among several types of school mobility:
Residential moves that necessitate a school move and may occur for positive reasons or negative ones, such as job loss, a family breakup, domestic violence, eviction, foreclosure, condemnation of housing, or other disruptions.
Normative or structural school mobility—school moves that occur because of school system structural requirements, such as when children advance from elementary to middle school.
School changes instigated by parents seeking better school quality or a better fit for their children, such as a language immersion or particular academic programming, which may or may not also involve a residential move.
School mobility related to children’s behavior—even very young children sometimes exhibit behavior problems that lead to dismissal or a change in placement.
Mobility related to special education placement, for example to a setting designed to handle students with particular needs.
Displacement caused by a natural disaster or moves parents make in search of safety from a dangerous neighborhood.
It would be difficult to estimate how many children experience each of these types of move, although it is clear that many children in the United States are affected by school changes that are not the result of structural requirements (moves made because the student’s school does not offer the next grade). Jane Hannaway reported that, according to a U.S. General Accounting Office report (1994), approximately one-sixth of the nation’s third graders had attended at least three different schools since their first grade year. Data collected by the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that, in 1998, 34 percent of fourth graders, 21 percent of eighth graders, and 10 percent of twelfth graders had changed schools at least once in the previous two years. These percentages do not indicate the extent to which these moves independently contributed to academic disruptions or other difficulties for children, although they do suggest the importance of understanding how such moves may influence educational outcomes or the effectiveness of the resources and services designed to support families. These issues are discussed further below.
It is easy to imagine why mobility might cause problems, particularly for children who move multiple times in the early grades. Children who move may need to adjust to a new curriculum, new teachers and peers, and a new physical environment. Participants also pointed out that schools with high mobility rates may cause problems for the school itself, teachers, and other students. Teachers must respond to every new student and be flexible enough to adjust plans and expectations, even as they struggle to maintain some sense of what their students already know. Students who remain in place may experience disrupted relationships, repetition, and frequent changes in the planned curriculum. A clear understanding of how school or residential mobility can affect children—either disrupting or enhancing their development—provides the foundation for thinking
about possible policy responses, and Anne Masten offered an overview of early childhood development in the context of mobility.
She looked first at the question of developmental timing, noting that “it’s different to move an infant than it is to move a 2-year-old, a 6-year-old, a 13- or 14-year-old, or a senior in high school.” Children’s body function, brain development, capacities for dealing with stress, and behavior change over time, and these variations may make them more or less vulnerable to—or able to withstand—the effects of mobility. Parents as well as children may perceive and handle a move differently depending on the child’s developmental stage. During early childhood, for example, children experience rapid physical growth as well as brain development. They rapidly increase their motor, social, and language skills and develop increased executive function skills, which allow them to direct their attention, control their impulses, wait their turn, and so forth. During these years, children are expected to reach progressive milestones, such as forming attachment bonds with caregivers and obeying simple commands, and, as they move into school, getting along with teachers and peers, learning to read, and meeting other expectations.
Achieving developmental milestones in social, emotional, and cognitive functioning is fundamental for learning and adaptation, both providing the basis for future growth and development and preventing future problems. As Masten put it, “competence begets competence,” and she suggested that the importance of this stage explains why there is such a high return on investments in the development of competence in the early years of life.
Disruptions in this development can have a snowball effect, which explains how mobility has the potential to harm children. She mentioned ongoing research on the influence of early experience on brain development, which has shown, for example, that children who grow up in chaotic, disadvantaged environments, such as orphanages, often fail to develop effective stress regulation capacities. One possible explanation is that the presence of unusually large amounts of stress hormones, such as cortisol, can affect the development of the brain. Furthermore, children adapt and develop skills for the circumstances in which they find themselves. Thus, Masten explained, children “living in chaos adapt for chaos.” But the skills needed to deal with constant instability and threat may be maladaptive in the context of the structured classroom, causing children problems with focusing their attention or controlling their behavior. These difficulties may, in turn, inhibit their capacities to develop relationships with teachers and peers and succeed academically.
Young children depend on their caregivers and other adults for secure attachments, stability, and guidance in self-regulation. Thus, any threat to the caregiving relationships—inconsistent care, a parent who is not
functional for any reason, abusive or unresponsive care by adults who are overwhelmed or depressed, for example—is also likely to disrupt early development. Mobility can disrupt these relationships.
Mobility is a single word for a complex set of possible events and circumstances, although many kinds of mobility have the potential to disrupt children’s routines, the consistency of their care, their connections with people outside the family (or within it), their schooling, and other aspects of their lives that are important to development. Specifically, mobility (particularly repeated mobility) can disrupt children’s routines, the consistency of their care and health care, and their relationships, as well as learning routines, relationships with teachers and peers, and the curriculum to which they are exposed. Less directly, family stresses that accompany many moves and the disruption of family supports can exacerbate all of these problems. At the same time, many kinds of mobility are markers for other risks, such as poverty or family violence, and these circumstances are likely to interact to exacerbate problems. Moreover, when mobility occurs during key points of developmental transition, such as transitions into school or into adolescence, its impact is likely to be greater. Participants also noted that mobility that involves a transition to a different culture, particularly across international borders, adds an additional set of challenges.
Frequent mobility in the context of high stress and few resources may pose serious threats to children’s development. But mobile children vary, and they have diverse needs for learning and educational success. Masten described the theoretical basis for approaches to minimizing the harm that mobility can cause. She suggested that focusing on the factors that boost children’s resilience offers the greatest potential for helping them. These factors include nutrition and health care, positive preschool experience, stable connections with high-quality teachers, instructional continuity, opportunities to develop mastery, and, for older children, friendships with prosocial peers.
Translating these factors into strategies to prevent problems for highly mobile children, she suggested:
Reducing risk and stress—preventing homelessness and housing loss, reducing student and teacher turnover, teaching stress management skills, and providing crisis services, such as transition planning.
Providing concrete resources, such as nutrition programs, health care, affordable housing, and recreational opportunities.
Providing educational supports for mobile students, such as preschool, tutoring, summer programs, transportation within high-mobility zones, improved accessibility of records, increasing sta-
bility of key aspects of curriculum within and across jurisdictions, and reducing nonessential structural mobility.
Mobilizing adaptive systems, by supporting parenting skills, fostering bonds with other competent and caring adults, fostering school engagement, nurturing brain development and self-regulation skills, and supporting cultural traditions and organizations that support child development and provide opportunities for children to connect with prosocial adults and peers.
Mobility is a complex phenomenon. Understanding its extent and nature, and particularly its effects on children’s educational progress, can help policy makers identify appropriate responses. A central question is whether mobility independently contributes to negative outcomes for certain groups of children and, if so, whether there are strategies that can reduce the negative effects. But as Cindy Guy noted in her opening remarks, mobility is a moving target; patterns may change over time and moves may have different effects in different circumstances. She and Ruby Takanishi both stressed that improved understanding of mobility and its effects are important because so many interventions designed for vulnerable children are place-based. The variation in mobility suggests not only a need for flexibility in the design of interventions, but also the importance of balancing the value of broad-based regional policies against the value of narrowly focused neighborhood or school-based interventions. With that context in mind, workshop participants turned to a close look at data on the children affected by mobility.