Children who are homeless or moving from home to home face longer odds when it comes to succeeding in school, but studies from the University of Minnesota have identified two key ways to help them overcome the obstacles of their living situations.

A review of 18,000 students in the Minneapolis Public Schools found achievement gaps in the first grade, with homeless children being more at risk than other children living in poverty.

But solid reading skills offered a protective effect for homeless children. Higher reading scores in first grade predicted more academic success for these children by third grade and eighth grade -- despite all of the potential barriers created by their homelessness.

"While early reading skills are clearly important for the later achievement of all students," said U researcher Janette Herbers, "they are even more important for the success of students whose future achievement is threatened by homelessness and extreme poverty."

A study of 138 5- and 6-year-old children living in emergency family shelters in 2008 and 2009 found that children with better "executive function skills" had easier transitions to school and did better academically. The term refers to one's general level of attention, memory and self-control.

U of M researcher Ann Masten said it was important to confirm the link between executive function and academic success for homeless children, because researchers can now develop shelter preschool programs that focus on boosting those skills. Masten is collaborating with local shelter leaders to develop just such a program.

Daniel Gumnit, executive director of the People Serving People family shelter in Minneapolis, said this kind of preschool approach is critical. "If we are serious about breaking the cycle of poverty for homeless and highly mobile children," he said, "we must focus on their executive functioning skills and emotional resiliency."

The two U studies were published in a special edition of the trade journal Educational Researcher.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744