More Indicators American Child Well-Being is Declining

Last Updated: October 29, 2014

This article appeared in the October 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

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Data released this month reports that more than a million children were homeless in 2012–13, up eight percent from the previous year and up a whopping 85% from the 2006–07 school year.

The data, collected through the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Act, was released by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Center for Homeless Education.

The data found that 1,258,182 school-aged children and youth do not have a permanent residence. About three-quarters of homeless students were sharing homes with other families; 16% lived in shelters; six percent in hotels or motels. Three percent were living without shelter, up 30.6% from 2010–11.

Most students were living with an adult, but 76,000 students were living on their own.

Advocates warn that the data underreports the extent of homelessness among the nation’s children because it does not include children too young for school or students who are not in school because they have dropped out or are no longer enrolled.

Students who are living without a permanent home face a variety of learning challenges including a greater likelihood of getting sick, more frequent absences, more behavior issues, and stress-related emotional and psychological problems.

Physical activity and cognitive function

New evidence suggests that physical activity improves cognitive function in elementary school students. Research published in this month’s journal, Pediatrics, found that children who participated in an after-school program emphasizing physical fitness outperformed their peers on several key skills required for academic success.

The study randomly assigned 221 children, aged seven to nine, to the after-school program or to a control group. The children were tested prior to the treatment and again after nine months. The children who had participated in regular physical activity outperformed their peers on measures of executive control (resisting distractions/habits to maintain focus, working memory, and cognitive flexibility).

The authors suggest that an active lifestyle in childhood may have protective effects on brain health across the lifespan and that policies that reduce or eliminate physical activity from school curricula are likely counter-productive for academic outcomes.

The paper does not address curriculum or school location, but it may have particular relevance for students in low-income or rural schools. Schools with high percentages of low-income students tend to be under extreme pressure to raise student test scores and many have eliminated the arts, humanities, and physical education to focus on tested subjects. These schools are also more likely that other schools to face a dearth of resources including fewer certified teachers and higher teacher turnover rates thataffect curricular offerings.

Many rural schools face similar issues and the additional challenge of very long bus rides for students. Rural students are more likely than other students to attend a school that is located far from their homes and thus to be required to take a long, sedentary bus ride to and from school. It is not unusual for rural children, including elementary students, to be on a bus two or more hours every day. Time on a bus is time children are not able to be physically active, making in-school activity even more important for their long-term health and well-being.

The study is: “Effects of the FITKids Randomized Controlled Trial on Executive Control and Brain Function,” by Charles H. Hillman, Matthew B. Pontifex, Darla M. Castelli, Naiman A. Khan, Lauren B. Raine, Mark R. Scudder, Eric S. Drollette, Robert D. Moore, Chien-Ting Wu, and Keita Kamijo. Pediatrics; originally published online September 29 2014; DOI: 10.1542/peds2013-3219. Available online at

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National Center for Homeless Education:

The report on homelessness among children and youth:

News coverage on homelessness data:

USDE McKinney-Vento information:

The report on physical activity and brain function:

Read more from the October 2014
Rural Policy Matters.