Background. During the past 10 years, the number of homeless families has increased in every region of the United States. Despite several studies of this population, there are few data regarding the cognitive functioning of these homeless children. The aim of this controlled study was to determine the effect of homelessness on cognitive and academic functioning of children aged 6 to 11 years.

Methods. Homeless children (N = 102) and their mothers living in shelters were compared with a housed group of children (N = 178) and their mothers selected from the homeless child's classroom in New York City between August 1990 and August 1992. Groups were compared using standardized cognitive and academic performance instruments.

Results. Controlling for child's age, sex, race, social class, and family status, verbal intelligence (estimated by the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test) and nonverbal intelligence (estimated by the Raven's Progressive Matrices) were not significantly different between the groups. However, academic achievement (measured by the Wide Range Achievement Test-Revised [WRAT-R]) was significantly poorer in reading (75% of homeless children compared with 48% of housed children were below grade level), spelling (72.4% of homeless children compared with 50% of housed children were below grade level), and arithmetic (53.6% of homeless children compared with 21.7% of housed children were below grade level). These dramatic differences in academic performance did not appear to be related to the mother's report of the number of days missed from school or the length of homelessness, but were associated with: (1) the number of school changes for the WRAT-R reading subtest, and (2) grade repetition for the WRAT-R spelling subtest.

Conclusions. These data demonstrate no difference in cognitive functioning between homeless and housed children. However, homeless children performed significantly more poorly than housed children in tests of academic performance.

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