Changing Trajectories for Students in the Foster Care System
Students in the foster care system deserve the best educational experience-- not the disjointed one too many receive. This post is what the research says on how to change that and how we can begin meeting the needs of foster youth in our schools.
Research to Practice: Foster Youth
Let’s start with the bleak truth. Students who are placed in foster care have historically had dismal outcomes in our school, from sky high drop out rates to academic failure (Parker & Folkman, 2015; Zetlin & Weinburd, 2004). A crazy high percentage of these students, between 30% and 50% across studies, theoretically receive special education services (Parker & Folkman, 2015). The challenges these students face are countless, from paperwork that never quite makes it to the next school, to ambiguous IEP signing rights, to poor communication, to trauma influenced behaviors, to disrupted placements– a quarter to over half of students in foster care had two or more living placements in one year in 2021 (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2022). These are our most vulnerable youth and the statistics paint a stark picture of how society, the education system, and we as teachers have historically failed these students. And there are a lot of them.
In 2021, almost 400,000 children in the United States were in the foster care system (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2022). Many, about 35% are placed with relatives but even more, 44% are placed in nonrelative foster families (Ibid, 2022).
Before I do though, a bit of background. One of the things that is really clear in the research is that teachers aren’t taught about foster care or child abuse in teacher preparation programs, leaving many a bit shell shocked when they start working with the complex bureaucracy that is our child welfare system (Stanley, 2012). So here are some super basic facts.
- Foster placements can be in group homes, pre-adoptive placements, with nonrelatives, or with relatives. In 2021, 44% of kids were placed with nonrelatives and 35% with relatives (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2022).
- On average, most children placed into foster care spend one to two years in it before either aging out, going back to biological families, or entering an adoptive placement. Some spend far longer, however (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2022).
- Children of all ages are placed in foster care. About 7% are babies, about one-third are between 1 and 5, just under two-thirds are school aged (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2022).
- Children enter foster care for many reasons. These include the death of a parent, the incarceration of a parent, parental illness, abandonment by the parent, physical or medical neglect, and physical or sexual abuse (State of Ohio, n.d.). When you see a child in foster care, you are seeing a child for whom something has gone really wrong– but without knowing that child’s individual story you have no way of knowing what went wrong. AKA assumptions are bad.
- About: This recommendation comes from the United States Department of Education. The DOE has written multiple dear colleague letters urging states to implement policies that “ensure the child can remain in the school in which the child is enrolled at the time of each placement, or, if remaining in that school is not in the best interests of the child, assurances from the SCWA and LEA to enroll the child immediately in a new school, with all of his or her educational records provided to the school” (USDOE, 2016). The reason behind this is that when students bounce school to school their education is harmed. Records get lost. Credits don’t transfer. The curriculum across the schools doesn’t align. School days are missed. The list goes on.
- What can you do as a teacher? If you have a student at your school placed in foster care, you can use the letter and advocate for your student to stay at your school. It is literally the most helpful thing you can do for the child. Don’t let the district say the child belongs at a new school or there is no transportation. That is literally against the law. Note that if a student does transfer schools, it is up to you to IMMEDIATELY send records. The delay in record transfer is a key reason students in foster care struggle.
- Important facts: The government ensures transportation for foster youth. If a child in foster care moves to a new home, their old school is still their “local” school. There are financial provisions under state and federal laws to ensure that the student can be transported to their “local” aka original school.
- About: In the Texas Youth Permanency Study, researchers talked to foster youth about what they needed. Many talked about feeling that their relationships with their peers and school staff were both constantly being disrupted. One said, “Most of my relationships are very distant because of foster care.” Students who were able to form and maintain stronger connections and participate in normal school activities also had more emotional stability.
- What can you do as a teacher?
- Be proactive about field trips and any school activities that require parental permission. Many students in foster care miss out on these because school staff don’t know who to have sign the forms. Figure it out– our confusion should never harm a child!
- Does the school offer after school activities or specials that could allow the student to make stronger peer connections? If so, sign them up! Students in foster care get preferential placement in all school based placements. You will need to do some advocacy to get the papers signed by the right person (I once had a judge give me special permission to sign a student up myself!), but it is worth it.
- It might not be you, but is there an adult at the school that the student resonates with? If so, make that adult part of the student’s schedule. Build in special lunches, check ins, or hang time. Even if you aren’t that adult, you can be the facilitator, the ones who sets the stage for that child to have the school staff connection that they need for emotional stability and school success.
- Be a community facilitator. Kids in foster care miss out on birthday parties and neighborhood cookouts and they don’t need to. Sometimes they miss out because the foster care parents don’t know and sometimes they miss out because they don’t have the capacity to bring the child to events. That’s where you come in. Social workers like having lots of caring adults in students’ lives. Does the student have a best friend in the class they want to hang out with? Would the student’s parents be willing to be one of those caring adults? If so, connect the with the social worker. CPS will do the background checks and make sure things are kosher– but no social worker knows the community like you do. Help them find caring adults to support the student!
- About: One of the biggest recommendations coming out of the Texas study and out of the Children’s Bureau (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2021) is to listen to students in the foster care system and give them agency. Mostly, they are talking about providing students with information about court cases and choice in what happens in their lives, but it also applies to schools!
- What can you do as a teacher? In a different post, I talk about self-determination supportive instruction in special education. Literally everything there applies here. Students in the foster care system have a lot of agency in their own lives stripped away by the system. They are acted on in their lives, not the actors. As a teacher, you have the opportunity to start giving them that agency back in ways big and small. Here are a few– more are in the other post!
- Give them choice within the classroom as much as possible. Use menus, agenda, and stations to give students choice– or give them choice in what they read, how they take notes, and so on.
- Work on goal setting with the students. Talk about what their big and small goals are and how they will get there. Then hold them accountable. Check in with them about the actions they are taking to meet those goals and reflect on them.
- Put them in charge of their meetings or at least talk about them with them and not behind their backs. Let them be a part of the process.
- About: This is from an older article (Schwartz, 1999) but still holds. Do you say mothers and fathers or families? Do all of your books and classroom materials represent traditional families? In ways big and small, schools can signal to students in the foster care system that they are different or unwelcome. How can you change that?
- What can you do as a teacher?
- Stock the library with books that show diverse families– aka some that look like those of your student. Note that there are lots of ways to get these for free! Check out the post on getting free stuff.
- Be mindful of your language. Families is nice and generic and includes grandparents and foster parents more than mom and dad does. Think about mother’s day and father’s day– if you do activities, frame them as for the caring adults in your lives not just bio parents. Maybe the student wants to do something for them, great– but be mindful of how the student might feel.
- Include role models. I am all about role model stories and books. Can you highlight stories of folks who were in foster care and crushed it? Need ideas? Did you know that Marilyn Monroe spent a lot of her life in foster care? That John Lennon, Colin Kapernick, and Steve Jobs were adopted? What about Simon Biles? She went in at age five due to substance use issues in the home. Check out these links and start including their stories and bios in your class!
- About: Students in foster care have all experienced trauma, even if that trauma is just being removed from their home. For many, the trauma is much deeper than that. Many have emotional and mental health needs and behavioral challenges (Zetlin & Weinberg, 2004). Many report feeling sad, anxious, lonely, and much, much more (Bruskas, 2008). Many rack up referrals, suspensions, and more not so fun educational artifacts (Zetlin & Weinberg, 2004). So what do you do?
- What can you do as a teacher?
- The first and biggest is to realize it is not about you. If you have never watched the really short film Removed, watch it now. For real. And then its equally short sequel. It sums up so well how it really is not about the teacher. It’s about the trauma the child has experienced. So the child acting out is not a pure reflection of your behavioral prowess or your relationship with them. It reflects what they are going through.
- Get the student the support they need. This sounds ridiculous, but most students I have worked with in traditional foster families have not been in therapy nor EVER had it (not true of kids in group homes– they have massive flaws, but failing to provide therapy is not among them). Mind blowing right? If the student has an IEP, school psychology services or counseling should be on there. If your school has therapeutic services available, work with the legal advocate and get the student signed up. More is definitely better. Are there other counseling groups? Can you work with the foster family and social worker on out of school services? Get the student support.
- Work with school and district specialists on creating a trauma informed classroom and plans to respond when the student is struggling. You are not going to be able to do everything on your own. Bring in the experts from school psychologists to district behavioral specialists. They exist for a reason and know a lot about how to be trauma sensitive.
- Teach self-regulation skills. Whether you use Zones of Regulation or the Amazing Five Point Scale or something else, provide your student (and I bet more need it than just your student in foster care!) with explicit self-regulation instruction and supports. Occupational Therapists are geniuses and know a lot of these programs so reach out. You are not alone. Your job is to make school welcoming for you student and if the student has significant trauma informed behaviors, you are going to need help. Think the village metaphor. Because you need one.
- Annie E. Casey Foundation (2022). Child Welfare and Foster Care Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.aecf.org/blog/child-welfare-and-foster-care-statistics.
- Bruskas, D. (2008). Children in foster care: A vulnerable population at risk. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, 21, 70–77.
- Child Welfare Information Gateway (2021). Prioritizing Youth Voice: The Importance of Authentic Youth Engagement in Case Planning. Retrieved from https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/youth-engagement.pdf
- Stanley, S. (2012). Children with disabilities in foster care: The roles of the school social worker in the context of special education. Children & Schools, 34(3), 190-192.
- Parker, P., & Folkman, J. (2015). Building Resilience in Students at the Intersection of Special Education and Foster Care: Challenges, Strategies, and Resources for Educators. Issues in Teacher Education, 24(2), 43-62.
- Schwartz, W. (1999). School support for foster families. New York: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education, Institute for Urban and Minority Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED434189)
- State of Ohio (n.d.). Reasons children come to foster care. Retrieved from https://fosterandadopt.jfs.ohio.gov/foster-care/becoming-a-foster-parent/reasons-children-come-to-foster-care
- Texas Youth Permanency Study (2021). Youth voice matters. Retrieved from https://utyps.socialwork.utexas.edu/2021/10/06/helping-youth-in-care-feel-connected-and-empowered/
- Zetlin, A. G., & Weinberg, L. A. (2004). Understanding the plight of foster youth and improving their educational opportunities. Child Abuse & Neglect, 28, 917–923.
- United States Department of Education (2016). Dear colleague letter on foster care guidance. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/inits/ed/foster-care/index.html