Foster Youth & School: The Ongoing Struggles

The number of children in the United States being placed within a foster home continues at a high rate as the nation travels further into the 21st century.

On any given day in the United States, there are roughly over 500,000 children in foster care. Seventy percent of these 5oo,000 foster children are of school age, with the average age of a foster child being 10 years of age.

When children are placed into foster care, lives are often changed very quickly. No longer do they live with parents and family or are surrounded by people they know. Instead, they are, most often quite quickly, placed in a home with strangers and are no longer in touch with those they know or with whom they are familiar. Indeed, those who are in foster care have significant difficulties in school performance and adjustment to developmental tasks of adolescence. These difficulties often lead to additional problems later on in their lives.

For many children placed in foster care, a new school environment is thrust upon them. Foster children are often taken from their homes suddenly and without any notice, and placed in a foster home in a nearby county. As a result, a number of issues arise for the foster child, as he is faced with a new home and an unfamiliar environment. To begin with, foster children typically have low attendance rates, as they are moved from one home to another. This includes not only their original foster home, but to other foster homes, as well. During these transitions, children placed in child welfare agencies often miss a great deal of school, as their foster parents and case workers attend to duties such as enrolling the child into school, meeting with counselors and psychologists, and giving the child time to adequately adjust to the new living situation.

Oftentimes, the child has difficulty registering in a new school, as well as ensuring that all transcript information remains current. In fact, many times, teachers are not aware that a foster child is placed in their classroom. Indeed, school counselors or administrators might not have this information, either.

As foster children come with a myriad of emotional issues, many teachers are simply not equipped to handle these issues. Foster children may lash out in the middle of class due to the unfamiliarity and instability of their life at that present time, and many teachers do not have the training or the resources to handle these challenges. Along with this, foster children often have difficulty with trust issues when it comes to adults, as well as building a healthy relationship with and adult figure. Thus, the relationships between teachers and foster children are quite often unhealthy ones.

Teachers, as well as school counselors, do not often have the background information they might need when having a foster child under their supervision. In most cases, the background information is not permitted to be released due to issues of confidentiality through legal acts of protection. Yet, this information is often necessary for a teacher in order to fully understand the student’s needs and abilities. The more information a teacher may have on the child, the better equipped the teacher becomes when trying to aid the child’s in his behavior and academic performance.

As the sudden move from a familiar home to an unfamiliar one can be a traumatic experience, children in foster care often struggle with a wide range of overwhelming emotions as they try to adjust to a new home, new set of rules, and new “parents.” Foster children have the extra burden of facing the distractions of being separated from family and loved ones, along with the difficulty of adjusting to a new home, foster family, and an environment that is foreign to them, and not of their choosing. Along with this lies the concern of the foster child’s mental health, as the new environment and the situation the child has been placed in creates the risk of disturbing and disrupting it while in school.

Foster children often have a difficult time with exhibiting proper school behavior during the school day. For many of the children, school is a constant reminder that they are, indeed, foster children without a true home. The continuous reminder that their peers are living with biological family members while they are not is a difficult reality for them, and can be manifested in several ways. Some foster children simply withdraw and become anti-social, in an attempt to escape their current environment and world they have been thrust into. For many foster children, violent behavior becomes the norm, as they not only act out in a negative and disruptive fashion in the school, but in their foster home, too, prompting yet another move to another foster home and another school.

As a result of the sudden and dramatic changes in their lives due to both the traumas suffered within their homes before placement, and from the trauma that placement into a foster home brings as well, many children in foster care have great difficulty in adjusting to school, both academically and behaviorally.

These challenges include the academic, social, and emotional turmoil caused by placement disruptions and adjustment to a new school environment Grief, anxiety, loss, confusion, anger, sadness, loneliness, and low self-worth are some of the emotions that foster teens may experience when encountering placement disruption.

As Bowlby’s theory of attachment would suggest, many children might have a difficult time forming relationships with students and teachers because of continuous placement disruptions in their lives. As foster children make up a small percentage of the total makeup of students in a classroom setting, often less than 1%, this may explain why there has not been much research interest in foster care program as it related to those foster youths who are enrolled in public schools.

The foster care system is one that is not only complex, but also one that is not well known by the general public, or to school teachers. It is necessary to understand the system in order to grasp the difficulties that teens undergo in foster care. It is also important to appreciate the difficulties faced by foster parents, teachers, and caseworkers who work alongside the foster youth on a daily basis, both inside and outside schools.

From the new book "Helping Foster Children in School: A Guide for Foster Parents, Social Workers and Teachers "
©2015 Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Reprinted with permission. This article may not be reproduced for any other use without permission.