School and Foster Youth

I have struggled with a dual perspective. I am both as a foster parent and a teacher. I reached out to other foster parents and to other teachers to try to derive principles that would be of use to educators. Imagine these scenarios happening in a classroom:

A teacher pats a foster child on the back, and that student jumps up, screaming, cursing and moving into a fighting stance.

A student stares out the classroom window, notices a red truck and begins hyperventilating, collapsing to the floor.

A social worker pulls a student out of the classroom for a weekly counseling session. That student comes back to class and turns her desk over.

How do educators make sense out of this?

Many caregivers would like teachers to be more knowledgeable about and more understanding of trauma and attachment issues that their students face. Here are some suggestions.

Try to understand negative behavior. This often comes out of the child’s past, not their present environment. Even if a child is now in a loving home, they still have to learn the coping skills needed to navigate in a new environment. Teachers and parents can form partnerships to help children overcome past traumas and work together to develop strategies that will establish consistency between home and school.

An understanding of trauma related behaviors is important. Attachment issues will be a factor, since there may have been limited attachment with the birth parents. Children may also feel guilt when bonding with foster parents and even with classroom teachers, since they often feel they owe a debt of loyalty to their biological parents.

Foster parents can better serve their children by keeping teachers informed. Many educators would like to more aware of their foster students’ needs, so that they do not alienate them when assigning family related projects for parents or grandparents. Inform teachers if homework needs to modified or is causing undue pressure for kids who are already maxed out on the stress-meter. Letting teachers know about departure dates can help out a lot. Teachers can be advocates in helping students stay in the same school and can have time to prepare the students, parents and future teachers for special challenges. When foster parents, teachers and social workers share relevant information about a child, they help the child learn.

Be mindful of the shock of transience. I have worked at schools that had a 50% transience rate. That means that only half of the students who enroll in that school will be there at the end of the year. Kids with a good support system might navigate this well, but for many students it can be devastating. As adults we may not see how this affects achievement, and we may assume that children have the social skills to make the change from one environment to the next. Find out if your district has a “Be Still” program designed to allow children to stay in the same school when they are moved away from their birth parents. Their lives are traumatic enough without any extra moves.

Educators must keep an eye out for student strengths or they may miss the hidden facets of an emotionally disturbed child’s personality. One of my most brilliant students in last year’s class was a foster child who had been in numerous foster homes and in kinship care. He had anger issues but was also extremely gifted in solving higher-level math problems.

Encourage them to pursue higher education. An involved teacher may be the key factor in putting a child on the road to college. Remember, the students may receive little or no encouragement to pursue their gifts. Tell the kids about the opportunities that are out there. Be their social support when they start to apply or need a reference. Goad them to take college prep classes.

Get their records as fast as you can. Children may already have a 504 (special education) plan. If not, it is statistically more likely that a foster child will need special services in the form of pull out programs and possibly special day classes. You may need to become the advocate and push for special testing.

Learn some cooperative education strategies, even if you don’t regularly practice them. Foster students may need help interacting with peers, and collaborative practice can help.

Thoughts on the future…

Schools get extra funding for foster children, and some of this money should be used to train teachers how to handle special situations. There should be a push from parents, social workers and other relevant stakeholders to make such training available. Many teachers take only one class regarding foster care during their college training. The local Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) offices should make training resources available to teachers, parents and administration. Most teachers would profit from knowing the best strategies and practices to use with foster children, not only to help them academically but socially and emotionally.