Students in the foster care system in the United States may be one of the most misunderstood groups we educate. Educators new to working with fosters may many misconceptions about who foster kids are. Although there are regulations in some states that prohibit you from knowing which of your students are in the foster care system, it’s likely you’ll find out one way or another (many foster students will tell you themselves).
Misconceptions About Foster Kids
There are very few true orphans - children with both parents dead - in foster care. There are some for whom a parent is in prison or not able to raise them for some other reason, and the parent who is caring for them dies, leaving them in care.
Others have been living with elderly relatives who pass away with living relatives but none who can care for the child or children, and they are placed in care.
Many children are removed from their homes by child protective services because of unhealthy or traumatic things happening at home.
Some families voluntarily place their children in foster care due to some extreme medical, emotional, or financial circumstances. They may place their children in foster care for a short time or permanently.
Creepy, Scary, and/or Bullies
Although many foster care students experience a lot of trauma before entering care and may live with extended trauma due to situations faced while in care, none of these negative connotations about foster care students are necessarily more accurate than they would be with any other child.
There are some things in media (movies, books, video games) that associate foster kids (as well as orphans) with things that are creepy or scary. This has really hurt the chances many foster students have when it comes to having the opportunity to be themselves in the public school setting.
It’s unfair to project these ideas onto students.
Bad Kids or Delinquents
Some kids end up in foster care after a stay in juvenile detention. That number, though, is far smaller than some think.
Nearly 50% of kids leaving the system go to jail, though.
They are often not bad people, but they do also often have trauma to deal with and desperately need the guidance of caring adults. Teachers and school staff can actually provide these students with the foundation they need for keeping them from a future in the prison system.
As mentioned above, there are lots of reasons kids enter foster care. Many of those reasons are from adults in their lives making decisions that are harmful or neglectful. However, many kids are in families that just can’t care for them for a while. Assuming these students, who are already alone and displaced from their families, are “bad” would be a terrible disservice.
Give foster students the same chances you would any of your other students.
While it is true that there are a great number of minority students in the foster care system, the number of white foster students is typically about 40% to 50%. All other minorities combined make up the remaining 50% to 60%.
Likely to Continue the Cycle of Abuse
Again, kids in foster care may not even be there because they’ve experienced abuse. When they have, removing them from the situation and providing them with care, nurture, and healthy boundaries gives them a much better chance at breaking those cycles.
Challenges Specific to Students in Foster Care
Depending on the type of care they are receiving and why, some foster care students stay in a home for as little as a few days and as long as years.
There are several types of foster situations:
- placements with relatives
- placement in homes with non-relatives
- group homes or institutions
The goal of nearly all foster care situations is to reunite the family after providing them with the help and services they need to be a successful family unit.
To that end, whenever possible, a child is placed with family members. If this is not possible due to extenuating circumstances, the next alternative is to find a home with a family who has volunteered and then been trained to become a foster family (there is compensation for foster families to a degree).
The last option is a group home or institution. However, new legislation passed within the last year or so that strongly inhibits the funding for group homes and institutions for purposes other than clinical needs for more than two weeks.
Kids are often moved when a placement isn’t working for everyone’s benefit if family members acting as caregivers do not obey the judge’s orders (restricting visitation of family members is sometimes very difficult), or the solution is a temporary solution.
The average stay in foster care is between 12 and 24 months. Many return, though, and return stays are generally longer.
Because of the revolving-door type system that is in place, students often have a sense of constant change. They truly never know when or why they may be moved next. One of our writers had a foster student in their class for one day - a student who was supposed to be a long-term placement but was moved again immediately. This constant flux is difficult for a student.
One way you can help them build a sense of continuity and permanence is to give them your email address and the school’s phone number. Tell them their new teacher, their new foster family, or their own family can contact you at school anytime. Either have them memorize the information or keep it in something they’ll likely be able to keep with them (more on that in a minute).
Having access to your school information gives them a touchpoint in their own personal history to return to. That is invaluable to a foster student who moves a lot. Children who don’t have experience in foster care can get that same thing from their families, their home, their friends, and their school. Foster students usually end up with large gaps of time they don’t remember because there is no one to remind them of their own personal journey. It’s disorienting, to say the least.
Few Personal Belongings
When children are removed by CPS, they usually don’t have anything but the clothes on their backs. Depending on the circumstances, caseworkers may need to get in and get out with the child.
Foster families are given money for food and clothing for children who stay with them, but many families keep much of what they buy for the child rather than sending it on because it can be used for other children who enter their care.
Most children take what few possessions they have from one place to another in garbage bags. There are some organizations that provide backpacks or duffel bags for children entering foster care through CPS now. These bags provide essentials for the child and may be carried from one home to another.
Unfortunately, foster kids are often separated from their belongings, though. Even though many children who are voluntarily placed in foster care bring things with them, somehow children arrive empty-handed again and again at new placements.
Keeping that in mind, foster kids are often either extremely attached and possessive to anything they think of as theirs (even pencils, erasers, or items of clothing), or have no sense of responsibility or ownership in regards to possessions.
Be aware of these extremes. They can also apply to food, especially if neglect has been a part of their background. They may get into fights over food if they have known extreme hunger, or they may give their food away in attempts to take care of the other children and adults around them.
Difficulty Building Relationships
Because they move around a lot, and some foster care situations are less sensitive to keeping a child’s personal history confidential, foster kids with difficult backgrounds may find it difficult to make new friends.
As we mentioned above, people are often very mistrustful of foster children. They often have experienced some form of trauma, and sometimes that trauma is extreme. Trauma inhibits the ability to form relationships, and foster students may have a very difficult time making connections due to this.
Be ready to work with foster kids on relationship-building skills. Give them as much social-emotional learning experience as possible. Guide them toward having and appreciating appropriate boundaries. Help deepen the relationships in the class as a whole to give them the opportunity to practice.
Be aware that they could be removed at any time, but may stay the whole year. Help young foster kids make friendships with kids from families who may also be willing and able to create a touchpoint for the child. Encourage older students to make connections and keep in touch when appropriate. Mediate when you feel comfortable, and both students seem to benefit from friendship.
More than anything, though, offering yourself as a role model and someone who the student can connect to in a healthy student/teacher relationship is one of the most beneficial things you can provide. This is especially true if you can offer a long-term connection so that the student can come back and find you at various intervals in the future.
Many of them are desperate for healthy relationships that can eventually evolve from student/teacher to adult friends when they are older. They may always see you as a mentor. This is vital to their long-term success as adults.
Students who become adults while in foster care are very vulnerable to loneliness, bouts of mental illness, dropping out or not pursuing higher education, becoming homeless, and seeing jail time. A great portion of the cause of these challenges is because they are alone in the world.
Although the foster care system is changing to assist students as they transition out, they are often lacking any deep “parental” connection, which can set them adrift without an anchor in their early adulthood. Just having someone there to act as a reminder - a lighthouse - can give them the opportunity to keep themselves from crashing.
A large portion of the foster care population is on medication for things like ADD, ADHD, or other mental or emotional challenges. There are also quite a few students in foster care because their families are unable to afford their medical treatments. This is the case for many children who are severely disabled and in foster care.
With medications for the general education student, however, foster families are likely to need support in keeping medications regulated and at proper dosages. Because students may be seeing a variety of doctors and experiencing dosage changes for many medications according to weight (which can shift frequently as a child grows), having school personnel assist in monitoring is helpful.
This shouldn’t mean you will assist in administering medications (although the school nurse may be involved), but you may need to keep careful track of behaviors that could indicate the student may need a medication change.
Acting out physically, verbal outbursts, or falling asleep frequently may mean they are not receiving the correct dosage of one medication or another. Keeping track of behaviors, time of day they occur, and any other pertinent details (anything that seems to frequently cause the behavior, what works in stopping the behavior, time spent during incident of behavior) by using a behavior tracking sheet can really help both the foster family and you as you are learning how to help your student.
Resources for working with students in foster care:
https://www2.ed.gov/about/inits/ed/foster-care/index.html - lots of resources
Foster Care Transition Toolkit - 66-page document for teens in foster care who are aging out; can be useful as a resource for people who work with kids in foster care; created by the federal government - https://www2.ed.gov/about/inits/ed/foster-care/youth-transition-toolkit.pdf
Brochure by the National Working Group of Foster Care and Education Group https://www.ncjfcj.org/sites/default/files/NationalEducationBrochure.pdf