School is tricky for children in foster care. Stability and consistency are keys to successful learning, and since most foster kids have not experienced that in the past, many of them lag behind their peers in school. There are a few practical steps you can take to help them overcome and succeed.
1. Be available and willing to talk to their teachers and staff
Your foster child’s teacher may not have been exposed to anyone in foster care before. He may not understand the impact of trauma on brain development and behavior and attachment, or recognize how certain assignments, like making a family tree, can trigger intense anxiety and confusion for kids who aren’t living with their first families. And even if the teacher has experience with these things, she may not know your specific foster child, with their unique history and needs.
You can help bridge this gap by connecting with your foster child’s teacher and talking to them about specific needs. Share specific coping behaviors they’re likely to see and suggest strategies for handling them. Offer resources if they’re interested in learning more about the impact of trauma (this article is a great start). Give them a heads up when your foster child is going through a particularly difficult time emotionally. Ask them to let you know ahead of time when there is a lesson or assignment that deals with family roles or personal or family history.
Please note that it is possible to communicate these things without revealing your child’s personal history. Teachers and staff don’t need details to know how to help.
2. Learn what services are available, and advocate for what your foster child needs
Depending on your foster child’s educational history, they may already have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan. These plans identify any accommodations necessary for a child to succeed in school. Don’t be afraid to ask for an evaluation – this is the first step to getting your child the services he needs. If you aren’t familiar with these programs or other resources in your foster child’s school or community, reach out to someone (teacher, guidance counselor, parents of children with special needs) and ask for help. Learn what has worked for other children with similar issues, and know what rights and responsibilities you have as the foster parents.
3. Get them involved in extracurricular activities
Extracurricular activities are a great way to get your kids connected with other kids. Sports, Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts, and church groups are just a few of many options. The key here is to look for an activity your foster child can do on a regular basis that will help them build relationships with the kids they’re going to see at school during the week.
As a foster parent, getting kids involved in activities outside of school can present some challenges. Your foster child may not join your home at the beginning of sport season, for example. You may not know, especially at the beginning, how long the child will be in your home, or how long they’ll be able to participate – this can make the startup costs of some activities seem daunting. Your foster child’s calendar is likely full with family visits or therapy or other appointments, so adding one more activity might seem to do more harm than good. If your foster child moves to your home in the middle of the school year but remains enrolled in their original school, getting and staying involved in that community might be difficult to add to your schedule. In my experience, though, the benefits are worth figuring all these things out.
4. Celebrate the wins
Look for your foster child’s successes, no matter how big or small, and celebrate them. Every win builds trust and confidence.
Experienced foster parents, what would you add to this list? How have you helped your foster child succeed at school?