May is national foster care awareness month. Foster Children have a special place in my heart as my husband and I have been foster parents for about 3 years now. In that time, I have learned so much and it truly affected the way I worked with my students in the classroom. I know teachers have some of the biggest hearts and it is their job to care for every child who walks through their doors, but I wanted to take this opportunity during foster care awareness month to share some of the things that I have learned through my experiences.
When we signed up to be foster parents, I honestly did not know what to expect. We prepared for the arrival of our first placement. This in itself is hard because there is no way of knowing what age or gender you will have come into your home. We were certified in July but did not get a placement until September. Those months, plus the 7 months of paperwork, training, and background checks we had to complete should have given us time to prepare for the first night with any age group. Well, I thought we were ready. Then our first placement came and it was a mad dash to the store to buy carseats, clothes, and shoes that would fit. A sleepless night of adjusting to a new place with new people, new routines, and new food.The next morning was a flurry of phone calls trying to enroll them into school with limited abilities to provide all the required paperwork. Within a two day span, they were ready to start attending school.
Now consider all that happened in that two day time span. These students moved to a new house with new people that they never met before, then turned around and started at a new school. While a few days at their new home or even a week or two to allow for adjustment would be nice, it is often very hard to make that happen. Most foster parents still work full time jobs and there are few ways to take time off to allow for adjustment to a new placement. I always took a couple of days off, but those were my sick days. Some companies or states may allow for leave for adoption placements, but foster care is a little harder because a family could have multiple placements come into the home throughout the year. This is especially true when the foster home has multiple beds available.
When we started school my kids were usually behind their classmates. The hardest part of the day for us became homework because not only were we dealing with a lack of understanding of the material, but also all the frustration that the uncertainty of the situation they were in. The oldest child we have ever taken was 7. It is hard enough not knowing what is going to happen to you when you are an adult, can you imagine being 7 and trying to go on with life as if things are alright when you don’t know what is going to happen next?
So what are some things teachers can do to help students who are in this type of situation? Well first of all, you may not be aware of which students are in this situation. Any teacher that I have worked with as a foster parent had to be made aware by me. This was usually an easy discussion to start because on a couple of occasions the children I had were entering school after the first of the year. It is harder to give teachers the information when he or she is trying to learn about all their students at the beginning of the school year. When a foster parent brings up the student’s status there are a few things the teacher should consider before asking questions or making plans:
There are plenty of times when social workers will be able to explain what they are going to ask for on each court date (which in my experience happens every three or four months). Since the worker has the knowledge of the student’s situation, the biological family’s situation, and experience with the rulings that have been made in similar situations there is some ability to make an educated guess as to what the next couple of months will bring. On the other hand, there have been instances where judges make a change that is unexpected during a court hearing.
That being said, it is hard to be certain what will come at any point. So while you may want to ask questions that will allow you to have a timeline for how long you will be able to work with this child there is no real way to determine an answer to that. We have been in situations where we were originally told three months and the child was moved after only a month. We have also been told that children were moving soon then they end up staying longer. So the best approach is to teach the child as if he or she is there to stay, but try not to make promises or big plans for months and months down the road. This may seem like a weird consideration to make, but for many of these kids adults have let them down time and time again. It is important to do your best to show them that some adults can be trusted.
The understanding of the need for these students to be able to trust me made me start being very careful with what I told them we could or could not do at any given time. I only told them what was going to happen when I knew it was not going to change. If a change had to be made, I was very clear as to why the change happened. Building trust with any student is important, building trust with a student who has been let down time and time again is hard yet extremely important.
As much as the foster parent wants to be able to tell you about how the child did in his or her previous school that information may not be available or it may just not be accessible. When a child walks in there is a stack of papers that come too. I have seen large stacks with everything you would need to know to just the few sheets needed to prove custody and medical insurance access. The amount of information the parent actually has is determined on a number of factors. How long has the child been in care? How much was passed on by the bio family or previous foster family? What was actually handed to the foster parent when the child was brought to them? So a lot of what you might want to know about the child when it comes to prior performance and maybe even diagnoses of learning or behavioral issues will be something the foster parent is also trying to figure out.
What you can do is find ways to see where the student is in their learning. Reading tests to discover lexile scores, math placement activities, and other assessments of the students skill level. The foster parents will be very grateful if you are able to help them understand where the student is and what they can do to help them grow in their learning. Notice that I said grow and not catch up. It is important for these students to see positive growth and understand that their efforts are being noticed.
I never hated standardized testing more than I have as a foster parent. I have worked with kids who have pushed themselves and made great strides only to be given a score of below proficient. Who wants that? Who wants to work that hard to only find that you are still grade levels behind. Keep that up for a couple of years, and the kid will eventually decide that they will never be able to catch up so what is the point in working so hard? Many of these kids miss major milestones early in life. These things are really hard to come back from. It takes years of stability which they may not find any time soon.
Consider everything that I mentioned in the beginning of this post. Children in foster care have little to no control with what is happening to them. They also may consider chaos normal. So when these students act out in class it could be because they feel like it is the only way to exercise control or it could be that they consider it to be normal.
The best thing you can do is try to stay calm. I know it is hard sometimes. I have been in a room of 30 students where one has just pushed that last button, but breathe. Find a way to sit down and have a conversation about acceptable and unacceptable behaviors with the student. He or she may not even be aware that something like yelling across the room is unacceptable behavior.
Explain cause and effect relationships when it comes to behavior. If you do this, than this will happen. Make sure you are very clear as to why the behavior would lead to that effect. Also point out what can be earned through appropriate behaviors. You get a lot more out of a kid if they can see the positive effects of their actions as opposed to always being told the negatives. Give them goals to work towards. I have created goals as simple as, get one more positive note than negative by the end of the day. Make sure it is an obtainable goal. As the student starts to improve, make the goal a little harder.
Finally, give the student some choices. Even silly choices can make a big difference. Remember, these kids have very little that they feel like they can control. Give them some of that control back. At home I often make it as simple as giving them two options and letting them choose one. When students feel like their voices are being heard and considered important, then they tend to do better.
I do realize that most of what I mentioned here are things that teachers already do because we never know what kind of background our students are coming from. What I am hoping to do is to raise awareness of the special circumstances that many foster families face. School is one of those things that foster parents recognize is an important part of their child’s life, but at the same time it often becomes hard to give the time and focus that school deserves when there are so many other broken pieces being picked up at the same time. The best advice I can give is have patience and keep communication lines open. Foster parents want to do the best they possibly can for the children in their care and honestly, sometimes that means homework is skipped because hugs and conversation were just more important that night.