That awful walk to the principal’s office. Every child hates it. But so does the parent. It brings back bad memories, especially if the child is going to the same school the parent went to years ago. Parent-teacher conferences are also something that a parent dreads if their child is having problems at school. For a foster parent, this may be new territory. Perhaps your biological child never had issues in school. Perhaps they excelled and always got straight A’s. Perhaps they were always on the Dean’s List and honor roll. Perhaps they always played sports and the only reason for being in the principal’s office was because they were assisting the principal with a project. You thought you were a good parent. Then you decided to become a foster parent and all that changed. Now you doubt your parenting skills and begin to wonder if you’re a good parent at all. Or maybe the problems at school aren’t behavioral. Don’t despair! There is hope!
Challenges to Traditional Learning for Foster Children
What are some of the challenges of fostering a child who is having problems at school? Well, the issues can run the gamut. These issues go beyond not being able to see the board. They can range from academic difficulties to behavior issues to not even showing up in school. First, we’ll look at the challenges, then we’ll look at some solutions. Of course, not every student is the same, so not every solution will fit perfectly. Consult with your social worker before implementing any change.
– Learning Disabilities.
– ADHD. Nearly every foster child is labeled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This is characterized by a lack of focus, not being able to sit still, daydreaming, going from one fleeting thought to another, and being described as “fidgety.” Many educators are frustrated with foster children who have ADHD because of disruptions or outbursts in the classroom. Kids with ADHD need one-on-one attention in the classroom. Many doctors automatically prescribe medication to foster kids with ADHD in order to help them cope.
– Dyslexia. Dyslexia is a learning disability that affects the way a foster child reads. They do not see what we see on the written page. They sometimes see words backward and sometimes write words backward as well.
– Speech Disorders. Many kids in care have speech disorders. Perhaps they have speech impediments and need speech therapy. Having a speech disorder affects other things in your life such as the way you talk, the way you read, and possibly the way you eat. Obtaining a speech therapist for a foster child with this is vital.
– Developmental disabilities.
– ASD. Autism spectrum disorder refers to a continuum of disorders that describe how a child perceives his world, his peers, his caregivers, and the world around him. ASD also includes what used to be called Asperger’s syndrome which has some traits of autism. Children with ASD are usually very bright and succeed in school at a high level but may have difficulties socially. Foster children with autism may have a very difficult time in school. Children with autism can be very inward, concentrating only on themselves, or they can obsess over one person to make that person the center of their attention. They can also obsess over objects, fictional characters, or imaginary persons. Some children with ASD can be aggressive if their daily routine is disturbed. Therefore, kids with ASD need a calm and consistent environment in order to succeed in school each day.
– FASD. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is caused when a woman drinks alcohol while pregnant. Alcohol has a detrimental effect on an unborn baby and causes birth defects that are irreversible and lifelong. Physical traits, as well as emotional, social, and behavioral effects, can cause frustration in school. Foster kids with FASD have difficulty learning, focusing, and need more one-on-one attention in school than other students.
– Sensory Processing Disorders. Perhaps your foster kid does not have ADHD or autism. Perhaps he simply has a sensory processing disorder. Sensory issues affect foster children because some of them have been neglected severely including being left alone for long periods of time. Whereas, normal sounds, textures, and light that wouldn’t affect normal kids, students who have sensory issues have a hard time in traditional classrooms with lots of kids.
– Other Challenges.
– Bullying. Bullying has existed since the dawn of time. Everyone has experienced bullying. Every parent worries about whether their child will get picked on in school. Some parents spend lots of time preparing their child for the realities of bullying. But for foster parents, the reality may be that their foster child is the one who instigates antagonism at school. He may be the bully. There may be many reasons why this is so, including the fact that your foster child may have been bullied and is just returning the favor. Another reason may be because he was abused at home and learned how to bully at home. Regardless, bullying is an act of power and control. Perhaps, your foster child is just seeking a reaction from his other peer to gain negative attention. If not curbed, it could turn into real anti-social behavior and your foster child could find himself suspended or expelled.
– Fighting. Aggressive behavior is frowned upon in school. Your foster child may have learned to fight as a survival technique. He may have seen fighting in his home and is simply modeling what he has seen. Or he may have been taught to solve all of his problems with physical violence. Or your foster child may have a disorder like ASD or ADHD (see above) that gives him a tendency toward low impulse control. Whatever the case, your foster child will find himself in the principal’s office more than once if he cannot get control over his emotions.
– Truancy. Skipping or “ditching” school has always been a problem going all the way back to the Little Rascals days! In the old days, “truancy officers” used to patrol the streets looking for kids that should have been in school. Missing school affects grades and frustrates teachers and parents alike. Foster parents need to find the reason behind the truancy and find ways to motivate the child to attend school more regularly.
– Trauma-Informed Education. Let’s face it. Many educators have a preconceived idea about foster children. Whether positive or negative, that label sticks before they ever get to know that foster child. But if educators understood that foster children have difficulties not because they are foster children, but because they have experienced trauma, then that would make a world of difference.
– Understanding Trauma. Think back to the most traumatic day in your childhood. Now, think about what your school day would be like the next day. Would you be able to perform at your very best? What if no one ever asked you what was wrong? What if life at school went on as normal, all the while your life was in turmoil? That’s what it is like for a foster child in school. What if you had to change schools in the middle of the school year without notice? Foster children must navigate many new things: new schools, new homes, new foods, new neighborhoods, new cultures. All the while, we expect them to get straight A’s in school and to be happy and flexible with all the changes! It’s unfair. Change is traumatic for everyone, but especially children, who have neither a frame of reference nor any coping mechanisms for dealing with such change. That’s why foster children act out in school.
– Understanding the Brain. Noted psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Perry said there is a link between trauma and the human brain. If we were to look at an MRI of a “normal” child’s brain and a foster child’s brain, we would see huge differences. Why? Because a foster child has undergone abuse, neglect, and abandonment. This trauma actually has a physical effect on the brain. As a result, foster children are delayed in their development in every area, including intellectually and academically. So, while many students are near or at their grade level, students in foster care may be below their academic grade. We need to compare the level of trauma a student has undergone rather than compare grades.
– Understanding the Child’s Strengths. The traditional approach to kids with problems at school is to focus on the issue and develop a solution to stop the issue. More modern approaches now focus on strength-based solutions. In other words, if a foster kid is fighting in school, rather than labeling him as aggressive, we need to say, “He knows how to defend himself.” If your foster kids are encouraging others to have bad behavior, we need to say, “He has leadership potential!” We also need to ask why the child fights that particular day and look at each incident separately. Was someone bullying him? Was someone bullying a younger sibling of his? Was someone making fun of his mother, who he is attached to but no longer lives with? Putting ourselves in the foster child’s shoes goes a long way in helping them. If we can see their strengths, we can help them with their deficits.
– IEPs. It may be helpful to have your foster child evaluated and have a team develop an Individual Education Plan, or IEP, for him/her. An IEP is a special plan, set by the school district, that makes modifications to children with learning disabilities. An IEP team may meet on a monthly basis to track the progress and make changes if necessary. The IEP team may include the teacher, the teacher’s aide, the foster parent, the guidance counselor, the school nurse, the social worker, and others.
– Academic. There are at least two different types of IEPs. One is an academic IEP. This type of IEP may make modifications such as using an untimed version of a test during a classic timed test, limited homework, no homework, or a four-day school week. They may also be graded on a curve.
– Behavioral. An IEP can also be developed for behavioral needs. Foster children with this type of IEP may be assigned to a self-contained classroom where all subjects including lunch are all in one room. The foster child may also be assigned an aide on a one-to-one basis to help them throughout the day.
– Change of Teachers. If your foster child is having problems at school, you may want to consider changing teachers. Many parents do not want to cause waves, but a change in teachers may work wonders. A teacher who understands trauma, is patient, meets the child where they are, and sees the foster child’s strengths, rather than just the deficits, can sharply increase your child’s performance. A teacher who can be that child’s calm in the midst of a storm may be the perfect solution.
– Change of Schools. You may also consider switching schools that better meet the child’s educational needs. If you have a school that specializes in special needs students, this may be the answer.
– Home-Based Schooling. For the most part, foster children cannot be homeschooled. However, in some states, if your foster child is having difficulty in school, an exception can be made. For example, in Arizona, computer-based schooling is available for foster students, as long as it is approved by their case manager and is written into their case plan. This works especially well for high school students who are motivated to learn but have a difficult time socializing in school.
– Delaying Kindergarten. You may choose to hold back your foster child in kindergarten if he is not socially/emotionally equipped for school yet. It is more important that the child fares well socially rather than academically. Check with your social worker.
Being number one in his class should not be a foster parent’s expectation with a foster child who is having problems at school. Social and emotional growth should be equally as important. Having a foster parent who will advocate for him, having a teacher that will be there for him regardless of his behavior, and having a school environment that understands him as a unique individual will go a long way in having school “success.”
Derek Williams is an adoption social worker and has been in the field of child welfare and behavioral health since 2006, where he has assisted families in their adoption journey. He and his wife started their adoption journey in 1993 and have eight children, six of whom are adopted. His adopted children are all different ethnicities including East Indian, Jamaican and Native American. He loves traveling with his family, especially to the East Coast and to the West Coast and is an avid NY Mets fan! Foster care and adoption are his passions and callings for Derek, and he is pleased to share his experiences with others who are like-minded.