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The face of foster care.

Children in foster care need someone on their side. Teachers able to spot their special problems and intervene appropriately can often be these kids' best advocates.

Approximately 500,000 children and youth are in foster care on any given day. Most of these children attend public schools. Who are they? One of these children is Roger. He came into his foster family as an extremely neglected 8-year-old. He had attended school only sporadically, and he could not read. The family immediately enrolled him in a summer reading program at a nearby college, and because of the progress he made, they decided to enroll him in the 2nd grade at the local public school.

The mother called the school explaining Roger's situation, noting that he would continue in the college reading program during the school year. When she took Roger to school for the first day, the principal welcomed him by - yes - putting him in a room by himself and giving him a reading test.

Several weeks later, Roger came home and requested a photograph of the family's baby to take to school. He chose a picture from the family album. A week later, the family went to Back-to-School Night and noticed a bulletin board with the heading "When We Were Little." The picture was perched right above Roger's name.

Another child is Chrissy, age 13. She repeatedly received an F in gym because she would not dress out. No one would buy the explanation that because she had been a victim of sexual abuse, she found this too painful to do.

Then there is Leslie, who came into foster care at age 10. Her grandmother, with whom she lived, was hospitalized with a terminal illness. Leslie's life had been such that she had never had a friend over, gone to another child's home, or been involved in any extracurricular activities. During the time of her grandmother's illness and death, and Leslie's own journey toward an adoptive placement, her grades (which were formerly excellent) plummeted. The reason: she would not work cooperatively in groups.

Wayne is another child who fared poorly in school. He entered foster care as a 14-year-old, having suffered years of physical abuse and belittling by an alcoholic father. Wayne constantly picked fights with younger students, and was suspended and finally expelled. The administration was not interested in his history, maintaining that he was old enough to "get it together."

Common Problems, Uncommon Causes

Foster children exhibit behavior problems that are not unlike those of children living with their biological or adoptive families. Among their most common problems are falling behind academically, failing classes, failing to do homework, cheating, and disrupting class. Or they may be picked on by classmates, develop school phobia, or engage in truancy. Although these problems are also found among children not in foster care, the reasons behind them are different. Therefore, intervention must be different.

Falling behind academically. The average foster child remains in care just over three years and is moved from foster family to foster family an average of three times. If the child is of school age, this means at least three moves in the school system. This is a major reason the majority of foster children are behind academically. In addition, these children expend so much energy on taking care of themselves and worrying about their absent families that they often have little energy left for schoolwork. Foster children are overrepresented among those children who require special services. Yet many do not stay in one place long enough to go through the testing protocol and receive these services.

Failing to do homework. Homework problems occur for many of the same reasons as academic delays. In addition, these children usually do not have good study skills. Because many of them received no help at home, they don't know how to ask their foster family for help.

Disrupting class. Many children have learned to be aggressive in their relationships with others. They have learned to be disruptive to gain attention. Often they were removed from their original home because they were not safe there; they were abused, neglected, or both. Their original families were dysfunctional and chaotic; and they probably received attention only when they, too, were chaotic or disruptive. Combine these behaviors with the fact that they are behind academically, and foster children are apt to misbehave because they would rather be "bad" than "dumb."

Failing courses. Unfortunately, for many foster children, the experiences they have endured in their biological families and those they encounter in the foster care system are so overwhelming that failure in school seems inconsequential by comparison. Most foster children blame themselves for their removal from their homes, and failure at family life sets the pattern for failure elsewhere. Further, because these children move so often, they sometimes are placed in the wrong grade or program.

Being picked on. Foster children are different. They live with people they may not know very well. These families do not receive much money to dress and equip the children. So foster children often look different. Foster families cannot always help the children in school, nor can they always provide the typical outside activities of schoolchildren. Not surprisingly, foster children often lack appropriate social skills and find it difficult to make new friends. To compound these problems, when other children find out that foster children do not live with their biological parents, they ask questions that foster children often cannot and do not want to answer.

Cheating (and lying). If a child is falling behind or failing, has low self-esteem, and yet wants to please a new set of parents or be good so he or she can go home (remember they often blame themselves for being removed and so feel that going home is in their control), that child may resort to cheating. This is true for many children in foster care. In fact, many of these children learned to cheat and lie in their previous environments.

Fearing school. Many foster children were removed from their families while in school. They therefore associate school with fear and anxiety. Further, some children simply cannot bear another separation from their foster family - even to go to school. They may also be afraid of failing or having their low self-esteem validated because they cannot keep up with the class. They may fear a subject that is especially difficult or a teacher with unrealistic expectations. They may dread having classmates pick on them. Foster children, for all these reasons, are over-represented among children who suffer school phobia.

Engaging in truancy. Children who leave home for school and never get there, or who get to school and skip out, may do so because of school phobia. In addition, many children are in foster care because their families kept them home, perhaps to watch younger siblings, to do housework, or even to be sexually exploited. So these children have learned to avoid school. Some leave the premises to meet old friends or to try to go home. Whatever the reason, the biological family almost certainly never valued school, and the foster child sees no immediate need to be there.

"Get It Started!"

Understanding why foster children have these school-related problems is only half the battle. The next question is: What can the school do to help them? First, teachers and other staff members must establish a good working relationship with both the foster parents and the child's case-worker. For reasons of confidentiality, teachers cannot get all the background information, but they should be able to get enough details to help the child in the classroom. Following are three ways to intervene. The teacher and the foster family can work together on each of them.

Develop reasonable expectations. Both teachers and parents need to have appropriate expectations for behavior and academic achievement. These children may not make huge strides while they are in a foster family or in a particular classroom. Enhancing their self-esteem, giving them small successes, and teaching them problem-solving skills are the most useful goals to have.

Consider Chrissy, the 13-year-old who had been sexually abused. When she came into her foster family, the parents asked her what kinds of things she'd like to do and learn while in their care. What were her goals? She replied that she wanted to make all As in school. This was not reasonable, given her past school history. The parents and Chrissy scaled down that goal to raising her grades in two subjects. The parents enlisted the aid of the teachers who taught these courses, as well as other children in the family.

Everyone had a role to play: The teachers were to make sure that Chrissy wrote down her homework assignments; Chrissy was to remember to bring her books home; the foster parents agreed to help her with writing assignments; and an older sister agreed to help her study for tests. Chrissy did raise her grades in the two classes, and in another class as well. She gained more than academic content, however. She developed good study habits, she learned that she could ask others for help, and she experienced success.

Be an advocate. Foster children need someone on their side. With or without the foster parents, the teacher can help a child psychologically and emotionally, as well as academically. The teacher can make sure the child is placed in the appropriate grade or program and has coursework that is developmentally appropriate, irrespective of the grade level. The teacher can teach the child how to solve problems, how to study, and how to be organized.

In the social arena, the teacher can teach the child how to ask for help, how to value himself or herself, how to make friends, and how to answer classmates' personal questions about foster care without divulging specific circumstances.

If the child appears to have special needs, the teacher can make sure the child receives proper testing to diagnose those needs and how best to meet them. The teacher can also refer the child to the school psychologist or guidance counselor or to outside counseling. Where foster children are concerned, people tend to postpone making referrals or going ahead with testing because they don't know how long the children will be there. Get it started!

Don't hesitate to involve the foster family. Educators tend to ignore the family because it is not the legal entity responsible for the child. But these people have the child in their home 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They need to be involved in the child's schoolwork. The teacher can help the foster family figure out how to help the child at home, outline realistic expectations, and negotiate with the family and child how to reach appropriate goals. This partnership can go a long way toward helping a foster child cope with unsettled family and school situations.

Make assignments with sensitivity. The teacher can make sure that assignments and class activities do not make matters worse. Remember Roger, the 8-year-old who passed off the family baby picture as his own? Imagine how you would feel looking at your name beneath someone's else's picture all day. Keep in mind that projects involving family and individual history, including family trees and genetics, may present real problems for foster children. Have alternatives, and make these alternatives every bit as meaningful as the original project.

Take the time, too, to select books and other class materials that represent children who do not live with their biological families, as well as those who do. In recent years there has been an emphasis on multicultural representation. This needs to be extended to a variety of family constellations and backgrounds.

There are many faces in the classroom. Teachers can discern differences based on how children look and how they act. Foster children, however, have specific reasons for looking and behaving as they do. Teachers can be the most powerful force in their lives. Recent research into why some abused and neglected children made it and others didn't has revealed that those who overcame their early experiences and went on to become successful adults had at least one thing in common: a significant adult in their lives. And, many, many times, that person was a teacher.

Lynne Steyer Noble, a foster mother herself, trained foster parents and case-workers for the Center for Child and Family Studies at the University of South Carolina and for the South Carolina Department of Social Services. She is currently working with two early childhood programs in a Belfast, Northern Ireland, primary school, part of a cross-community peace and reconciliation program. She will return to the United States in August. Until then, she can be reached by e-mail: noblebelfast
COPYRIGHT 1997 Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Noble, Lynne Steyer
Publication:Educational Leadership
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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