Mental Health

Supporting Students Navigating the Foster Care System

Teachers can provide resources and stability to students in foster care to help ensure that school feels safe and inclusive for them.

January 25, 2024
RichLegg / iStock

The high school principal welcomes a gymnasium of rising ninth graders and their proud families. Among the families, our group is the largest and most diverse. We are also the loudest. For us, composed of a dozen children, aunties, cousins, foster parents, and court advocates, our common point of connection is Zaharia, a 14-year-old girl who is stepping up to high school. (Zaharia is a pseudonym. To further protect confidentiality, the details represent a composite of several youths I have worked with who are navigating the foster care system.)

The crowd doesn’t know the trauma she has lived through, nor do they know about this tenuous web of care we have woven around her in response. As Zaharia grins back at us from the gymnasium floor, that day two years ago when she entered foster care feels far away. 

Zaharia is one of the nearly 400,000 children and youth who are navigating foster services in the United States. I came to know and love her, and many students like her, through my work as a teacher, school leader, and Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). As a teacher, you have already or will likely welcome young people who are navigating foster services into your classroom. Here are some ways to further support those students.

Supporting Students Who Are Navigating Foster Care

For children in care, positive relationships with teachers often play an essential, consistent role in their lives. These relationships are also important to your students’ families. Teachers can design their classrooms to reflect a commitment to family diversity.

Commit to creating a sense of belonging. Invite families, in all their forms, to your classroom events. Foster and kinship families are often pulled in many different directions. Even if someone can’t attend, everyone appreciates having their family included. For some students, their family composition can also change during the school year. Keep reaching out to connect. 

Practice instructional intentionality. Be thoughtful about your assignments related to family. For example, assignments that ask students to create a family tree, report on the day they were born, or interview specific family members can be difficult and triggering. Students often don’t have access to the information requested by these types of assignments. The information they do have can also highlight very difficult and traumatic times in their family histories. Instead, you can ask students to speak with an elder they respect, share a tradition from their family, or create a vision board about what family means to them.

Audit for representation. Use language that includes the many different kinds of families in your classroom. For example, use “families” instead of “parents” and “doughnuts with grownups” instead of “muffins with mom.” Audit your classroom resources for representation of family diversity, including foster and adoptive families. These book lists feature characters with foster and adoptive characters:

Learn more about Foster Care 

Children who are navigating foster care often live in uncertainty. During their time in care, 45 percent live in three or more placements. Children may have case workers, social workers, juvenile officers, and court advocates in and out of their homes. They may have meetings, appointments, and hearings in court, many of which are scheduled during the school day. Below are three commitments you can make to support students in care.

Give grace and time. Children who are navigating foster care are in the custody of the state. This means that medical treatments, travel, and even some decisions about school have to be court approved. When sending home permission slips, information about interstate or overnight travel opportunities, or other forms that require guardian approval, give families ample time to respond.

Connect with resources. Familiarize yourself with the organizations in your community who support foster youth and/or other vulnerable child populations. These organizations, such as CASA/GAL offices, can offer specific and material resources and information about supports for you, your students, and their families.

Offer postsecondary support. If you are a high school teacher, it is important to know that students who are navigating foster services may need specialized support for their postsecondary planning. Fourteen percent of children in care are 15 years old or older and at risk of aging out of the system, often without adequate support. Nationwide, only about half of youth raised in foster care have the support needed to finish high school.

Being purposeful about connecting students to financial aid, scholarships, and work-study programs can mean the difference between being able to attend postsecondary education and not being able to attend. Walk students through this process, and fill out the forms together.

Safe Classrooms can be Healing Classrooms

Over 40 percent of school-age children in foster care face educational challenges. Many, if not all, of these are rooted in chronic trauma. There is no standard timetable for healing, and change is often incremental. Your positive and consistent relationships with students are the most important factor in establishing a safe and healing classroom environment.

Seek to understand. Challenging behaviors may be rooted in past (or current) trauma. Remember, all behavior is communication. Seek to understand what a student is communicating through their behavior, and respond to the student, not their behavior. For example, students may be communicating a need for connection, or feeling unsafe or vulnerable. Understanding what the behavior is communicating allows you to respond compassionately to the student. 

Identify allies. Partner with the adults in your building who have experience and great relationships with your specific students. For example, a conversation with a coach can turn the day around for a soccer player. Processing with a home-school coordinator can help a young person feel heard and affirmed. 

Teachers are mandated reporters. Still another critical way you keep children safe is by reporting abuse and neglect. As placements change, we want to make sure that children are safe and cared for. If you suspect that a child is being abused or neglected, you are required to report that, always and without delay.

Celebrate strengths. Celebrate kids. Today, Zaharia is thriving in high school. She is especially thankful for her art and science teachers, both of whom have taken the time to get to know her and reach out to her foster family. She is excited to start an engineering block next semester and for the upcoming ninth-grade dance. Zaharia’s story reminds us that all children deserve to find this kind of belonging and safety in their classrooms. 

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