Mental Health

Supporting Students Living in Foster Care

Many students in foster care have experienced trauma. You may not know who they are, but these ideas will help you support them—and they’re good for all students.

August 30, 2019
LumiNola / iStock

In the U.S. today, more than 400,000 children are in foster care at any given time, and they have a high likelihood of having experienced neglect or physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, according to Jill Rowland, director of the Alliance for Children’s Rights.

Rowland told me that the following statistics on students in foster care in my home state of California are representative of the nation as a whole:

  • By third grade, 83 percent of students in foster care have repeated a grade.
  • The dropout rate for students in foster care is 31 percent, compared to 10 percent for all students.
  • Only 52 percent of foster youth graduate high school, compared to 84 percent of all students.
  • More than 70 percent of foster youth aged 7 and above have experienced trauma and/or exhibit mental health symptoms.

“Teachers can identify signs of trauma and trauma triggers by looking for fight, flight, or freeze behaviors,” explains Rowland. “Fight behaviors really mean any large or explosive behaviors that don’t seem to line up with whatever was the stimulus or trigger.” An example of a fight behavior would be screaming or cursing at a teacher when they ask the student to answer a math problem. Flight behaviors can look like a student checking out, falling asleep in class, always keeping their hoodie up, or hiding under a desk or table. Freeze behaviors can be a student appearing confused when spoken to, or staring blankly when asked a question.

An essential goal for classroom teachers is to create a classroom environment with few potential trauma triggers. According to the U.S. Department of Education, “A positive pre-K–12 education experience has the potential to be a powerful counterweight to the abuse, neglect, separation, impermanence, and other barriers these vulnerable students experience.”

Supportive Classroom Practices

When I taught at a public high school in a high poverty part of Los Angeles, I had dozens of students in foster care come through my classroom. Some would be with me for a whole school year, others for just a few months or even weeks. I often felt ill equipped to support them.

What can we do as educators? In my conversation with Rowland, she emphasized that when teachers are assisting struggling students like those in foster care, it’s critical to cultivate and maintain a comfortable and safe classroom community. 

Creating a sense of safety: Give students additional space when they need it—for example, allow them to leave a group they’re working with and sit elsewhere to finish a task independently if they need space.

Giving students a sense of control of their environment: This primarily comes in the form of choices such as asking students where they’d like to sit or how they’d like to complete an assignment.

Working to ensure that students feel connected: Check in with students often so they feel cared for and seen. Rowland recommends the 2x10 method: The teacher spends two minutes, for 10 school days in a row, simply talking to a struggling student about anything of interest to the student—it could be sports or music, for example. Or just ask how the student’s day is going. These conversations should not be about schoolwork, homework, home life, or any other stressor, unless the student brings it up.

Use this method to build better relationships with your students who struggle the most, or who give you the hardest time by repeatedly testing boundaries.

Teaching self-regulation skills: Teach students deep breathing and meditation or mindfulness exercises, and allow them to take time out to use these techniques when needed.

There are a couple of other simple things we can do as educators. First, use the term “caregivers” along with “parents” in your classroom. This is inclusive and works for all of your students who are not experiencing a home situation with parents. They’ll notice this small but powerful change.

Also, you won’t always know if you have a child in foster care in your classroom, but you can just assume that you do and act accordingly—the ideas above are good for all students. Most school districts receive a weekly notification concerning students in foster care and then decide who needs to know a student’s foster care status for legitimate educational purposes. “I think that arguably teachers do need to know who their foster youth students are so that they address their needs,” says Rowland, “but that is ultimately a district decision.”

When a Student Shares Personal Details With You

I had students confide in me that they were in foster care, and I had hunches about others who did not share that with me. According to Rowland, there are several points to keep in mind when a student does share their foster care status with you.

  • If or when students feel safe and choose to disclose foster care status, it must be on their terms. Make sure the student has a private space to speak with you, and keep in mind that this information is confidential.
  • Don’t ask questions about trauma. Rowland says, “It’s important to remember that appropriate interventions don’t require the child telling their trauma history, which can often retraumatize a student, but rather can focus on helping a child feel safe."
  • Be empathic. Use statements like, “That must be so horrible for you,” “I’m so sorry you are going through that,” and “What can I do to help?” Asking if they need anything—clothing, food, or school supplies—is a signal that you care about their well-being.

Supporting Foster Youth as They Exit the System

About 20,000 students exit foster care each year—a process also called emancipation or aging out. If you’re teaching high school juniors or seniors who have discussed their foster care status with you, you can guide them to a resource called the Foster Care Transition Toolkit and offer time during lunch or before or after school to read through it together. This toolkit is intended to help the students access the information and resources they need to begin their transition to young adulthood. It’s also a resource for caring and supportive adults in their lives so they are best informed during this transition.

“Teachers often have a profound impact on the students they connect with, and that is especially true in the turbulent lives of foster youth,” explains Rowland. “Many of the youth that I work with talk about the teachers and other adults at school that they felt cared for them and who inspired them to pursue their education.”

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