Foster students are being left behind—educational leaders can change that

One of the biggest challenges for foster care students is the various trauma they are likely to experience and silently endure throughout their lives. 
Stacie Pettit
Stacie Pettit
Stacie Pettit is an associate professor of teacher education at Augusta University.

From the K12 to the postsecondary level, foster children face many challenges and risks that harm their academic success. Roughly half of foster children graduate from high school nationally, and less than five percent graduate from a four-year college. Foster students are also three times more likely to drop out of high school than other low-income children in general.

With roughly 400,000 children in foster care in the U.S. today, too many children are being left behind. Educational leaders, administrators and decision-makers must become directly involved to protect their journey. But to do that, they must first understand what challenges these students face and then take specific steps to address them.

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How foster care students’ struggles avoid the common eye

One of the biggest challenges for foster care students is the various trauma they are likely to experience and silently endure throughout their lives.

While the initial separation from their biological or legal parents is one of the first main points of trauma that almost every foster child experiences, the factors that lead up to them can be equally damaging. They often experience abuse, neglect or parental incapacity due to substance dependence or disabilities. There are also harmful effects when foster children are frequently moved to different homes, which can occur for various reasons, many of which are systemic to the foster care system itself.

Research shows trauma and associated conditions such as PTSD and C-PTSD dramatically affect educational outcomes. Additionally, the lack of placement stability isn’t just emotionally harmful; it harms children’s cognition and brain development. Other issues commonly impair foster children’s cognitive functions, such as unmet nutritional needs.

Despite the intense personal struggles these students may face, many schools lack systems for tracking foster students. Even though someone at a particular school usually knows which students are foster children, this information may not be transparent or shared between administrators, counselors and teachers. As a result, teachers often don’t even realize that they have foster students in their classes, which can prevent these students from getting the support they very much need.

How educational leaders and administrators can help

Foster students need support if they’re going to have a fair shot at education and life. Schools can make the greatest impact by implementing systematic adjustments rather than relying on teachers, who are already overwhelmed with daily duties. This is where leaders, administrators, and decision-makers can make a tremendous difference.

Three specific actions can make a tremendous difference to the education and lives of foster students.

As mentioned, most schools lack systems for tracking incoming foster students. Without such systems, schools usually fall back on informal methods of keeping tabs on their foster students, which generally occurs in an uncoordinated, haphazard way. Without a designated point of contact, teachers, professors and administrators can lose sight of who their foster students are. Putting such tracking systems and designated points of contact in place would go a long way toward addressing the challenges that foster students face.

Next, leaders of institutions can implement programs and training to help teachers and professors become proficient in trauma-informed practices. These are extremely beneficial and efficient because the same trauma-sensitive practices work well for a broad range of traumas that foster students are exposed to, and they have the added bonus of being helpful for working with any student with any kind of trauma. Examples of trauma-informed practices applicable for foster students include creating a sense of safety in the classroom, being careful about language or assignments that might be triggering (e.g., “talk about your parents” or “family tree”), being flexible with due dates, and giving students a measure of control through various ways such as letting them choose where they want to sit.

Just as teachers at a specific institution may undergo trauma-informed training, states can integrate trauma-informed training in teacher education programs. States could also provide DFCS (Division of Family & Children Services) caseworkers and CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) workers with what they need to better serve the foster children they are assigned to.

This doesn’t cover the full range of actions educational leaders can take to mitigate the foster students’ challenges, but it is a good place to start to help our children. Creating a healthy and productive society means ensuring these students can get the same educational opportunities as their peers. By putting tracking systems into place, providing teachers and professors with trauma-informed training, and advocating for better local and state-level policies, educational leaders can make a critical difference in the lives of these students.


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