As an educator working with foster youths, supporting and encouraging students is essential to my work and one of my biggest passions. Undoubtedly, the education system in this country has struggled to create equitable spaces for students. From issues with funding to little focus on students in poverty, both students and educational institutions lack adequate support. The need for educational reforms within the public education system is dire and stands in the way of learning and growth, affecting the overall positive educational experiences and outcomes. This is especially true for young people in the foster care system.
More than 60,000 of the country’s 437,000 children in foster care are in California. Foster youths need the love, support and acknowledgment from their teachers and school communities to thrive in the classroom and beyond.
Though I have continued deep reflection and adaptation in my own teaching pedagogy, my work with youths will always provide me opportunities to grow and transform my teaching. Here are some takeaways I wish I had known prior to working with students in foster care.
Structure and stability
Youths in foster care are more likely to be chronically absent (miss 10% or more days of school) than other underserved youths, due to home placement changes, school transfers, court hearings and parental visitation.
One of my former students once shared that she changed schools and group homes multiple times due to bullying. While it was apparent the student didn’t think much of the moves, it’s alarming that foster youths can become so desensitized to the constant displacement and lack of a typical structured school experience that the average student has.
Without support and guidance, foster youths’ can have a hard time creating the structure to succeed both in and out of the classroom. Having a clear structure (but still a fun and engaging classroom) is just what all students need, especially those in foster care. I wish I had known the number of times students switch schools and homes — and the mental and emotional impact on foster youths’ educational experience. Their tenacity at any age to adapt to different environments affects their time as a student and their outlook on life.
Students don’t always say or show what they’re thinking. But the classroom might be one of the only places that provide the structure and stability that youths need to feel a sense of control. Having control helps them learn, create, explore and recognize their abilities as a student outside of their circumstances. We as educators must provide spaces that are inclusive to the needs of all students alike.
Rapport and reassurance
Abuse, neglect and other adverse childhood experiences are common for foster youths. One analysis notes that “half of all kids in foster care have endured four or more adverse childhood experiences.” These situations can affect students’ health.
My work has opened me to the unique and challenging experiences my students encounter. Through the adversity and hopelessness that can come out of every strenuous situation, having someone to genuinely lean on and listen to you is essential to the lives of foster youths. This goes much further than having students be eager to share their stories with their teachers. We need to give them a platform to be fearless and build trust with their community. They need to have communities they can lean on both in and out of the classroom. Teachers can help through short stories, check-ins during lunch or after school, or encouraging them to try a sport or a team-building event.
Support and strength
I wish I had known much earlier about the various stakeholders involved in these young people’s lives, such as social workers, school counselors, foster parents, and even academic coaches. I also wish I’d known about the different resources and local organizations that support youths academically and personally. As educators, being “just another adult” will not cut it with foster youths. The intentionality to want to get to know our students beyond their circumstances, to want to work to connect and find the best resources available to them, and the desire to want to see our students succeed no matter what their journey looks like is vital to our role. By building rapport and learning about foster youths, we take the first step in building the reassurance that we are not just another person in their life, but are a constant support and an adult who genuinely cares.
The societal stigma of being in foster care and the misconception that such children do not care about school is largely due to the lack of knowledge and awareness of the student’s life story. Why should they care if we don’t give them a reason to?
What makes our classrooms and learning environments inviting and inclusive to all students? How are we being mindful of the curriculum we are presenting? What spaces do our students have to speak up and have agency in the classroom? How much do we really know about our youths and what are the necessary steps we will take to do so? These are questions that I encourage all teachers to consider as they work to better understand and support youths who have experienced the foster care system.
Ashley Tactac is a former ninth-grade English teacher who now works with high-school and post-secondary foster youths at Pivotal, an organization in San Jose, Calif., that supports youths through education and employment.
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