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How Youth in Foster Care Can Achieve School Success

foster care school success

Youth who have experienced foster care face greater academic challenges compared to their peers who have not. Multiple school and home transitions are traumatizing, and may cause youth to feel disconnected from their school community and education.

Why Students May Struggle in School

Dr. Jacqueline Huscroft-D'Angelo

Dr. Jacqueline Huscroft-D’Angelo

“There are a number of reasons why these students struggle in school,” says Jacqueline Huscroft-D’Angelo, Ph.D., MS, MS, BS, Research Associate Professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, College of Education and Human Sciences, Special Education and Communication Disorders Department.

Dr. D’Angelo cites factors that contribute to poor academic outcomes for youth in foster care, including:

  • Multiple foster care placements. With each placement and school change, youth can fall one and a half grade levels behind in core skills they need to excel. Lack of consistency and constant changes cause these youth to miss out on forming relationships and connections with peers and teachers, receiving support to improve academic performance, and enriching their school experience with extracurricular activities.
  • Competing priorities. For youth who have experienced foster care, other concerns such as their safety and wellbeing can take priority over educational goals. “Unfortunately, education may be a lower priority based on what is going on in the child or teen’s life outside of school,” says Dr. D’Angelo.
  • Lack of support from caregivers. Based on their own experiences, caregivers may not prioritize the importance of academic performance or promote academic achievement in the home.

Students Could Face Devastating Outcomes Without Additional Support

fostering educational successAs a result of ongoing challenges and difficulties, middle school and high school students are more likely to have poor academic performance, experience school failure, and drop out. Just over half of youth in foster care received their high school degree in 2020, and only 3% will continue to higher education and earn a college degree.

Youth who don’t graduate from high school face poor overall life outcomes, including:

  • Homelessness
  • Limited employment options; higher unemployment
  • Physical and mental health challenges
  • Substance abuse
  • Early parenthood 

“We have to figure out how to keep these kids in school,” states Dr. D’Angelo. “With the right support, we can help them do better in school and feel better about themselves as learners. We can help improve their lives through education.”

Signs a Student is Struggling

foster care

Caregivers should be aware of certain behaviors by age group and be prepared to seek help immediately.

Behaviors to watch for in younger children:

  • Trouble engaging in learning and staying on task
  • Excessive crying
  • Not completing schoolwork or homework
  • Acting out/aggression
  • Impulse control issues
  • Attention-seeking behavior: frequently out of their seat, shouting, disturbing other students
  • Difficulty getting along with peers

Behaviors to watch for in older youth:

  • Isolating from others/withdrawing from friends and family
  • Tardiness to class
  • Skipping classes
  • Failing grades
  • Not completing schoolwork and/or homework

“Kids in foster care don’t want to be stigmatized or to be pitied by teachers and other kids,” Dr. D’Angelo explains. “They want to be treated the same as other kids – and challenged academically, too.” 

How Caregivers Can Support Youth in Their Care 

fostering educational success

Caregivers must make education a priority and stress how education can help youth improve their lives.

  • Encourage students to get involved in school activities to promote connectedness. “This helps them connect to the school environment,” Dr. D’Angelo explains. ”Youth in foster care may feel disconnected to school due to frequent upheaval and transition.”
  • Understand basic school procedures and expectations. Examples include checking homework, utilizing the school’s parent portal to keep track of student progress, and establishing partnerships with the student’s teachers and counselors. Attend parent-teacher conferences to stay informed.
  • Establish set routines and schedules. Maintain consistent expectations and continue to underscore the importance of education.
  • Set aside time to discuss school. Ask questions that allow them to talk openly about the school experience and their feelings. Tease out positive experiences from the school day.

Managing School Transitions

If the child in your care is starting a new school or is transitioning to middle or high school, try these tips to make this big change easier. All these strategies can help kids feel connected.

  1. Work with the school and child welfare agency for guidance on how to support the child in your care.
  2. Make sure the school has a copy of the student’s records. This important information can alert educators if the student has special educational needs.
  3. Tour the school in advance with your student. Review the school schedule to know what is going on and how things will work.
  4. Be sure to include the student in conversations about coursework and credits.
  5. Plan for student involvement in extracurricular activities. Make sure they can participate. Address barriers that may prevent participation (cost, transportation, uniforms, etc.).
  6. Identify a go-to person at the school that can help the student feel comfortable and included.
  7. Advocate for additional resources on the child’s behalf. Make sure the child has what they need.
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