Although the world is beginning to find some sense of normalcy following the COVID pandemic, schools across the nation are still grappling with the profound impact the last few years have had on the education system. While children of all ages have struggled to catch up academically, children in the foster care system have been inordinately impacted by these educational challenges. This leaves Georgia foster parents asking the question, “how do I help my foster child succeed in school?”
In the midst of being removed from their family and trying to heal from trauma, school often becomes yet another hurdle foster children must overcome in their young lives. Academically, the National Foster Youth Institute reports that kids in foster care are 3 times more likely to drop out of high school than other low-income children. They further report that more than 40% of school-aged foster children have educational difficulties and less than 5% will graduate from a four-year college.
At Bloom, we strive to provide foster care information and foster care resources that demonstrate best practices. While there are numerous ways to help your foster child succeed academically, we have identified some steps foster parents can take to help their foster child build a strong foundation for educational success.
Help Your Student Find Their Voice
There is often a profound sense of helplessness for children in foster care. Unfamiliar adults are determining where they will live, when they can see their family, and where they will go to school. When it comes to academics, foster children often sit quietly while social workers, school administrators, and foster parents decide what classes a child should take, what level the child is performing on, and what skills the child currently has or is lacking.
While these conversations are often necessary to ensure a child is placed in the appropriate educational setting, they can also provide a wonderful opportunity for foster parents to advocate for their foster child to find their voice. Go out of your way to include your foster child in these conversations. Give them a platform to share their strengths and their needs and let them know you not only value their opinion but rely on their input for helping support their success at school. Here are some examples:
- “It looks like you did really well in science at your last school. I’d love for you to tell us some about that class and what helped you be so successful in that subject.”
- “I imagine it must feel uncomfortable listening to us all talk about a new school and new classes. This is going to be your school and your classes, so you’re really the most important person in the room right now. Tell us some about what makes you feel successful at school.”
For their Learning Loss Grant, United Way of Greater Atlanta refers to this type of communication as “meaningful youth engagement.” This provides “intentional opportunities for young people to represent themselves” through a cycle of listening, validating, authorizing, acting, and reflecting. Rather than your foster child being a passive recipient of their education, meaningful youth engagement will help transition them to an active participant in the process. This not only gives your foster child ownership in their educational experience but also helps them see you as a partner in their success.
Tap into Resources
When you’re sitting at the kitchen table trying to help a child learn sight words, it is easy to feel like you are on an island by yourself. Or what about teaching a child “new math,” which is absolutely nothing like what many of us learned when we were their age. In all honesty, being unable to help a twelve-year-old with their homework is a pretty comical (and humbling) experience for most of us as adults. There is good news though; you are not alone. Parents all over the world struggle to provide their child with the help they need with schoolwork. Fortunately, there are more resources available for education right now than ever before.
First, make an appointment with your foster child’s school counselor. For Bloom foster parents, our family consultants can help you schedule that appointment and attend with you. Request that teachers attend for subjects your foster child is struggling with. Your child’s school should have resources that can be useful both in the classroom and at home. Teachers often have help sessions available free of charge. There are also other in-school supports that may be available for students struggling with specific subjects. Sometimes it just takes getting “face-to-face” with the school to start utilizing these resources.
Once you have tapped into the “at school” resources, ask the child’s teacher to come up with some resources for help at home. Most schools now have access to tons of free online resources that your kids can work on independently. While there are many well-known supports online, such as Education.com, math-drills.com, Factmonster.com, iXL.com, and Education Galaxy, your foster child’s teacher can often provide you at-home access to the sites your foster child uses in the classroom. This is a great way to add in some extra math or reading sessions each week. Many of these sites also track your child’s progress and show what skills still need improvement.
Finally, take the time to search for foster care resources in your community. For example, The Bloom Closet is a wonderful resource for Georgia foster care parents to get backpacks and other needed school supplies, as well as clothing and basic necessities to prepare for the school year.
Resources may also be available to your foster child through the Division of Family and Children Services [DFCS] and other community organizations that serve children in the foster care system. For foster kids with significant educational struggles, your DFCS case manager can refer them for support through Georgia’s Educational Programming, Assessment and Consultations services. There are also nonprofits across Georgia that specialize in tutoring and other academic support specifically for foster youth. For Bloom foster parents, your family consultant can walk you through the process of reaching out to both DFCS and other community organizations to identify these services.
Although services are not always easy to find, they are available. At Bloom, part of our mission is to provide foster parents with the resources needed to help both you and your foster child be successful. Never shy from advocating for additional support and guidance when it comes to your child’s academic needs.
When it comes to academics, I like to lean on the old adage “a failure to plan is a plan to fail.” Even the most scholarly adult would struggle to succeed academically in the midst of the life altering circumstances that children in foster care are faced with. Helping your foster child come up with a plan to study and complete schoolwork at home gives your foster child ownership of their educational success and helps define expectations. As a bonus, it also helps build a healthy partnership between you and your foster child.
Carve out time to sit with your foster child and come up with a plan for schoolwork centered around the resources and suggestions provided by the child’s teacher, your Bloom Family Consultant, and your DFCS case manager. Ask your foster child questions and let them choose their preferences. For example,
- “Would you prefer to do your homework as soon as you get home from school, or would you rather have a snack and rest for thirty minutes before starting?”
- “Let’s walk around the house for a minute, so you can choose your perfect homework spot. We should find somewhere quiet and comfy but also somewhere I can be close by if you need help.”
- “Can you tell me some things you would like to have available at your homework spot? Colored pencils, scratch paper, calculator, etc.?”
- “I can already tell you’re a hard worker. What are some things we can do to relax and celebrate on the weekends after you have finished a week of completing your homework plan?”
This is also a perfect time to identify rewards for hard work and set a plan for helping your foster child get back on track when they get behind on their school responsibilities. Be sure to include a plan for accountability, so you can check on your foster child’s progress regularly. By being intentional about how and when your foster child will complete school related work, you join them in the learning process.
Celebrate the Process
Praise is a powerful force. It feels good when people acknowledge us and validate success in our life. However, research shows that how we praise a child impacts the way the child internalizes that praise. Years ago, Carol Dweck, a psychologist and Stanford University professor, conducted a study on 400 fifth grade students across America. After giving the children a simple IQ test, researchers praised half of the children for their “intelligence” and the other half for their “effort.” In other words, one group was told something like, “Wow, you are so smart,” and the other was told, “Wow, you worked so hard.”
Researchers subsequently gave the children a much harder test. The children who had previously been praised for effort worked harder and longer on the test and enjoyed the test, while the children who were praised for their intelligence became frustrated and gave up earlier. Researchers then gave the children a test at the same level of difficulty as the first one. The scores of the children who were praised for their intelligence dropped by 20%, while children who were praised for their effort increased their score by 30%.
Making Mistakes Is How We Learn
According to Dweck, when a child is praised for their intellect, they hear they are being valued for being smart; therefore, they shy away from doing anything that will undermine that assessment. On the other hand, when a child is praised for engaging in the learning process, they learn that working hard, and even making mistakes, is part of growing. Dweck cautions, this does not mean we should just pat a child on the back and give them an “A” for effort. Instead, we should use this growth mindset as encouragement to help children appreciate the process of learning and help them identify how their hard work and effort leads to learning new skills and growing academically.
For foster parents, this provides the opportunity to encourage your foster child that making mistakes is a normal part of the learning process. In fact, it is never a bad idea for a foster parent to join in and try to learn new skills with their foster child. This lets them know that learning takes time for all of us. Celebrating the process means acknowledging the effort over the outcome and giving your foster child space to work with you and their teachers to grow their skills one step at a time.
You’ve Got This!
While there are many ways to help your foster child improve academically, these steps will help you build a strong foundation for their educational success; this is something many kids in foster care have never experienced. As a Georgia foster parent, you have the unique ability to plant lasting roots in your foster child’s life that will continue to grow long after they leave your home. Show them how to find their own voice, tap into available resources, be intentional in setting up a school plan, and show them there is praise and value in the learning process.
As a final side note, I want to encourage you to trust your own skills and insight as a foster parent. As a Bloom foster parent, you were matched with your foster child for a specific reason. Experts in the field identified you as someone with the knowledge and skills to provide a loving, safe home for the foster child in your care. You are not in this alone. Reach out to your Bloom Family Consultant for advice, tips, and guidance as you help your foster child succeed in school. As an A+ rated foster care agency in Georgia, our mission is to strengthen children in foster care and empower the families who care for them. We will take this journey together.
By: Katie New, LMSW, RN
About the Author: Katie New is dually licensed as a Master Social Worker and Registered Nurse with a passion for serving children and families who have experienced trauma, abuse, and neglect. Katie works at Bloom Our Youth as a Therapeutic Support Specialist and Special Projects Consultant. She is also a 2023 doctoral candidate with Vanderbilt University where she is completing a Doctor of Education degree in Leadership and Learning in Organizations to better serve the Bloom community and advocate for vulnerable children.