Tomorrow is the first day of the new school year for students in Seattle.
For kids in foster care, school can either be a really safe, positive, and supportive space, or it can be yet another source of trauma and shame—or perhaps a mixture of both. Some children have to change schools each time they have a new placement. Some children are stigmatized for being in foster care. Some children lose days and weeks of education because of placement changes during the school year. Some children are so burdened with PTSD, depression, and anxiety that they find learning extremely difficult.
If you are a foster parent who has a child heading back to school, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Give them what they need to succeed. Take them back to school supply shopping armed with the list from their school. Let them pick out their notebooks and folders and backpacks. Make sure they have high-quality supplies. Don’t get them the cheap backpack that will fall apart or the cheap pencils that don’t write well. Make sure they have a space to study at home, and set a system in place to motivate them—perhaps a half hour with a favorite video game once homework is done. Make sure they have nice school clothes that they had a hand in picking out.
Find out what extracurriculars are available to them at school and make sure they know they have your support if they want to join. Things like after school drama club or sports can be exactly what a child in care needs to find a healthy sense of community and self esteem. If they need to get to school early or be picked up later in order to participate, find a way to make it happen for them. Give them every opportunity to have the full school experience!
Coach them on getting enough sleep and eating well. This doesn’t happen overnight, but it is so important. Perhaps for older kids this means letting them know that the internet will be off from 10 PM to 7 AM so they are not online into the wee hours of the night. For younger kids, this means having a set and steady routine.
Be in touch with their teachers and try to stay ahead of academic challenges they are facing. If your child is behind, talk with their teachers and social worker about what supports are available. In Washington, we have access to educational support for kids in foster care through Treehouse and other organizations that support youth in care. Take advantage of whatever is available. If your child is resistant to the support, those folks can often help come up with ways to motivate them. (This might be new to you as a foster parent, but it is not their first rodeo! Rely on their expertise!)
Let your child know you are with them and for them. Words of affirmation combined with thoughtful and intentional actions will go a long way! Try to speak supportive things to them throughout the week. Don’t just focus on how they’re doing in school… ask how they’re feeling about school. One way I love to do this is to share “Roses and Thorns” at dinnertime. What were the best parts of your day (roses) and what were the worst (thorns)? For ideas on how to connect with your kids in conversation, check out The Family Dinner Project for some ideas.
To hear more thoughts for foster parents on helping your foster children succeed in school, check out last week’s podcast! I chatted with Ernest Henderson, Jr., who is Associate Director of Eastern Washington Education Programs at Treehouse. Ernest is not only an education advocate for youth in foster care—he is also a former foster youth AND a former foster parent. He really knows his stuff and had some great insight to share!