Advocating For Your Foster Child in School
Advocating for your foster child in school can feel like an intimidating task, particularly if you’ve not had to learn the lingo of support services, IEP’s and 504’s prior to this placement. While it might sound like a whole new language at first, learning how to work with your foster child’s educational professionals to set him up for success is really just another extension of the role you’ve been doing as a foster parent already.
Why Do I Need to Advocate for My Foster Child In School?
In your trainings to become a foster parent, you no doubt learned how trauma can affect a child’s developing brain. If you haven’t, or if you’d like to learn more, Creating a Family has some fantastic resources for to help you understand the effects of early childhood abuse, neglect or other hard starts to life, as well as tools for parenting children from difficult beginnings.
Some studies estimate that as many as 80% of foster children have had significant enough exposure to trauma that their ability to learn has been impacted. When we think about the fact that the growing brain develops “from the inside out,” remember that a child’s social and emotional skills follow that pattern also. The many losses in this child’s life can also negatively impact the child’s brain growth. A brain that regularly functions in self-protection or survival mode is not a brain that can focus on learning too.
This information will help you be prepared for the likelihood of behavior that feels younger than the child’s chronological age. There might be “acting out” misbehaviors or difficulty with self-regulation. You might also notice a failure to achieve developmentally typical emotional and/or social milestones that are necessary for a school environment.
Advocating for your foster child in school with this information under your belt will give you the opportunity to be his voice and an active part of his educational team. Your role as his advocate in this setting will help you stay attuned to his needs, track his progress, and be part of educating the educators on this child’s ability to find success in the school environment.
What Does My Foster Child Need?
The first thing your foster child needs from you is to feel safe in your home and in your ability to care well for him. When you learn what it is that makes him feel safe, you can share that with your foster child’s education team and they can find ways to include that in their classroom setting. A developing brain that feels safe is much more able to learn! Advocating for your foster child in school means you are taking that feeling of safety and extending it to his school environment in practical ways that will help him feel and taste success.
If your foster child comes to you with supports or services already documented and those are being transferred from another school, it’s vitally important that you familiarize yourself with the information in the files. Advocating for him with a new school team will require that you prepare yourself and his new team to settle him in quickly and meet his needs as they are documented. From this point of preparedness, you will be able to work with the team to determine what changes might need to take place so that he feels safe and ready to learn at school.
How Do I Advocate for My Foster Child in School?
1. Be the Team Leader
Advocating for your foster child in school will require clear and regular communication between all of you who are on his “team.” Be prepared to talk or email frequently about issues like homework, behaviors in the classroom, family visitations, and other things that directly impact the child’s school day. Many experienced foster parents stress to us that communication be done primarily by email. This establishes a “paper trail” for accountability and documentation among all the team members. This will come in handy particularly if you are seeking changes in services, further evaluations, or additional supports for the child.
It’s good to remember that some schools might not have a lot experience with foster families and they will need to be walked through how to involve you. If this is the case, your foster child’s caseworker or CASA advocate should be included in conversations that establish you as the point person for the child while enrolled in that school. If your school is unable or unwilling to provide the supports for which you are asking, you should feel free to inquire (again, do it in writing) about community resources that would meet the needs you are observing.
2. Be Involved
Your foster child will benefit from the “whole” school experience, including extra-curricular activities and community-building events. Sign him up for rec soccer. Go to the school’s Fall Fest. Volunteer in the classroom. If you have time before school begins, make play dates with other kids who attend the same school to meet your foster child. This will give him familiar faces when he starts. Yes, this will mean some extra time investments for you and your family but it’s part of a full, healthy educational experience. It will go a long way to building your foster child’s social and emotional skills in fun and non-threatening ways. The added benefit is that many of these events offer your family some time to play together!
3. Be Open
Just as you should be able to expect your foster child’s educational team to be willing to learn from you what works and what supports this child well, so you should also be willing to learn from them. When presented with suggestions for curriculum modifications, take time to read up on the suggestions. Talk with the team about how they plan to implement the changes. If they are asking you and the child’s caseworkers to consider a possible diagnosis of learning challenges, ask them for reputable resources to educate yourself for the next conversation. Brainstorm with the teacher for classroom management alternatives and embrace the information she shares with you.
Build A Feeling of Safety At Home And In School
It’s very difficult to know ahead of time what supports and services your foster child will need when he’s first placed with your family, especially if he comes to you without any of those in place. Of course, sometimes placements occur with very little advance notice. You might feel like you are playing catch up. Try to do what general educational preparations that you can. Again, if he comes to you with an IEP or other educational plan in his records, be sure to read up on that specific plan and prepare yourself well before enrolling him or soon after.
By committing to be his team leader, be involved in his education, and be open to learn all that you can to support him, you are further building upon the sense of safety that your foster child needs to succeed in your home and in school.
Other Resources from Creating A Family to Help You:
Image credit: Jim Larrison; Lisa Weaver; charlesjulie462