If you don’t have experience with the jargon of educational supports, IEP’s and 504’s prior yet, advocating for your foster or kinship child in school can feel intimidating. It might sound like a whole new language at first. However, learning how to advocate for your foster or kinship child in school is an extension of the care you’ve been offering this child already.

Why Do I Need to Advocate for My Foster or Kinship Child In School?

If you are fostering, you undoubtedly learned in your training classes that trauma impacts a child’s developing brain. For those who are offering kinship care outside of the foster care system, you might not have had the benefit of those courses. the good news is that it’s not too late to learn! CreatingaFamily.org has fantastic resources to help you understand the effects of early childhood trauma, as well as practical tools to parent children from difficult beginnings.

Trauma Impacts Learning

Some studies estimate that as many as 80% of foster children have significant enough exposure to trauma that the child’s ability to learn is impacted. The many losses in this child’s life can also negatively impact the child’s brain growth. When we think that the growing brain develops “from the inside out,” we must remember that a child’s social and emotional skills follow that pattern. When a child’s brain regularly functions in self-protection or survival mode, it cannot also focus on learning.

This starting point will help prepare you for behaviors that seem younger than your foster or kinship child’s chronological age. Maybe you’ve already observed “acting out” misbehaviors or difficulty with self-regulation. You may also notice your child lagging in the emotional or social milestones necessary for the classroom.

You Can Be Your Child’s Voice

With this information under your belt, advocating for your foster or kinship child in school equips you to be his voice and represent him well on the educational team. Your role as his advocate will help you stay attuned to his needs and track his progress. You will also have the opportunity to educate the educators on this child’s ability to find success in school.

What Does My Foster or Kinship Child Need?

First, Safety

The first thing your foster or kinship child needs is to feel safe in your home and your ability to care well for her. When you learn what makes her feel safe, share that with her education team. They can use that information in their classroom. A developing brain that feels safe is much more able to learn! Advocating for your foster or kinship child in school expands the felt-safety that you’ve created at home into her school environment. It’s a practical way to set her – and her teachers – up for success.

Second, You: Prepared

If your foster or kinship child comes to you with supports or services already in place, familiarize yourself with the information in his files. Request the file from your child’s caseworker – or his former school. Review the documentation of his needs and educational plan. If your home means a new school setting for your foster or kinship child, your informed advocacy will help him settle more quickly. You will also be helping his new team meet his needs as documented. From this point of preparedness, you and the teachers can also change the interventions to support his learning better.

How Do I Advocate for My Foster/Kinship Child in School?

1. Be the Team Leader

Clear, Frequent Communication. Advocating for your foster or kinship child in school will require clear, regular communication between all of you.  You can establish your role with the team by opening clear communication channels. That could look like an introductory email or a phone call. Some parents prefer to do it in person, so they arrange a tour of the school and an introduction to the team before school starts. At the start of your relationship with the new team, you will likely need more frequent contact. Issues like homework, behaviors in the classroom, family visitations, and things that directly impact the child’s school day will need to be tweaked out as you get to know what works for this child.

This letter to the teacher will be helpful for introductions.

Keep a Paper Trail. Many experienced foster parents stress the need to communicate primarily by email to establish a “paper trail.” Sadly, sometimes the accountability and documentation become necessary. The documentation will come in handy should you need to change his services, request further evaluations, or brainstorm additional supports. Remember: if the school is unable or unwilling to provide the supports your child needs, you can inquire (again, do it in writing) about alternative resources to meet the needs you are observing. Keep your caseworker in the loop no matter what!

You are Your Foster/Kinship Child’s Person. Remember that many schools don’t have frequent experience with foster or kinship families. They might need you to walk them through the ways you want to be involved. Conversations that establish you as the child’s point person should include the foster care caseworkers or CASA advocates if your child has one. Kinship caregivers who are not under the umbrella of the foster system should have legal documentation of guardianship in place.

2. Be Involved

Your foster or kinship child will benefit from the “whole” school experience, including extra-curricular activities and community-building events. Sign her up for soccer. Go to the school’s Fall Fest. Volunteer in the classroom. If you have time before the school year starts, make play dates with other kids who attend the same school. It will be comforting to have familiar faces on her first day.

Yes, this will mean some extra time investments for you and your family. However, it’s vital to a well-rounded educational experience. It also goes a long way to building your foster/kinship child’s social and emotional skills in a fun, non-threatening setting. The added benefit is that many of these events offer your whole family some time to play together!

3. Be Open

You should be able to expect your foster or kinship child’s educational team to be willing to learn from you about what works well for the child. However, it will be beneficial for your child if you also are ready to learn from the educators. This is especially true if this is your first go-round in the world of IEPs, 504s, and support services.

When presented with suggestions for curriculum modifications, take time to read up on their recommendations. Talk with the team about how they plan to implement the changes – ask for examples to help you understand. If they ask you to consider evaluations for possible learning challenges, request reputable resources to educate yourself for the follow-up conversation. Brainstorm with his teachers for classroom management alternatives and embrace the information shared.

Build A Feeling of Safety At Home And In School

It might be challenging to know what supports your foster or kinship child needs if he comes to you without an educational plan. It can also be challenging to plan educational interventions when tense relationships exist between you and the child’s birth family. If welcoming this child happens on very short notice, you might also feel like you are playing catch up.

Give yourself grace – it’s an excellent example for the kids about handling challenging circumstances. Remember that you can only do your best when you face these obstacles. Familiarize yourself with the school district’s Special Education structure. Read up on the impacts of trauma on learning. Call the school the child will attend and ask about the enrollment process. And remember to ask for his educational files when or if you get contacted for placement plans.

When you commit to these 3 Be’s to support this foster or kinship child in school, you increase felt safety and set your foster or kinship child up to succeed in your home and school.

We’d love to hear from you! Are you an experienced foster or kinship care provider? What have you learned about advocating at school that will benefit your fellow readers? Share it in the comments!

Image Credits: Elizabeth; Ste Elmore; Nenad Stojkovic; woodleywonderworks