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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 21, No. 1
January 2016

Ensuring Appropriate, Effective Discipline for Kids in Foster Care

Some young people in foster care struggle with their behavior. Sometimes this results disciplinary action at school. If this happens to a child with whom you work, you will want to ensure that the way the school disciplines the child is appropriate, fair, and ultimately contributes to the child's academic success.

Ward and Herrick (2010) suggest a number of things that may help you address problems before disciplinary action by the school is ever needed. Their suggestions include:

  • Review the school's conduct and discipline code with the child, or ask the foster parent to do this. Give concrete examples as you go over the rules, to make sure the child understands.
  • Ask the school what it does to promote positive behavior. For example, many schools in NC use Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Research shows that, implemented school-wide, this program reduces discipline referrals and suspensions (Breunlin, 2002, cited in Iselin, 2010).
  • Monitor the child's school progress. If there's a problem, do something. Share any strategies that help address the child's behavior at home. Work with the school to create a plan that uses positive reinforcement, not punishment, to change the child's behavior.
  • Within the constraints of confidentiality, tell the school if something upsetting happens to the child. This can help schools be more flexible and willing to problem solve.
  • If there's a pattern of misbehavior, consider whether the behavior is related to a disability. If this seems likely, refer the child for a special education evaluation. Qualifying for special education brings certain protections if the misbehavior is linked to the disability.

If a Child Faces Suspension or Expulsion
If you are working with a child or youth in foster care who is facing suspension or expulsion from school, Ward and Herrick (2010) advise taking the following steps:

  • Respect and acknowledge that teachers and school administrators must balance the needs of individuals with the need to keep everyone safe. Acknowledging this fact when talking about discipline issues will help you advocate for the children you serve.
  • Explain to school personnel about the potential effects of abuse, neglect, and placement on children's behaviors. Make it clear that, given the other traumas and disruptions the child has faced, long-term suspension or expulsion may truly damage the child's chances for success in school, and perhaps beyond.
  • Learn all you can if suspension is being considered. Questions to ask include:
    • What is the suspension for? How long is it for?
    • What were the circumstances surrounding the incident? (Talk to the child to get their version.)
    • Has the child ever been suspended for similar behavior?
    • Where will the child be during the suspension?
  • If the child has an IEP, there are certain protections when it comes to suspension.
  • If the youth is suspended, make sure the school provides an opportunity for the student to make up school work during the suspension.
  • If a child faces expulsion, fully explore what avenues are open to allow the child to continue their education.

References for this and other articles in this issue