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2006 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 11, No. 4
September 2006

What You Can Do to Help Children Involved with the Child Welfare System Succeed in School

Why do children involved with the child welfare system struggle in school and what can you (and your agency) do about it? An important first step is to understand why so many children involved with the child welfare system struggle in school.

Understand Root Causes
Sometimes factors that contribute to school difficulties are more or less beyond the control of child welfare agencies. Examples include:

Child maltreatment. Because of the abuse, neglect, and other stresses to which they have been exposed, many children in foster care are at great risk of developing physical, emotional, and behavioral disorders that interfere with learning (Christian, 2004; Finkelstein, 2002).

School difficulties prior to placement. Although many children in foster care have what it takes to succeed academically, Chapin Hall’s study of children in foster care found that “a disproportionate number enter school with significant delays and never catch up.” They found that in 2002 and 2003 almost 66% of the third through ninth graders in foster care in Chicago’s public schools were either old for their grade when they entered care or scored well below their peers in reading (Courtney et al., 2004).

Stress during placement. Many children experience difficulty focusing due to grief and loss issues caused by separation from parents and other family members. Uncertainty about their current living situations and their futures can also negatively impact children’s ability to concentrate on their school work (Noble, 2003).

In addition to these causes, there are many practice- and system-level barriers that interfere with the school success of children in care. The rest of this article suggests ways you can overcome these obstacles.

Take Ownership
Sometimes child welfare workers are unsure what is expected of them when it comes to the schooling of children in foster care. This uncertainty can cause confusion and miscommunication among teachers, foster parents, and other people concerned with the child’s education, which in turn can negatively impact the child’s learning.

Although there are a lot of details to master in this area of practice (IEPs and how they work, communicating with foster parents, birth parents, and teachers), the basic role and status of child welfare workers is easy to understand: their job is to help their agencies meet the educational needs of the children they serve.

To discharge this responsibility, workers and agencies must continually approach children’s education as parents would, inquiring about school progress at every opportunity and regularly asking, “Are we doing all that can be done to help this child succeed in school?”

Partner with Schools
Altshuler (2003) characterizes the relationship between schools and child welfare agencies as being one of “historical mistrust.” Although it is by no means universal, poor communication and coordination between the child welfare agencies and schools can significantly interfere with children’s academic progress. Frequent points of confusion and friction include confidentiality and the question of who has the authority to make educational decisions for children in care (McNaught, 2005).

Child welfare workers can help the children they serve by cultivating positive relationships with school personnel. Don’t wait for a crisis to try to form a good working relationship with teachers, counselors, and other school employees. Sitting down at the table together and letting them get to know you is the best way to build strong, clear relationships. These will prove invaluable when you are advocating for the child, interviewing school staff as collaterals, or inviting them to attend a child and family team meeting (Poindexter, 2006). For more on partnering with schools, click here.

Prepare and Support Foster Parents
Educators and child welfare caseworkers in Illinois told Altshuler (2003) that students with foster parents who are involved in their lives and at school did better academically than those with foster parents who were not involved. Based on this, child welfare workers should strongly encourage foster parents to take an active role in the education of the children in their homes.

Many foster parents worry most about the children’s behavior, not about their educations (Finkelstein, et al., 2002). To counter this, child welfare workers should encourage foster parents to contact children’s current and former teachers to obtain insights about the child’s strengths and needs as a student and to get ideas for how best to support the child in school. Building the teacher/foster parent relationship can also make foster parents a more effective member of the school team determining the educational plan for the child (Noble, 2003).

Partner with Birth Parents
Most children exiting out-of-home care go to live with their families: during FY 2003, 55% of those leaving foster care were reunified with parents or primary caretakers; 15% went to live with a relative or guardian (USDHHS, 2005b). This fact underscores the importance of establishing positive, supportive relationships with birth parents when it comes to the education of their children. Child and family team meetings and shared parenting are two key strategies for building these relationships. Shared parenting, in particular, presents many opportunities to keep birth parents “in the loop” about educational matters and allows foster parents to model effective educational advocacy for birth families.

Identify an Educational Advocate
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, there is a great deal of confusion over who is responsible for enrolling children in foster care in school, signing permission slips, meeting with the teacher, etc. Foster parents are sometimes uncomfortable with the school system, or they believe that they do not have the right to act as a legal guardian for the child. In some cases, birth parents are still capable of taking responsibility.

To minimize confusion, every child in foster care needs to have one adult in their lives who has a full appreciation of their educational needs and has their academic interests at heart. Child welfare agencies should designate a particular adult to play this role; the court should appoint this same person to be an educational advocate (Finkelstein et al., 2002).

Minimize School Moves
When they change schools, “not only must foster children cope with the emotional consequences of such instability, they also must adjust to new teachers, classmates, curricula and rules” (Christian, 2004). School change itself may lead to grade retention (that is, repeating a grade), which in turn can reduce the likelihood of completing high school at all (Smithgall, et al., 2004).

There are several things agencies and workers can do to minimize school moves for children involved with the child welfare system. One is to prevent foster care placement disruptions. As already mentioned in this issue, placement instability is an area of concern in North Carolina. In fiscal year 2004-05, 58% of the children who entered foster care in our state had 2 or more placements. Eighteen percent of these children had 4 or more placements (NCDSS, 2006). Careful matching of foster parent strengths and child needs before placement, adequate training of foster parents (especially on the topic of behavior management), the delivery of appropriate services to the child and family, and generally supporting foster parents have all been shown to contribute to foster care placement stability.

Even when placements disrupt, agencies should try to keep children in the same school. Developing an adequate number of foster homes in the area your agency serves is one way to do this. Making special transportation arrangements is another (Courtney et al., 2004).

If school moves are necessary, time them carefully. Moving children from one school to another can cause them to miss critical tests or other important events. Therefore, if circumstances permit, wait for a planned school hiatus (e.g., summer, spring, or winter break) before making placement moves. This will minimize the impact on the student’s academic progress.

Avoid School Record Problems
Problems with school records can indirectly hurt children’s academic performance. Missing, incomplete, inaccurate, or lack of access to education records can hamper our ability to understand and meet a child’s needs. The same is true for lengthy delays in transferring records from one school to another (McNaught, 2005).

To avoid problems with school records, child welfare professionals should be clear about several things. First, when a child involved with foster care must change schools, child welfare workers must play a role in expediting record transfers among schools and districts. Indeed, many times caseworkers are the ones responsible for enrolling students in a new school and notifying the old school of the child’s move and need for records transfer (McNaught, 2005).

Second, child welfare workers should understand that their right to access the school records of children in foster care is not automatic. Typically your right to access can be obtained through one of three ways: consent of the parents, a determination that your agency is considered the parent for purposes of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), or through a court order allowing access (McNaught, 2005).

Prevent Disruptions in Attendance
Given that many of them are already behind academically, absences and disruptions in school attendance can be especially detrimental to children in foster care.

To address this, it is important to minimize absences and interruptions to the school day. Instead of scheduling parent-child visits and other appointments during the school day, workers should try to schedule visits after school hours. Seek out psychologists and counselors who have some evening and night hours. Agencies should consider implementing a policy prohibiting child welfare workers from contacting children during the school day except in an emergency (GDHR, 2000).

Keep an Eye on Special Education
Child welfare workers and agencies should take pains to avoid unnecessary special education placements for the children in their custody. Assure that special-ed placement focuses on long-term needs rather than the child’s reaction to crisis. “Consider alternative interventions to address short-term behavioral problems. Provide remedial education services instead of special education when appropriate” (Courtney et al., 2004).

For children who receive special education services, child welfare workers should understand what Individualized Education Planning (IEP) meetings are and how they work. Support foster parents, since they are the ones who will participate in these meetings and sign IEP documents. Child welfare workers are forbidden by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act from making special education decisions for children in their agency’s custody. However, there is a difference between being an advocate and being the legal education decision maker. Just because you are not permitted to be the legal decision maker does not mean that you cannot play an important advocacy role in the child’s education (McNaught, 2005).

Support Extracurriculars
Although all children (including those in foster care [Shin, 2003]) are likely to perform better in school if they participate in sports, band, and other non-academic school activities, many children in foster care are unable to engage in extracurriculars. To address this problem, child welfare workers should make a point of actively encouraging children in foster care to participate in extracurriculars (if appropriate for the child) and supporting foster parents of children who want to participate in organized afterschool activities. Identify and overcome barriers—these may include agency policies that fail to make extracurriculars a priority.

How Involved Are You?

When they interviewed a small sample of child welfare caseworkers about their involvement in the education of the children in foster care, Finkelstein and colleagues (2002) found they were more informed than foster parents or school personnel about children’s developmental delays. These caseworkers also advocated for special treatment and programs.

Yet they also found that these workers lacked generalized knowledge about the academic performance of foster children, and what they knew about the performance of specific children “seemed limited to situations where information was easily obtained, where the child also exhibited behavioral problems, or where a child’s performance was so poor it was reaching crisis levels.” Caseworkers generally did not see low grades alone as a pressing issue.

Even if these findings do not resonate with your experience, it can be helpful to assess your own performance in this area periodically. For example, consider the extent to which you:

  • Closely monitor children’s grades throughout the year
  • Initiate contact with children’s teachers to discuss their school progress and overall well-being
  • Help foster parents with school registration
  • Arrange for tutoring and other school-related services

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but considering the extent to which you are involved in these activities will help you get a sense of your performance in this area.


References for this and other articles in this issue