Advocating with schools for kids in care

by Bob DeMarco •

I feel strongly that school is an area resource parents can help make huge strides in their kids’ healing and give them the greatest opportunities for success.

As we think about and talk about school for kids who have experienced trauma we must understand two things. First, if your child or youth is separated from their birth family, for whatever reason and however early, they have experienced some level of trauma. Second, no two kids handle trauma in the same way or suffer its effects to the same degree.

If you’ve read my past offerings in Fostering Perspectives, you will be aware that the situation in our family has been extreme and it’s from this place that I share my thoughts; it’s what I know. Your family may not experience the same things we have or to the same degree, but it’s safe to say that your traumatized child will at some point along the way encounter challenges with school. When that storm comes you’ll want to have some gear to assist you. I hope that the storm will be minor and all you’ll need is an umbrella and some boots, but you should also be educated (pun intended) and prepared for a hurricane so that you, your child, and the school staff stand the best chance of surviving.

So, let me just put this out there from the start: you need to know that for a child dealing with the effects of trauma, getting a good education according to “normal standards” is not their priority. No, they won’t care about math, reading, or why the sky is blue.

For these kids, survival is the name of the game, so instead they’ll be interested in snack time, lunch, the location of the nearest exit, how long until they can see their biological mother, whether their sister has what she needs, how they can be sure the bathroom isn’t harboring a hidden attacker, and what they’ll do if that scary uncle pays them a visit. In the mind of this child, Green Eggs and Ham, sitting quietly, sharing, and singing songs have little value. Should the untrusted adults around get pushy about these things, they better be ready for the storm!

It should come as no surprise to any of us that a brain under extreme stress will not perform optimally. As my wife will no doubt attest, my own brain turns to mush when the stresses of the job and home collide, and my emotional backlash is neither warranted nor rational.

Before you can be an effective advocate for your child, you need to know your child’s rights when it comes to their education. Your child has the right to an education in the least restrictive environment possible and there are formalized processes in place to protect at-risk kids. I won’t go into too much on that here, but suffice it to say that you and your child do have rights and you need to learn what those rights are. (For more on this, click here.)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related diagnoses, including ADHD, may be considered qualifying disabilities that, when leveraged, open up many educational opportunities for your child. There are nonprofit groups such as the Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center (ECAC) whose sole focus is helping children with disabilities and their families navigate these waters at school. Make yourself aware of your options.

Being a good advocate for your child means you must speak on the child’s behalf to ensure they get what they need. This means you must talk with key people at the school, and one of the best things you can do is to talk them proactively.

Before little Johnny’s first day, ask for a meeting. Doing so lets the school know you are engaged and interested in creating a team. Request that your child’s teachers, principals, school counselors, and resource officers be present. Invite anyone else you feel will be of help in the meeting. We’ve brought our child’s therapist and a school specialist with us to meetings.

At the meeting, carry the attitude that you are all a team working together for the good of your child and to help him or her be successful at school. Tell them as much about your child’s situation as you and the child are comfortable with, but be mindful of confidentiality. The school doesn’t need to know everything. It’s OK to be vague and it’s OK to say you’d prefer not to get into the details of your child’s past. It’s perfectly fine to simply say that “my son should not be allowed to go to the bathroom alone because it frightens him.” They don’t need to know why.

The more you can tell the team what sorts of behaviors they are likely to see, the better. Spend time talking about what interventions might or might not work and what they might do to prevent an issue before it starts. If your child has been physically harmed, let the school know putting hands on her may be a trigger that could make things worse. A better approach when she’s being loud might be to let her get a drink of cold water and allow her to sit in the back of the class for five minutes to collect her thoughts and settle.

One of the most important things you can do is help the team at school see your child for who they really are. Your child cannot tell the school what they need or why they are acting out. That’s your job. Talk to them about trauma and its effects on your child and help them look beyond the behaviors to see the real child. It’s very likely that you will be the best person to do this.

Offer resources to teachers to help them better understand what makes your child tick. The author of the Connected Child encourages parents to photocopy the chapter “Disarming the Fear Response with Felt Safety” from her book to give to teachers. If you feel that might be too much, the National Childhood Traumatic Network has a free educator kit you can download. There is also a pamphlet and a one-page reference sheet directed at teachers.

Remember that the school team not only considers the needs of the individual child but also those of the classroom in general. It’s a big challenge, and some might be inclined to make snap judgements about your child based on the first day’s behaviors.

You want to avoid your child being misjudged, so tell the school about the good you see in him and about his strengths. Bring them along on your child’s journey. Make them see that he acts out for a reason and that what looks like disobedience usually masks anxiety, fear, and emotional dysregulation. Help them understand their best response is to create felt safety by removing the root of fear and anxiety as best they can. If your son is not such a good reader and he acts out when he’s stressed, ask the teacher not to have him read aloud in front of the class. If the teacher agrees to this, let your child know. This will remove the fear that he might be called upon, making him more relaxed and giving him the best chance of avoiding disruptive behaviors that may have worked for him in the past.

Don’t forget to express your gratitude: teachers have a tough job!

Stay in regular contact with the school regarding your child. Reach out to the teachers and build a relationship with them. Give them your cell phone number and make them feel comfortable to contact you when issues arise, preferably before they get out of hand.

Don’t forget to express your gratitude to them; teachers have a tough job! Let them know you appreciate them taking the extra time and energy your child needs. Offer them as much support as you can.

School can be overwhelming for any child, but for a child who has been traumatized, it is all the more so. They might be in a strange environment and they are probably pretty sure that all the other kids can tell that they are in foster care or have been adopted. This makes them feel they stand out. They’ve learned some strategies that have made them feel safe in the past, but some of these are counterproductive in the classroom. With a good plan and good communication, you and the rest of the team can help your child succeed in school.

Bob DeMarco is an adoptive parent in North Carolina.