Insights from a teacher who is also a foster parentHelping the kids in your care succeed in school
by Anna Morrison •
I am an elementary school teacher. I know what it is to have a classroom full of first graders who come from all sorts of backgrounds and have different needs and gifts, and to be responsible for their learning for a whole school year.
I’m also an experienced foster parent. My family and I have cared for eight kids ranging in age from 4 weeks to 7 years old. We also have four biological children of our own that are now ages 12, 14, 16, and 18. So I know parenting, including the indispensable work of helping my children succeed in school.
Based on both these experiences, as teacher and foster parent, I would like to share some advice to support and encourage you in your role as a foster parent.
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First, I encourage you to be an advocate for your child. It is your responsibility to speak up when they have needs and to find ways to build up their interests and strengths. Before a placement, ask your child’s social worker for as much information as possible about the child’s history and experiences. Then, set up a meeting with the child’s counselor, teacher, and the school social worker. Go into this meeting with a list of your questions. These might include: Have you worked with children in foster care before? Do you have support services available for students with academic and social and emotional needs? What is the best way to communicate with you during the day?
Tell them all you can share about the child so you can become a team. Make sure the counselor, teacher, and social worker know you want to know how the child is doing, that you support their work, and that you will do whatever the child needs at home. Clear communication is essential.
Maintaining optimism and hope in the face of difficulty is important!
Once we had a child placed with us right before he started kindergarten. I already had a great relationship with his teacher, who was in the classroom next to mine. But what started out as a pleasant exchange each day about his progress quickly turned into negative reports about his behavior.
My relationship with my child’s teacher became strained. I had to speak up for the child and continuously comment on the good I was seeing. (Even when I had to work hard to find it myself.) Maintaining optimism and hope in the face of difficulty is important for the child and for you as the foster parent.
That experience leads me to this: expect school to be hard for your child. For a child who has experienced trauma, even everyday tasks can be difficult. Focusing can be challenging. You will have to work alongside your child and the teacher to help them develop strategies to manage the hard times and work toward success. Ask your child what they need and how you can help. Ask your child’s teacher how you can support them.
As hard as they both may try, not every day will be positive. For this reason, it is important that you talk to them daily about all the positives you see. We all need to hear the good, especially the teacher and the child.
Pay attention to the child’s “school story.” What narrative are they hearing? Are they only hearing negative comments about their behavior or academic ability? This can be spirit crushing and does not help them learn the skills they need to succeed. To counteract this, be sure to talk to your child and their teacher about the good within them.
When needed, share with the teacher the fears and anxieties your child is dealing with. For example, one child we cared for was sexually abused in a bathroom. As a result, this child feared most bathrooms and often had accidents. It was incredibly helpful for his teacher to know that bathrooms were a trauma trigger and an area of struggle for this child.
Challenging though school may be, as foster parents we need to model responsible behavior and a growth mindset. Sometimes I can already tell the night before how my next day is likely to go based on my planning and choices. If you are prepping your lunch before bed, getting your clothes out, and making sure your papers and items are where they need to be, you are setting a good example for your child. You are their role model!
If you use a planner or a calendar to organize your week of appointments and activities, let your child see this. It is important that your child sees not only that you are organized, but that they are on that calendar and an important part of your life. They want to feel a part of a family. This is a small way to communicate this.
As you are going about your week, make sure your child hears positivity from you. Your words and actions should reflect an attitude and belief that growth is attainable. Deliberately say things like, I’m tired, but I’m going to work hard at washing our dishes tonight, or I am so thankful for you.
Positive messages that emphasize optimism go a long way with any child, especially children that have been through trauma and are trying to feel a sense of security and hope.
One of the hardest lessons I had to learn as a foster parent was to get support and take time for yourself. The desire to do good can only get you so far before you run out—out of energy, patience, hope, and even compassion. (Compassion fatigue is real!)
I can remember curling up in the shower and just crying during a challenging placement. I did this multiple times. Yes, it sounds dreadful. It was. I was tired, emotional, and depleted. Depression crept in before I knew it. I had neglected to reach out to my social worker, my friends, my church community, my coworkers, and even my own family for emotional support.
Fostering is messy and often unappreciated. We cannot do it alone. Join a foster parent association or start one in your area. Read authors like John DeGarmo, who has a book I recommend called Helping Foster Children in School: A Guide for Foster Parents, Teachers, and Social Workers. Connect with foster parents through social media or blogs. Join or start a support group for foster parents at your church. Journal your thoughts, feelings, dreams, and plans. Prioritize date nights with your partner to have fun with each other and speak openly about where you both are with the placement experience.
Please find time for yourself, too. Within the last year, I have learned about mindfulness, which I have found so effective. Whether it is a nature walk, a hot shower, or going to bed an hour earlier, take time to care for yourself. If you are like me, you want to do for everyone else. Sometimes it doesn’t come naturally to give to yourself, but you must if you want to do this important work of parenting a hurt child.
I would like to leave with this last bit of encouragement: please celebrate. Celebrate the mundane and the big accomplishments. Celebrate when they make it through their first day of school, get through a hard test, work out a problem at school, choose an outfit for the day, or are ready on time. Celebrate how nice it is to sit at the dinner table and share a meal. Celebrate alongside your child’s teacher, too. If your situation allows, celebrate with your child’s biological family.
Life is worth celebrating! Your child is worth celebrating! Make them feel like they matter. They do.
Anna Morrison is an elementary school teacher and foster parent in Durham, NC.