Extracurriculars Can Make a Big Difference for Kids in Foster Care

by Claudia Kearney •
We all remember the moment that special extracurricular activity caught our attention. The moment we knew we wanted to do it forever. That we would do it for free.

Even if we did not start out loving this extracurricular, it became our first love. Maybe it was that piano lesson the adult in your life made you take. Or the sport your parent loved but you thought you hated.

Although it did not seem so important to us at the time, when we stopped doing the activity, we really missed it. Even as adults, whenever someone starts to talk about it we go back in our minds to that softball field or that band room or library and reminisce.

Today we may not play that instrument or that sport as well as we used to, but we remember how it made it us feel.

Extracurriculars can help create, maintain, or restore a sense of connection.

Children in foster care are no different from us. They want and need to find an activity they can feel connected to. They have experienced trauma and loss. Extracurricular activities can help them create, maintain, or restore the sense of connection and normalcy every young person deserves.

What Students Tell Us

Recently I asked 200 students what value they learned or what they gained from taking part in extracurricular activities. Here are their top 10 responses:

  1. Confidence
  2. Leadership skills
  3. Gave me security—I had a friend somewhere at school all the time
  4. Learned more about people I would not normally hang out with
  5. Learned other people’s perspectives
  6. Respect
  7. Teamwork
  8. How to not give up when you lose, how to try harder next time
  9. Travel opportunities—I got to go places I’d never been before
  10. Learned to solve problems with my peers
What Can We Do?

How can foster and adoptive parents and kin caregivers help the children and youth in their care experience the benefits and joys of extracurricular activities? Here are a few ideas.

For a start, look for opportunities to expose them to new or unfamiliar activities. For instance, you might take them to a play or concert and then talk about it afterwards. Ask if they ever thought about what it would be like to be part of the team that brings magical performances into the world.

And of course, talk with your children about what they are interested in. Encourage them to expand their knowledge and develop their skills about their interest.

There are lots of ways for you to support them in this. There are camps that specialize in development of skills. For example, if a child shows interest in baseball, there are camps and skill sessions offered all the time. Most schools offer sports as an extracurricular activity. In addition, your community organizations—parks and recreation departments, YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, etc.—offer sports that are free or at a reduced rate.

What about those children for whom sports is just not an interest? Look for clubs focused on the arts, music, gaming (board games, card games, etc.), aviation, books. There are so many options.

Some children can be withdrawn and quiet to the point where they may appear not to be interested in anything at all. Helping them figure it out may take more inquiring and exposure, but it can be done. Perhaps that shy child would be willing to explore golf, dance, or another activity that does not require a lot of talking. There is value in being involved in something, even if that something doesn’t require them to be verbally social.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to any community agency that may be helpful to your child. If transportation is a concern, ask the school, area churches, before and after school programs, or even public transportation agencies to see if they can help in any way.

Don’t give up if you hit a barrier. The child’s parent-teacher association or school social worker may have funds to help with program fees or anything needed for the activity. We want our children not only to participate, but to have what they need to be successful.

Extracurricular activities can bring a sense of connection, belonging, unity, and togetherness to any child. For youth in foster care, who may have lost some of these feelings already, participating in extracurriculars can make a tremendous difference.

Claudia Kearney is a trainer for the Center for Family and Community Engagement at NC State University.

Extracurriculars and the Reasonable and Prudent Parent Standard

For years, many young people in foster care were prevented from participating in everyday activities essential for their development and for a successful transition to adulthood. Because of real and perceived legal and policy constraints, many missed out on the chance to engage in simple, commonplace activities such as playing a team sport, field trips, working a job after school, joining a club, dating, and prom (Pokempner, et al., 2015).

To address this problem, North Carolina introduced the reasonable and prudent parent standard. Now, NCGA Session Law 2015-135 explicitly states children and youth in foster care are to be allowed to participate in extracurricular, enrichment, cultural, and social activities as long as those activities are appropriate to the child’s age, development, and maturity level. The child’s cognitive, emotional, physical, and behavioral capacities must also be taken into consideration to identify suitable activities for them.

To be clear: the standard does not mean every child or youth in foster care can automatically participate in anything. It means that foster parents and social workers must use all the tools at their disposal—including shared parenting, child and family team meetings, and monthly visits—to ensure they have a good grasp of the child’s strengths, needs, and skills. They must also engage the birth family (if appropriate) so the birth family can express their desires for their children.

To help foster parents, social workers, child-placing agencies, residential child care facilities, and other institutions in their decision making about which activities youth and children in foster care participate in, the NC Division of Social Services has developed several resources: