How resource parents can help struggling students

Kelly Sullivan

by Kelly Sullivan

Imagine you go to work every day and you’re really bad at your job. And, everyone thinks your job is the only really important thing you do, while your other interests and talents are hardly acknowledged.

How does this relate to children in foster care? School is the work of childhood. For many children involved in the child welfare system, the scenario I’ve just described could be close to their reality.

At a Disadvantage
Many children in foster care have missed a lot of school. Even when they’re at school, they may find it hard to pay attention to what they’re being taught due to untreated conditions (e.g., ADHD, brain damage from prenatal and postnatal toxic exposure), symptoms of chronic or traumatic stress, and removal from the classroom as a form of discipline.

Moves are another a problem. When children move from one foster care placement to another they often have to change schools. When they do, even more learning time is lost as they adjust to the new school.

Also, many children have negative associations with school and learning. Some have been repeatedly told they are stupid. Others come to this belief by interpreting more subtle behavior of others or through self-comparisons they make during the school day. Children in foster care are also twice as likely as other children to have learning disabilities (14.7% vs 7.6%) and developmental delays (7.3% vs 3.4%) (Turney & Wildeman, 2016).

Rarely does a child struggle with just one of these issues. Instead, these challenges interact with and compound each other. Some children involved with the child welfare system experience all of these issues.

The statistics verify this phenomenon. Many youth in foster care perform below their peers in school. The greatest achievement gaps are in basic reading, math, and writing. Young people in foster care score on average 15–20 percentile points lower than their peers on standardized academic tests and are more likely to be retained at least one year and to be referred for special education (Beisse et al., 2011; Scherr, 2006).

School Tasks Can Be a Trigger
For many young people in foster care anything dealing with school can be a trigger. In other words, even a tiny experience (e.g., taking out homework, a spelling test, a teacher’s question) may cause the child to have an intense and largely uncontrollable emotional reaction linked to their past negative experiences.

Often these emotional reactions stem from feelings of incompetence. When children who have suffered disruptions and losses feel incompetent at something as important as school—remember, it is the “work” of childhood—they may even doubt their worthiness to be loved.

Homework Can Be a Minefield
As a result, what should be a regular day-to-day event—doing homework—can be a minefield for some children and their caregivers. Children may lie about school work or use conflict over homework as a way to ensure connection to their caregivers.

Try not to view these behaviors negatively. Think of them not as attention-seeking but as attachment-seeking. They are likely rooted in intense self-doubt and/or negative identity stemming from the child’s educational experiences and from relationships with previous caregivers who may have only paid attention when the child displayed negative behavior.

Homework can also be tricky because children’s skills can be highly variable. They may do well on a skill one day, but not the next. Or they may make mistakes on some problems of a worksheet but not others, even though all the problems require the same level of skill.

This variability can be authentic and occurs naturally in the process of grasping new skills. Furthermore, it is more likely to occur when the child is tired, hungry, stressed, or getting sick, all of which may be hard to detect for children who have become numb to their body’s signals as a way of coping with the discomfort of unmet needs.

What You Can Do
Give kids the benefit of the doubt. In general, it is important to believe that children do well if they can. Dr. Ross Greene explains this philosophy in his book Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them (click here for an excerpt). This philosophy is based on the idea that behind every struggle is an unsolved problem or lacking skill.

Consider stepping back temporarily. For children for whom homework has become a battle or when caregivers are being pressured to “fix” the child’s school behavior at home, sometimes caregivers’ efforts will only backfire. This may be occurring because the child has learned through experience to doubt the stability of their relationships with caregivers. If this is the case, talk with your child’s therapist and school staff about temporarily stepping out of your role as an educator to your child. A tutor or other educational support may be needed. That way the child will get the individualized attention they need and be free to make mistakes without fear of disappointing the caregivers they hope will love and keep them. Similarly, behavior issues at school should be addressed at school, not at home.

Focus on the child’s interests. Even as they take a break from their educational role, caregivers must continue to focus on children’s talents and interests. This combination should build the child’s confidence, and in turn improve their belief that they are capable of succeeding in the work of childhood, which may also shift their beliefs about being worthy of a loving relationship with a caregiver (i.e., self-worth).

Use consequences sparingly. The assumption that it is “right” to give consequences for wrongdoings is short-sighted if the consequences do not improve the behavior. In fact, consequences may actually worsen behavior. For this reason their effectiveness should be monitored. In general, it is important to remember that children who have been struggling a long time academically or with school behavior need to experience successes—and a lot of them—to reverse their negative thinking and behavioral patterns!

Kelly Sullivan, PhD, is a Licensed Psychologist, Director of Mental Health Services at the Center for Child & Family Health, and an Assistant Professor at Duke University Medical Center.

Suggestions for Parents
Things to Keep in Mind


  • Children may have the capability to achieve in school, but may underachieve because of their repeated negative experiences with schooling and/or other environmental variables (e.g., changing schools repeatedly).
  • Children may struggle with school because of underlying conditions (e.g., ADHD, learning disabilities) that have not been identified or have had inadequate intervention.
  • Both of the above can interact with one another, creating greater difficulties.

Things to Try

  • Consider stepping away from your role as an educator to your child when your interactions with your child around school are becoming negative.
  • Get a tutor or other educational support through your child’s school.
  • Attend to your child’s interests and talents much more than you attend to their struggles.
  • Recognize that consequences may backfire; use them with discretion and measure their effectiveness.