Navigating School Transitions

Molly Pitman

Children and youth in foster care sometimes have trouble with transitions at school, especially if they are switching schools due to a foster care placement. To learn what schools and resource parents can do to support these students, we spoke with Molly Pitman, a school social worker in Buncombe County, NC.

How can schools support students in foster care who are having trouble with transitions?
One of the biggest things is to meet the child where they are. Often teachers think, “Oh, I’ve had a foster child before.” But we can’t assume the same things will work for every child. We need to ask questions.

We can also offer options. Maybe the student doesn’t want things to be the same as they were in their old school. Maybe they need to participate in a counseling group now, though they weren’t ready for that before.

Helping them understand they are not alone is really important. I ran a counseling group for kids who were in or had been in foster care. They got to share their experience and talk freely among other students.

The group was voluntary. We offered it to them and they chose whether to attend. It gave them this understanding that, “I’m not the only one at school going through this.”

Do school social workers help teachers know how to support students in foster care?
Absolutely. But I’m careful with what I share. It’s important for that child to learn to trust that teacher. We need to be careful not to use data about a student’s past to make up our minds about what that child’s experience is going to be at our school. Kids change. If teachers have preconceived ideas, it doesn’t open up opportunities to really get to know the student fully.

Does Buncombe County’s trauma-informed “Compassionate Schools” initiative help kids in foster care manage transitions?
Compassionate Schools benefits all students, including those in foster care. When schools have strategies and skills in place, if a student “flips their lid,” we can help them learn to manage themselves so they can remain in class. We show them that they deserve to stay in the classroom and learn with other students.

Everyone, including bus drivers and cafeteria staff, know to be welcoming and inviting and know how to respond if a student gets upset. It sends a message to that student that they are valuable and that they have a place in that school.

What would you say to parents whose child is struggling with a school transition?
Communication is the primary thing, especially from the very start. This is not just a regular enrollment. This is a new child for the school and for the family. Meeting when they first enroll really helps us get on the same page. It helps parents know, Hey, if my child complains about this issue, who do I contact? Who are my resources in this school?
Communicating and knowing who your people are is so important.

Be an Advocate!
If a child in foster care changes schools, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires county child welfare agencies and schools to provide immediate and appropriate enrollment in a new school, with the old school providing all the educational records of the child to the new school. See Fostering Perspectives, vol. 23, no. 1 for more on supporting students in foster care.