Across the country, over 500,000 children are living in foster care. Each year, the number of children entering foster care increases by as much as 50,000. Reported cases of abuse to Child Protective Services are on the rise. It is also estimated that more than 50% of children are removed to protect them from adults in their home. While some children will stay in foster care for a short period of time, many children may spend several years in foster care. Some of these children will experience multiple placements. Experts have suggested that children who spend several years in foster care and who experience multiple placements, may experience difficulties in several areas of their development.
Since school is the next major area of development for children after the home, it is here that many of the risk factors associated with foster care are most often seen. For example, children raised in foster care who have a history of neglect and abuse are at risk for poor performance in school, both with learning and in social relationships. Research has suggested that how well a child adjusts in school has a large effect on the child's later adjustment in other areas of social functioning, such as the work place. With this in mind, the role of school personnel and school-age child care providers can not be understated in helping children living in foster care to adapt and adjust in academic and social settings.
A child's ability to adjust depends on a variety of factors. Some of the most important factors in a child's ability to adjust are the types of feelings the child has about him or herself. Research has suggested that almost all foster children experience a low sense of self-esteem (how good they feel about themselves) and a low sense of self-efficacy (the belief that they can start and finish a task successfully). Children with a history of neglect and abuse who experience foster care often feel rejected and have a poorly developed sense of trust for adults - all adults. Tragically, it is also common for foster children to blame themselves for the abuse and neglect they experienced while in their natural home.
Many foster children also struggle with issues of loss and grieving due to the separation from their families. Children who have been separated from their families also struggle with identity issues. This is particularly true in those children who are placed with families of a culture different from that of the child's native culture. The constant struggle with such strong emotional issues, in addition to the stigma often associated with being a foster child, often result in foster children who have not developed the ability to interact with their peers in a developmentally appropriate manner. As a result, some foster children, particularly those with a history of neglect and abuse, are more likely than their peers to be aggressive, moody, and to act-out.
It is important for of school-age child care providers to work together with school officials, social services and the children's guardians to provide children with an appropriate and enriching environment. School-age child care providers must provide children with an environment in which they feel secure expressing their feelings. To do this, child care providers can display quiet listening, use praise and encouragement, and promote positive behavior. When disciplining, use "I" statements combined with concrete descriptions of the behavior. For example, "I don't like it very much when you yell at me. It makes me feel sad." In doing so, the child learns that the behavior is inappropriate, but the child is OK. This is particularly important given the fragile emotional make-up of foster children. This positive and nurturing environment will enhance the child's attachment to and trust of adults which can lead to increased self-efficacy and self-esteem. Child care providers have an understanding of the factors that affect a child's self-esteem and self-efficacy. They should be able to provide verbal reinforcement, modeling and multiple experiences with activities designed to increase a child's self-esteem and self-efficacy.
In addition, school-age child care providers must provide children with a consistent and stable environment. Unfortunately, this stable, nurturing environment is difficult to maintain given the high level of mobility in the foster care population. While research shows that foster children may spend more than two years in foster care, they may only stay in a single placement for a period of months. In some cases, children are moved from town to town and from one school system to the next. It is important that school-age child care providers work with the social workers and foster parents whenever possible to help prepare the child for change. This includes contacting the next school system and appropriate school-age child care program director to help maintain consistency.
This is certainly not a complete list. Of great importance to the ability of any school-age child care program to enhance the academic and social development of any child, providers must make a personal investment to the children and families. As one school-age child care provider commented, in the case of foster children, "Sometimes, you have to remember the little things for the kids. Like helping them make a costume or comb their hair." This personal investment also involves developing a strong understanding of the foster care system, it's policies, practices, and procedures and becoming an active advocate for foster children. Most importantly, providers must develop an awareness and sensitivity to the impact of foster care on children and families. Many social service agencies across the country offer training sessions for families and child care providers.
American Public Welfare Association, 1995. Children's Defense League, 1993.