A Conversation with an Educator
Lynne Steyer Noble is Associate Professor of
Education at Columbia College in South Carolina and is both
a biological and adoptive parent. She has fostered many children,
has trained foster and adoptive parents and caseworkers for
the South Carolina Department of Social Services, and has
made adoptive placements through her private adoption agency.
She is truly the epitome of the term “resource parent.”
In her role as an educator, but with her experience as a parent,
she talked in 2002 with Casey Family Programs National Center for Resource Family Support about
what teachers should know about children in foster care.
It is important for teachers to know, first of all, that
a child is in foster care, and then to be able to access the
child’s relevant academic records. Often, teachers think
they can’t ask about foster care, agencies think they
can’t tell, and foster families are afraid to violate
the child’s confidentiality. Rules may be different
from state to state and even from district to district, but
teachers should explore what they are entitled to have access
to, and then try to get that information.
Resource parents, like all parents, may be either uninvolved
in the academic life of the children in their care or may
be relentless advocates for the children’s needs. Teachers
need to understand that when parents are “bulldogs”
it’s a good thing – these children especially
need someone who is on their side. It’s up to the teacher
to harness the energy and commitment of these parents to promote
positive change for the child in care.
Every teacher should look at his or her curriculum, routines,
expectations, and classroom with the question in mind, “Is
this foster-care friendly?” For example:
Children in care, as well as those in adoptive, kinship,
guardianship, and blended homes may be unable to complete
assignments that call for the construction of a family
Even a “simple” assignment, like bringing
in a baby picture, may be impossible for a child who has
lived with multiple families.
In some jurisdictions, foster parents may not have the
authority to complete a permission slip for a field trip.
Teachers need to allow the family time to get the form
signed through the agency, and need to be sensitive to
the need of the child to not be “different”
in yet another situation.
Classrooms should contain materials that are “foster
care friendly” such as books that contain depictions
of different kinds of families, including foster, adoptive,
and relative caregiving families.
Many children in foster care are behind academically. Often
this is due to inconsistent school attendance, multiple moves,
and lack of support from home, rather than lack of ability.
However, teachers need to understand that they can’t
necessarily bring children up to grade level in one year.
Children with multiple concerns, including loss and grief
issues and uncertainty about their futures, are not going
to be able to focus their attention on academics. There are
many areas other than school subjects where teachers can make
a significant difference. They can contribute to meeting the
social and emotional needs of children in care by understanding,
caring, and attending to the day-to-day interactions with
other children in the classroom. Teachers can back off on
academic expectations when more pressing needs come first.
Teachers can contact a child’s former teacher to find
out not only the child’s academic status, but to learn
what other strengths and challenges the child may have.
Materials and tasks in the classroom can be structured so
that the child is able to achieve success in some areas, even
if academics are a problem. The teacher needs to start with
the child – where is he/she academically, socially,
emotionally – and then find ways to help that child
fit into the class. Reduced academic expectations is one area,
but there are other places the child in foster care may be
able to feel successful. For example, give the child responsibility
for a caregiving activity such as feeding an animal, watering
plants, or passing out supplies to provide an opportunity
for feeling useful and competent.
Remember, though, that many children in foster care find
it difficult to trust adults, often for good reason. Teachers
should recognize their own status as potential disappointers
in the eyes of children in care, and be willing to accept
the child’s initial lack of trust, working to achieve
a better relationship over time.
Back to academics, educators need to recognize that the reality
is many of these children are not going to perform well at
grade level, no matter what we do. They are often behind when
they come to us, and the emotional distractions of being separated
from family, home, friends, and previous school are going
to make concentration on reading and arithmetic very difficult.
If the child is in fourth grade but reading at a second grade
level, the teacher needs to start there, and not grade the
child on failure to read at the fourth grade level. This is
going to be problematic when standardized testing is important
to the school and to the teacher, but what we really need
to be concerned with is the child.
Many children in foster care are given labels such as “learning
disabled.” While this can be an opportunity to secure
extra resources for learning, it can also be one more negative
connotation in the life of a child who already feels different
from his/her peers. Academic problems are not always the result
of learning disabilities, but can instead stem from a variety
of school and family issues that make it difficult for the
child to succeed. What children in foster care need most are
strong advocates in the schools. Teachers, resource parents,
agency staff and birth families can all contribute to school
success if given the information they need to understand the
problem and the opportunity to collaborate with the school
in providing support to children who need it.
In closing we asked Dr. Noble whether she could recommend
any children’s books that deal realistically and sensitively
with the issue of out-of-home care. She mentioned two, both
appropriate to the 5th to 8th grades:
However, it deals with some of the other issues raised in
this book, including racial prejudice and responsibility
and control, without providing specific guidance on handling
the substitute care issues pertinent to foster care.
Gibbons, K. (1997). Ellen Foster. New York: Random House.
A young girl from a troubled family searches for a permanent
home. A teacher’s guide from Random House is available
online at http://www.randomhouse.com/acmart/teacherguides/ellfostg.html
Byars, B. C. (1997).The Pinballs. New York: Harper. The
story of three children who meet while in foster care in
the same home. Ethemes, an Internet site providing resources
for teachers, contains a number of links
to educational activities for use with this book. http://www.emints.org/ethemes/resources/S00000806.shtml
Last updated 03/05/05