Growing Up in Foster Care: Elementary and Middle School

This is the second post in a series examining educational challenges facing youth in foster care, from early childhood into college—and some promising solutions to creating pathways to college and career success.

Megan Hill entered foster care at age 7 and then attended three elementary schools, four middle schools, and three high schools in the Philadelphia area while living in multiple foster homes.

Ollie Hernandez moved through nine schools during 10 years in foster care in Las Vegas. Though bright and capable, she struggled because her schools didn’t understand how to work with foster children. She said teachers and school administrators placed her in classes that were either too basic or too advanced. “Just as I’d get settled in one class, they would change my schedule and move me into different classes.”

Since more than two-thirds of the 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system are students between the ages of 6 and 19, many get left behind, just like Megan and Ollie did.

Most children’s elementary and middle school years are a time of great growth and opportunity in supportive settings that nurture their curiosity and strengthen the reasoning and relationship skills needed to succeed in and out of the classroom. But children in the foster care system at these ages risk having their normal development disrupted by traumatic stops and starts as they move from home to home and from school to school.

Given education’s profound impact on lifelong outcomes, how can schools and child welfare systems, including courts, ensure a young person’s educational well-being amid multiple moves and chaotic family dynamics?

Judges who oversee child dependency cases can convene families, caseworkers, school staff, and students to develop school success plans reflecting each child’s needs. In New York, dependency court judges use a simple checklist during initial hearings to determine and prioritize the educational needs of foster children. For elementary and middle school students, the checklist includes these questions:

  1. Is the child attending school?
  2. How is the child faring in school?
  3. How does this placement impact the child’s school continuity and stability?
  4. Are school records in the child’s case file?
  5. What medical, developmental, and emotional needs impact the child’s educational performance?
  6. Does the child require education support services, including special education evaluation or services?
  7. Who is the child’s educational decision-maker?

For adolescents in foster care, all the usual hormonal changes are complicated by disruptions at home and school. Some foster youth may take on adult personas to cope with their housing instability, an adaptation that often causes problems at school when they may appear to question adults’ authority.

Some local initiatives have been able to ease the transitions. In Colorado, the Fostering Healthy Futures program uses screening assessments, one-on-one mentoring, and skills groups to strengthen students’ social functioning, attitudes, coping skills, behavioral regulation, and extracurricular involvement to reduce behavior problems and dropout rates, while improving engagement and achievement. Young people in this program have fewer mental health issues and have had fewer placements in new foster homes—two positive influences on their in-school experiences.

Having four or more changes in school placements in a year places foster youth at risk of homelessness. Almost one-third living with such extreme instability have reportedly been homeless at some time in their young lives. Sadly, lack of safe housing may also place such youth at risk for involvement in the sex trade, a pathway often filled with brutality and forced drug use.

Federal policymakers recognize the need to prevent homelessness from jeopardizing a young person’s success in school. Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, schools must appoint liaisons to work with homeless students and their families and must work to eliminate any barriers, such as lack of transportation, that may hinder school attendance.

States also have started to craft solutions. Alaska requires school districts to keep educating homeless students in their schools of origin and provide transportation to school while those students are homeless. Maine’s program for homeless youth and runaways contracts with organizations to provide street and community outreach, drop-in programs, emergency shelter, and transitional-living services.

Middle childhood, with its tugs of changing biological, emotional, and social tides, is a demanding time for all young persons. Foster children face additional challenges as they navigate these choppy waters without the anchors of safe and stable adult, home, and school environments. When schools, courts, service providers, and policymakers recognize and prioritize these students’ educational needs beginning early in their lives, the damage can be limited and young people can successfully transition to high school.

My next post will explore successful strategies for supporting teenage foster youth through high school and beyond to the responsibilities and opportunities of college, career, and life as adults.

Patricia Campie is a principal researcher at AIR, where she leads research and evaluation studies on such topics as child welfare, justice system reform, gun violence prevention, and improving implementation of evidence-based practices.