Growing Up in Foster Care: Our Littlest Ones

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

On any given day upwards of 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system are living in the care of someone other than their biological parents.

One-third of these children enter the foster care system before age five, just as they should be making the transition from preschool to kindergarten. Seventy-five percent must change schools when they enter the foster care system, and during their first year in foster care, they experience an average of three different home placements—often changing schools again and again.

It’s no surprise that these young students tend to fall behind their classmates, miss more days in school, and, over time, experience lower high school graduation rates, and less success in college.

Given the very difficult early years for so many children in foster care and the consequences for their educational experience and achievement, what approaches can help bring these children up to parity with their peers?

Research demonstrates that many of the poor educational outcomes among foster youth that manifest themselves in grade school and high school begin long before formal education begins. Unfortunately, 90 percent of children in the foster care system have had their early lives disrupted by traumatic events including child abuse and neglect, exposure to domestic violence, community violence, and experiencing the violent death of a loved one, among others.

Attending preschool, where children can develop social skills and adjust to classroom settings, is a protective factor against depression into middle and high school. Studies indicate, however, that children in foster care are less likely to be enrolled in Head Start than other eligible, low-income children due to frequent placement changes. Research consistently shows that children who lack permanent homes, including those in foster care and who are homeless, perform significantly worse on standardized tests than children in stable housing.

In a national study of 1,087 people who had been in foster care, young people with even one less change in living arrangement per year were almost twice as likely to graduate from high school before leaving foster care.

School readiness begins to develop through early experiences and relationships that provide the foundation for a person’s future.  We can identify five ways to bolster school readiness and reduce the risks that young children face when early entry into foster care disrupts their educational opportunities:

1. Designate an advocate to focus on the child’s educational needs.

In California, some counties have assigned an education liaison to ensure that toddlers and preschool-age children receive developmental assessments. These efforts have increased the percentage of children enrolled in preschool from 42 percent to 59 percent over two years.

2. Screen all children for learning and developmental disabilities when they enter foster care.

All children between the ages of three and five living in Illinois receive a school readiness screening as part of an Integrated Assessment performed within 30 days of entering foster care.

3. Enroll more foster children in preschool.

Many states, such as Arkansas, California, and Illinois, require that all school-age children in foster care must be enrolled in and attend school, including preschool.

4. Minimize movement from school to school.

The federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 requires child welfare agencies to have a plan for “ensuring the educational stability of the child while in foster care.” One way to do this is simply to require that children remain in the schools where they were enrolled at time of foster care placement.

5. Train foster parents in skills needed to support their foster child’s educational success.

Roughly 25 percent of child welfare placements are made to the homes of children’s extended family members. These “kinship” placements are often made with grandparents or others who may not have had positive educational experiences when they were young. The PrepNOW! program in New York and Los Angeles teaches foster parents the values and skills needed to support their child’s educational progress through high school and into college. AIR is currently evaluating the impact of this promising program.

Being placed in foster care is traumatic, but the emotional harm and detrimental effects on academic achievement and social skills development can be mitigated. Because foster children continue to struggle during their elementary and middle school years, my next post in this series will explore some of the promising practices that help these children do better in school and make more healthy transitions to middle childhood.

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.