Misunderstood. Webster’s dictionary defines the word as “to fail to understand; to interpret incorrectly.” This word elicits for a person many questions. Who’s being misinterpreted? Why are they being misconstrued? What is even being discussed? Could we eliminate the confusion? If so, how could this be done?
Now we have a subject--Foster children. What mental picture comes to your mind? Does it include stereotypes? Did you think of students who have issues or cause problems? Do you know anyone who is a foster child?
Let’s add a context to the subject. Children, teenagers, teachers, principals, the school nurse, office staff, custodians, coaches, bus drivers, food service workers, counselors, and other students are all part of this equation in the process of education. Each will have contact with others and impact them within that environment. Educators need additional knowledge and skills in adapting to answer the demands these unique students will place on them.
Why should these students be seen through a different filter? Why make adjustments for them? Educators already observe caustic students, their poor work habits and inappropriate behavior. These are VISIBLE and easily discerned. BUT are they? Their hardened words and actions may well come from a different source— an unwillingness to be hurt again by adults. Their inappropriate behaviors may be from poor parenting or a lack of parenting by their families.
Adults have a different connotation in the mind of foster children. Their experiences have changed their opinions and future interactions with those in authority. Fear, suspicion, deception, and outright hostility can be expected from these individuals. Children see adults as the agents of negative change(removal from home and birth family) and so fear them. They can also be seen as people whom you trust, but who will eventually go away. Another aspect of their experience has been that adults come and go, showing both kindness and abuse. Consequently, the conclusion many young people reach is that “big people” cannot be trusted at all. Your position of authority may well be a barrier which needs to be conquered. So the challenge becomes recognizing their fears, first of all. Secondly, seeking the bridges necessary to begin a new pattern of interaction with such students. Neither one of these steps will be easily realized, but you can be one more person God uses to help them adjust to their new life.
This new childhood/life is much different than you remember. For you, life is a process which includes defined stages of development. Healthy individuals have moved through those stages. It begins when as an infant, your needs are met consistently and lovingly by adults. They train and prepare you to grow up and pass through the necessary levels to attain adulthood. The help, training, and love gives you a sense of who you are and from where you originated.
These developmental stages of physical life have been charted by Erik Erikson. The child in foster care has had their development arrested or hampered by inconsistent adult interaction. The lack of the most basic needs being met shows itself in their behavior. The inconsistent actions by adults leads to confusion and mistrust in the young person. If that foundation is cracked, the individual will not move on in a healthy manner, although chronological progress can be seen. The foundation of a healthy relationship with an adult must be built for that child. The technical term is called attachment. The attached child will develop into a healthy adult while the detached person will continue to struggle. Such an individual will often respond emotionally below their chronological age. In the foster care system, it is spoken of the ¾ rule(will react to situations at ¾ of their real age). Remember that for foster children the foundation was never established or has been severely compromised. It is necessary to start where they are in order to help and continue their learning while they are in school. For many that often means they must again learn to trust an adult to meet their needs (level 1).
Another aspect to the emotional issues for the foster child is loss. The life they did know is now gone and the new is fearful. These children have now begun the grieving process--losses can be situational, maturational, developmental, or learning related. Situational losses can be categorized as the loss of birth family, pets, friends, and surroundings (church, school, clubs, etc. ) These losses are unexpected and abrupt, not constant and anticipated. Maturational changes are expected as one grows into adulthood(first tooth, kindergarten) A third type of loss, developmental, is often seen in behavior which is not age appropriate. An example of such loss could be inability to tie shoes or follow simple instructions. Fourthly, learning losses are often tied to the grieving process, though not exclusively. For example, a student may not know multiplication facts. The reasons may be a lack of school attendance, being moved, or short-term memory loss, often associated with grief. It also can show itself in a person seeking attention, a loss of energy, or rhythmic behavior. The sense of who one is has been challenged, in their mind. Their confidence and security is gone. If educators don’t know students are grieving, that process is not validated nor do educators help them process the grief and continue on to a more healthy life.
The losses and accompanying grief often has another dimension, stemming from various forms of abuse they have had to endure. Whether physical or sexual abuse, neglect of physical needs or emotional maltreatment, what has been lost is priceless. The consequences can be for a lifetime. Two layers are present in these children--loss due to abuse and loss to removal from abuse. The challenge is to relate to these students in ways which turn those losses into gains and continue their training to produce healthy and godly young people.
Now you have the knowledge, look for ways to make it practical. Brainstorm about ways to work through the grief and change those losses into gains. How can you help foster children see educators as people working for their benefit along with their birth parents, foster parents, and case workers? What behaviors should you see in a different light and to which of those should the response be atypical? What are ways you can validate who they are while working on behaviors which could be improved? How can your discipline be tailored to respond to the specific abuse which prompted their removal? An immensely critical need for foster children is trust. If trust with adults or even one positive role model adult is not reestablished, anything else you attempt as an educator is doomed. Their view of the world is fractured and skewed. Foster children need interactions with loving adults—birth parents, foster parents, and educators. Our willingness to invest in this way can help to rebuild the foundation others broke. As individuals, we all function because we know who we are. There are opportunities for you to provide such security for others.
Resources : Children’s Alliance of Kansas
PS-MAPP (Partnering for Safety and
Permanence—Model Approach to Partnerships in
chart adaptation of Erik Erikson’s stages of