Improving Educational Outcomes for Children in Foster Care

By Watson, Christina; Kabler, Brenda | National Association of School Psychologists. Communique, January/February 2012 | Go to article overview

Improving Educational Outcomes for Children in Foster Care


Watson, Christina, Kabler, Brenda, National Association of School Psychologists. Communique


Recent statistics estimate that there are 783,000 children living in foster care in the United States (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2008). This vulnerable population is at risk for academic failure as well as internalizing and externalizing behavioral problems. Compared to their peers, foster youth face significant educational difficulties, including lower levels of academic achievement, increased discipline referrals, and overrepresentation in special education. In addition, they are at an increased risk for memory problems, attention difficulties, sleep and mood disorders, emotional problems, and chronic health problems such as asthma and malnutrition (Jacobson, 1998; Lewis, Beckwith, Fortin, 8c Goldberg, 2011). It is critical to recognize the unique needs of this population in order to improve educational outcomes. For these children, who are often left without assistance to navigate through their educational careers, it is essential to provide consistent interdisciplinary support. Bringing together key stakeholders from home, school, and social service agencies is paramount to success. School psychologists are skilled in home-school collaboration and can connect team members and lead advocacy efforts to improve services for students in foster care.

ACADEMIC CONCERNS

Academically, 75% of children in foster care perform below grade level (Smithgall et al., 2004, as cited in Zetlin, Weinberg, 8c Shea, 2010). On average, these students are at least ayear behind in reading and math skill acquisition as compared to peers of the same so cioeconomic status (Zetlin, Weinberg, & Kimm, 2003). Additionally, more than 50% of this population has been retained for at least 1 year, despite the general ineffectiveness of this practice (Berrick, Courtney, & Barth, 1993 as cited in Zetlin, Weinberg, & Shea, 2010). For these students, academic progress is hindered by the fragility of their home environments, high rates of absenteeism, and frequent school transfers. The National Working Group on Foster Care and Education (2006) reports that foster youth have a school transfer rate that is twice as high as those not in out-of-home care. Often, school transfers occur midyear, thus disrupting learning. Such instability in school placement causes significant difficulties for this population; it is estimated that 37%-6o% of foster youth graduate from high school, as compared to 70% of the general student population (Burley & Halpern, 2001).

Another concern is overrepresentation in special education. Some reports indicate that approximately 30% to 50% of students in foster care receive special education services, as compared to i2%of nonfoster youth (Zetlin et al., 2004). Academic and behavior concerns may lead to an increase in the identification of disabilities, despite the many environmental factors that must be considered with such a fragile group of students. In contrast, others believe that this population is underrepresented in special education, as high rates of mobility lead to delayed identification of specific learning disabilities (Scherr, 2007; Zetlin, 2006). Regardless of educational placement, it is imperative to provide appropriate academic andbehavioral supports andinterventions for foster youth.

WHAT SCHOOL PSYCHOLOGISTS CAN DO

According to Zetlin and colleagues (2004), efforts to improve the school experiences and outcomes of foster youth have focused on four areas:

* Stability of educational placement (e.g., maintaining students in their schools of origin)

* Educational rights and opportunities (e.g., information and training on educational rights, special education, and college/ workforce preparation)

* Advocacy and cross-system liaisons (e.g., advocacy resources to assist youth and families with enrollment, suspension or expulsion, and special education)

* Quality of educational programming (Burrell, 2003, as cited in Zetlin et al.

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