Reframing Student Success


As a foster or adoptive parent, you want your child to do well in school. Setting achievable expectations and attainable goals will help promote your child’s success -- and his or her healing.

In 2014, the Center for State Child Welfare published a report on teens who age out of foster care (available at www.fostercareandeducation.org). It presented national research about the effects of abuse, neglect, and instability that leads to foster care and how these affect a young person’s emotional and cognitive development.

Among the many troubling findings in this report is the fact that every time a child moves from one foster home to another, his or her academic skills will regress at least six months. The report found that in 2012, a child in foster care will have, on average, 2.8 different living arrangements—and that’s in the first year alone. Teens placed in foster care are at higher risk of experiencing significant struggles in high school. A teen who has experienced abuse, neglect, and instability as well as multiple foster care placements could be three years or more behind their peers, educationally.

Disruption in the home so often leads to disruption at school, and according to the 2014 report, that can have devastating consequences for a child’s future:

  • 50% of youth entering foster care change schools.
  • 34% of 17- and 18-year-olds in foster care have experienced at least five school changes.
  • Children in foster care are twice as likely to be absent from school.
  • Children in foster care are 2.5 times more likely to receive special education services.
  • The average 17- or 18-year-old in foster care reads at a 7th grade level.
  • 50% of foster youth graduate from high school when they are 18.
  • 20% of these go on to attend college.
  • Less than 10% of these obtain a bachelor’s degree. 

Examining Our Expectations as Parents

Parents who are fostering or have adopted a teen from foster care want their children to do well in school and be successful. In light of these rather grim statistics, let’s talk about what we mean by “success” in education. “Success” is a subjective and sometimes biased term, and parents often measure their parenting success by their children’s academic success—thus the high expectations. For children who have experienced abuse, neglect, and a host of educational disadvantages, disproportionately high expectations do nothing to set them up for success. It’s unrealistic, for example, to expect an 18-year-old with an eighth grade reading level, who has experienced three different foster home placements and missed significant days of school, to deliver “all A’s” on his eleventh grade homework.

Setting achievable expectations and attainable goals will help promote your child’s healing. When you talk about “success” with regard to your child’s education, you may need to reframe how you define it to better match your teen’s goals. What is an attainable goal for this student? All things considered, success might be:

  • Attending school every day without any unexcused absences. 
  • Improving her reading level by two grade levels in one year. 
  • Graduating from high school by age 19. 

College IS possible

Perhaps college is the appropriate and achievable goal for your teen. It is important to talk with your teen to determine the best college environment for them—it will make a difference. While many large universities may have more academic supports and resources, your teen may find the size of the campus and lecture halls overwhelming or impersonal. A smaller school may be able to provide more structure and individualized attention. You may want to consider the benefits of online degree programs or starting out part time. Many states provide financial assistance to teens that were in foster care after the age of 14. This can significantly assist a family with the financial burden that college may impose.

It is important for all students to attend a college or university where they are able to receive a healthy balance of support, challenge, and encouragement. Identifying the best type of college for your son or daughter will require some research and some visits to different types of colleges and universities. High school guidance counselors are able to assist students and their families with identifying schools that may be a good fit and setting up campus visits.

The Balance

As a foster or adoptive parent, you want every opportunity, every advantage, for this teen who has come from a hard place. How can you support your student who is considering college?

Begin with a conversation. How does your daughter define success? What are her goals? Has anyone talked to her about the idea of college and where to begin? You will likely need to help her break down her goals into manageable and achievable action steps.

Be a cheerleader. College is not an expectation, or even a concept, in all families. A student whose parents have an eighth grade education will have difficulty imaging himself attending college. Take him on a campus visit during his junior and senior years. Let him hear you say, and then show him, that it’s possible for him to do anything he sets his mind to.

Talk about alternatives. Traditional college simply may not be the best option for your child. What are her interests? How can he obtain further skills that lend to his strengths? Trade or technical schools can provide your son or daughter with the necessary skills and certifications to be competitive in the work force.

Obtaining a college degree may not be for everyone, but it is possible for teens who have experienced abuse and neglect. As parents who love them and want the best for their futures, you can be proud and appreciate their accomplishment when you’ve seen all they overcame to achieve it.


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