Back to in person learning
August 31, 2021
As students in foster care are returning to in-person school, many for the first time in over a year, this year’s transition back into the classroom may be met with a great deal of anxiety for students who have already experienced significant change in their lives. There are several things that foster parents and teachers can do to help students in foster care transition back into the classroom.
“Foster parents should have a conversation with their students to debrief remote learning and discuss how that went and how they did. If students prefer remote as opposed to in-person, don’t be afraid to ask why. I know there were a number of students who had a lot of social anxieties around returning in person, and that was the motivator,” said Thomas Lyman, Students in Transition Liaison for District 8 in Weld County. Thomas serves around 150 to 200 students in his district currently in foster care as well as an additional 450 students experiencing homelessness.
Whenever possible Thomas recommends organizing a pre-tour of the school before school starts when other students are not in the building to allow students to get their bearings before school starts and meet teachers or counselors to help them feel more comfortable on the first day. If touring the inside of the school isn’t possible, Thomas recommends driving by the building before the first day of school to help students not feel as overwhelmed.
“I think it can be a big culture shock. If you are getting calls home about behavior concerns that teachers or administrators are setting it can be a symptom of something else. Maybe they’re having some anxiety about returning in person. Shutting down and not wanting to be there might translate to not doing the work they are supposed to or not going to class in some cases,” said Thomas. “If they are struggling going back in person and it is causing social anxieties, reach out to school counselors, social workers or school-based therapists who would be able to maybe check in with them and provide therapy services.”
Thomas also recommends having parents reach out to their districts to see if extracurricular activities are restarting at every grade level. Thomas always tries to connect the students he works with to teacher sponsors for student clubs and organizations so they can continue to build ties to the school and the community. Extracurricular activities can also be a positive way for students to connect with peers who share similar interests and work on developing stronger social skills in a more relaxed environment that can relieve some anxiety around in-person interactions with a larger group of peers.
“Particularly in middle school and early high school, having an irrational fear of social interactions and feeling like everyone is judging them is common, so getting them into those situations on a with fewer peers in extracurricular activities can help relieve those anxieties by showing them that their fears around social interaction aren't really rational,” said Thomas.
Both Thomas and foster parents on the Colorado Foster Care page recommended reaching out to teachers and special education professionals at the school to connect about the students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and/or 504 plans. If anyone who is supporting the student is interested in getting an IEP evaluation done, Thomas recommends getting it done while school is in person so the student can get the support they need. Even if a student doesn’t have an IEP or a 504 plan, foster parents can connect with family or foster care liaisons like Thomas to identify academic assistance and other support students may need. On the Colorado Foster Care Facebook page, a foster parent also recommended writing to teachers to provide important information about a child or youth, such as the names of their biological siblings, as well as asking for sensitivity around different family types when family-oriented projects are assigned.
“We don't always know when a student is in care and having foster parents attending best interest determination (BID) meetings, where the school of origin, potential receiving school, the guardian ad litem and other stakeholders have a conversation to decide if the student should remain in their current school or if it in their best interest to change schools, is important because foster parents can often share crucial insights the schools don’t have,” said Thomas.
Thomas encouraged teachers with students in foster care and students experiencing homelessness to remain sensitive to their unique needs. Some students might be more concerned about fulfilling more basic needs, maintaining relationships with siblings or biological parents, or addressing trauma than they are with their education. Thomas also encouraged teachers to involve a liaison like himself in challenging conversations with the student and their guardians. He also recommended that the student be present whenever possible so they can feel heard rather than feeling that others are making decisions for them.
“I always encourage guardians and teachers to take the approach of making the student feel supported rather than having it be adversarial. Rather than saying ‘you're so behind’ building a team around that student at the school to help them feel supported, so that team also become points of contact they feel comfortable reaching out to when they need assistance,” said Thomas.