Educator and former foster parent Angela Buzan shares what educators need to keep in mind to support the foster children in their schools.May 31, 2023
Angela Buzan, NBCT, taught middle and high school English for more than 14 years and now mentors first-year teachers through Northern Arizona University’s Arizona Teachers Academy. She is also a mother and former foster parent. Here, she writes about what educators should keep in mind as they work to better support the foster children in their schools.
Few people realize that the child protection system is dependent on the public school system. Unfortunately, communication between the two is almost non-existent, ironically, because the agency trusts teachers to such a degree they just count on them to be a positive influence.
In addition to compassion and patience, foster children need their teachers to be aware of these four things.
The child’s interaction sensitivities
A parent has a legal right to visit their child until that right is taken away by a judge. The standard allotment is four hours a week, which seems small until you realize it’s two-to-four-hours of one-on-one time. When hearings or illnesses impede, visits can be “stacked,” resulting in emotionally overstimulating six-to-ten-hour visits.
Imagine being in a government room with your mother and an observing stranger for hours on a Wednesday; how bubbly would you feel Thursday? Would you be eager to work with a partner? Journal about Easter? Receive one-on-one help from an aid? Attuning to this sensitivity may help a teacher plan for more effective, and subtle, classroom interactions.
The need to be positively (and quietly) noticed
In addition to supervised visits, foster children are observed by caseworkers, support agents, and counselors. It’s easy for professionals and foster parents to become brashly clinical about the child's needs – even in hearing distance of the child.
Being called out for poor behavior in class isn’t the best method of helping a foster child redirect. Instead, teach the student what they are doing right and then reinforce that you’re looking for more of that. This method of “flipping your notice” will keep you from flipping your lid. Formally called The Frequency Illusion, we tend to pay attention to the behavior we first noticed, thus reinforcing it. Said more simply: what is noticed is repeated. Be intentional about seeing the good stuff.
The child’s need for clear rules
If you don’t state your boundaries, you unintentionally challenge students to find them. Some teacher preparation programs encourage friendly rules like “be respectful, participate, etc..”. Those are great guidelines for adults at a conference, but what about a twelve-year-old in a room with thirty-one other twelve-year-olds? Broad qualities lend themselves to broad interpretations. Rules should be short, clear, and memorable.
Try this: brainstorm four behaviors that make you bananas and four you wish all kids did. Label them as your We Do’s and We Don’ts. For example: “We do raise our hands; we don’t shout out until we get attention.” This will help your students understand how to act and, more importantly, how to not get in trouble.
Your voice is important
The goal of foster care is always reunification. Unless the parent’s rights are severed by a judge, the primary intent is to make sure the child is not taken from the parent. This goal is so enforced that children are sometimes born into foster care, raised by a foster family, and then sent to their biological parents as young children in a kind of inverse adoption.
This federal guideline, titled the Minimum Sufficient Standard of Care, states that a safe parent is attentive 30% of the time that they are physically present. This is why the child protection agency depends on teachers: if a child attends before- and after-school care programs, the parent is physically present from pick-up to bedtime– say three hours a day– and would only need to be attentive 54 minutes a day, the exact length of an English class.
This is why a single teacher can have such a significant impact on a child. It is also why a teacher’s observations about a child’s needs can be critical for their case. A teacher can submit observations to a caseworker unsolicited. Such feedback may help a reforming parent who truly wants the best for their child. It may also help a child who may end up unsafe and unnoticed for years.
Learn more about child protective services in Arizona at dcs.az.gov.