Educators Take Aim at Needs of Younger Foster Youth

California’s biggest school district put most of its funding for foster youth into extra high school services. But research, and advocates for youth in care, suggest that the problems start far earlier.

“To improve the overall outcome for foster youth, there must be early intervention,” said Jill Rowland, who serves as education program director for the Alliance of Children’s Rights in Los Angeles. “Eighty-three percent of foster youth repeat a grade by the third grade, so it’s a very early age we’re talking about that this pattern [of underperforming] begins.” The statistic Rowland cited comes from a 2009 study of foster youth from the Legislative Analyst’s Office of California.

Although the struggles of foster youth begin long before the students reach high school, a recently issued preliminary report from the University of California-Berkeley found that Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has invested more funding in high school foster youth than their elementary-aged counterparts.

California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCCF) legislation, enacted by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2013, provided districts with more money to serve vulnerable groups such as foster youth, low-income students and English-language learners. The districts, however, control how they put the additional funds to use.

The Berkeley report found that LAUSD routed 55 percent of the $145 million in LCFF investment funds it received for the 2014-15 school year to high schools, while distributing 19 percent to middle schools and 26 percent to elementary schools.

School districts may not prioritize outreach to foster youth in middle and elementary schools, Rowland suggested. But reaching foster youth in primary grades is crucial because that’s when children build their educational foundation, and traumatized children face major hurdles in the classroom, she said.

“If foster kids don’t get a high school diploma, then they might go homeless,” said Julie O’Donnell, director of research at the Child Welfare Training Center at California State University-Long Beach. “I understand, but I think that kids at every level need support. If they [school districts] provide the support earlier, foster youth won’t be having some of these problems later.”

In addressing these barriers, Rowland suggests that educators need to think about the impact of trauma on the brain.

Jill Rowland, The Alliance for Children's Rights.
Jill Rowland, The Alliance for Children’s Rights.

“Neurologically, their brains are not at a place where they can learn, and I don’t mean because they’re too tired or don’t want to,” Rowland said, “but because they’re experiencing trauma. What’s going on inside of their brain makes it hard for them to learn reading and writing and math.”

La Shona Jenkins, coordinator for LAUSD’s Foster Youth Achievement Program, said she doesn’t believe that foster youth in middle and elementary school have received the short shrift from the district. That’s because in the 2014-15 school year, LAUSD hired 67 school-based counselors to meet the needs of foster youth in all age groups. Nearly 8,300 foster youth attend schools in LAUSD, a district of 646,683 total students, according to the California Department of Education.

“If they have issues with attendance and their grades, [the new counselors] will work with the teachers at the school site,” Jenkins said. “They work with community partners, like the Department of Children and Family services, and if necessary, Probation.”

Students with anger issues may receive individual counselors, Jenkins said. Foster children may also receive group therapy or work with behavioral specialists, with psychiatric social workers serving this student population as well.

Without support, traumatized foster youth may regress behaviorally, according to Bita Ghafoori, director of the Long Beach Trauma Recovery Center. She has observed middle school foster youth who are unable to engage with peers or have “accidents,” such as wetting their pants. They may be withdrawn or depressed and, as a result, perceived as unintellegent by their teachers.

Individual therapy proves helpful for these children, according to Ghafoori, also a professor of advanced studies in education and counseling at California State University, Long Beach.

Ghafoori encountered one foster youth student who’d been sexually assaulted for six years beginning at the age of four. The child bounced around to a handful of foster homes afterward and was repeatedly suspended from school for behavior problems.

The girl finally received therapy.

“No one had really had paid attention to the trauma she experienced,” Ghafoori said. “She needed to deal with her trauma-related symptoms but she wasn’t able to because she was so young.”

After receiving therapy, the student began to earn A and B grades and her behavior also improved.

Ghafoori said that teachers must learn to identify the signs of trauma in children. During the 2014-15 school year, the Long Beach Trauma Recovery Center helped train some staffers in the Long Beach Unified School District to spot these symptoms in students. In young children, these signs include crying, clinginess, trouble focusing, angry outbursts, fighting and complaints of stomachaches or other bodily symptoms with no medical basis.

Teachers can talk to children exhibiting such symptoms, give them choices and discuss discipline policies with them, according to the center. They can also cut short activities that may trigger traumatic experiences for children. Lastly, they can ask for help to address a traumatized child’s behavior.

Next school year, the center plans to provide district-wide trauma trainings to the LBUSD community.

O’Donnell stressed that many foster youth exude resilience and manage to overcome challenges. She said that sometimes they fall back in school because “school staff might not have positive feelings about foster youth.”

“Youth in foster care have been taken out of their homes,” O’Donnell said. “Obviously that’s traumatic. The experience of being removed from the home is really difficult. Those kids might be more anxious, more hyper-vigilant. They might be angry about their whole life being turned upside down. Sometimes in schools people don’t think about the reasons behind the behavior. They just see the behavior.”

This can lead to foster youth being disciplined or suspended. O’Donnell recounted the story of a boy in foster care who typically behaved in a withdrawn and quiet manner. On occasion, however, the child would knock over a desk in class. His teacher referred him to O’Donnell, then a school social worker.

O’Donnell learned that the boy upturned the desk whenever his biological mother was supposed to visit. Not knowing if his mother would show up or not caused the boy to act out, so O’Donnell arranged for him to receive more care and one-on-one time with her on those days. It turned out that the teacher didn’t realize the boy was a foster youth.

Mentoring and buddy programs as well as after-school programs and anger management groups help foster youth excel in school, according to O’Donnell. She also recommended the Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools program. The program counters the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder by using relaxation, social problem solving and cognitive restructuring techniques.

Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist. She has written for a number of media outlets, including the Los Angeles News Group, the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and About.com.

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