In my clinical work I find that there are a few phrases that I tend to use over and over. One of my favorite things to say to parents and other caregivers goes something like: “I’m going to work with your child for one hour a week and I think we can do a lot of good in that hour. But it’s the people that your child is around the other 167 hours that are going to be the most important tool that we have.” It might be a little cliché, but in my experience (as well as in the research literature), the importance of a having a coordinated team of adults including caregivers, teachers, coaches, therapists, medical providers, and others cannot be overstated. Although these teams are important for all children, they are particularly important for children in foster care.
Children in foster care are at increased risk for academic problems and may benefit from additional supports both within and outside of the classroom (O’Higgins, Sebba, & Luke, 2015; Scherr, 2007). Recent policy and other efforts (Every Student Succeeds Act, 2016, Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, 2008) place a strong emphasis on increasing communication and collaboration between schools and other agencies that serve youth in foster care (e.g., Clemens, Helm, Myers, Thomas, & Tis, 2017; Ferguson & Wolkow, 2012; Weinberg, Zetlin, & Shea, 2009). The logic behind these efforts is fairly straightforward: by increasing communication and collaboration between child welfare services, foster parents, and other service providers, we can provide more comprehensive, coordinated services to support youth in foster care and improve academic and behavioral outcomes. Higher academic achievement and positive school experiences promote more positive social, occupational, economic, and health outcomes across the lifespan (Drapeau, Saint-Jacques, Lepine, Bégin, & Bernard, 2007; Shpiegel, 2016). Sounds great, right?
Although promising, policies to increase communication and collaboration between schools and agencies serving youth in foster care have received some pushback. Foster youth, foster parents, and child welfare workers report concerns that when teachers hear that a student is in foster care, they will assume that that student is hopeless, dangerous, damaged, or lacking competence. They worry that teachers’ biases will negatively impact educational experiences for foster youth (Altshuler, 2003; Choice et al., 2001; Clemens et al., 2017; Farmer, Selwyn, & Meakings, 2013; Jee, Conn, Toth, Szilagyi, & Chin, 2014; Noonan et al., 2012; Rogers, 2016). We don’t know yet, though, whether informing teachers that a student is in foster care impacts the judgments or decisions teachers make about that student.
In response to these concerns, and with support from my advisor, Dr. Sandra Azar, I developed a study to answer the following question: Do elementary school teachers judge students differently or make different decisions when they are told a student is in foster care? In an online survey, 179 teachers were presented with descriptions of the classroom performance of six hypothetical male students who had recently moved into their classroom. For two of the hypothetical students we told teachers that the student had recently moved into the district because they were placed in foster care. The other hypothetical students were given different reasons for moving (e.g., a parent changed jobs or a parent was stationed at a local military base). Then, teachers were giving information about the student’s academic performance. For example,
“You have noticed that he does his homework on a regular basis, however he often forgets school supplies at home. He participates in class with appropriate verbal contributions. You have also noticed that he will look up the solutions at the end of the book rather than completing assignments by himself.”
We used a randomization procedure to make sure that different descriptions carried the foster care label for different teachers. Then, teachers were asked questions to assess:
How academically successful the felt the student would be in the future?
Why this student might be having difficulty in the classroom?
Would they refer this student for an evaluation for special education services?
Because teachers were given equivalent information regarding students’ classroom performance, but different reasons for moving, we could test if teachers make different judgments and decisions when they know a student is in foster care.
The results were striking. When told a student was in foster care, teachers reported significantly lower expectations for that student’s end-of-year grades, good report cards, and successful school careers. Although they did not differ in expectations that the student would “achieve well in your class,” they had significantly lower expectations that the student would perform well compared to their peers. We also found that teachers blamed different things for difficulty in the classroom if the student was in foster care. Compared to students not labeled as in foster care, teachers were more likely to attribute academic difficulties of students in foster care to external and uncontrollable factors (e.g., home life, neighborhood) and less likely to attribute their difficulties to internal and controllable factors (e.g., ability, effort). Finally, we found that teachers were more likely to refer the student for a special education evaluation if they were identified as being in foster care.
The findings from our study suggest that knowing a student is in foster care may lead teachers to hold lower expectations, blame the student’s difficulty on external, uncontrollable factors, and be more likely to recommend the student for an evaluation for special education services. But what does this mean for the student? It’s tough to say for sure, but previous studies suggest that this pattern of judgments and decisions may have a negative effect on students’ educational experiences. For example, multiple studies have shown that teachers’ expectations for students predict future student performance (even when accounting for the students’ current level of performance; e.g., Baker, Tichovolsky, Kupersmidt, Voegler-Lee, & Arnold, 2015; Zhu, Urhahne, & Rubie-Davies, 2018). Similarly, although blaming foster youths’ academic difficulties on external, uncontrollable factors may have some positive effects (e.g., reducing teacher anger/frustration with the student), this could also result in teachers not holding students in foster care to the same standards as their peers (Rattan, Good, & Dweck). Finally, although a tendency to refer students in foster care for special education evaluations may be helpful for ensuring that students with special education needs receive additional services, this could also result in an over-representation of foster youth in special education, which may impact long-term academic success. Taken together, these patterns of judgments and decisions for youth in foster care may lead to students in foster care not receiving adequate academic challenges and/or receiving the message that they are not as competent as their peers. In turn, these judgments and decisions could negatively impact foster youths’ beliefs about their academic abilities and ultimately, their academic performance and long-term outcomes.
I already used a cliché at the beginning of this post, so I will avoid ending with a section about “what does all of this mean?” Instead, I will say a few things about what this does NOT mean and suggest some ways to reduce the impact of biases in the classroom. The results of this study do not mean that teachers are particularly biased toward foster youth. Generally, teachers value fairness very highly and have a strong desire to avoid engaging in biased judgments and decisions regarding their students (Taymans et al., 2008). These findings also do not mean that we should stop communication and collaboration between schools and agencies that serve foster youth. As I said at the beginning, coordinated, cohesive services and a strong network of caring adults are crucial for supporting youth in foster care. To me, these findings suggest that as we try to increase coordination of services for foster youth, we must also be aware of the potential for biased judgments and decisions and take steps to reduce biases.
One way to reduce biases is to increase exposure to stereotyped groups (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2008). This means increasing teachers’ exposure to students in foster care and the foster care system at large. Indeed, in our study, we found that teachers’ experience teaching students in foster care reduced the amount of bias on several of the judgments that we measured. Therefore, it may be helpful to look for opportunities to increase teachers’ exposure to and knowledge of the foster care system. We can also incorporate formal bias reduction trainings into efforts to increase communication and collaboration. Teachers’ strong desire to reduce their own biases and treat all students fairly may make these trainings even more effective.
Finally, increasing teachers’ wellbeing is crucial. My mother was a public school teacher for 30 years, and I have seen first-hand how difficult and stressful teaching can be. Even without this personal experience, a quick look at research on teacher stress and burnout highlights how hard a job teaching can be (Wood, 2002). In our study, we found some preliminary evidence that when teachers have higher wellbeing (most notably better sleep), they exhibited less biased judgments and decisions toward students in foster care.
As we take steps to increase communication and collaboration between schools and other providers serving youth in foster care, we must also take steps to mitigate unintended consequences, including bias toward foster youth. Increasing awareness, training, and support for teachers will help ensure that we maximize the strong positive impact of teachers and other school staff on the lives of students in foster care.
If you are interested in learning more about foster youth in school settings, the laws impacting foster youth in school, and resources for training and support, more information can be found at the following website: https://www.pafostercare.org