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The Foster Care Label in the Classroom: Effects on Teachers’ Judgments and Decision-Making

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:

  1. How academically successful the felt the student would be in the future?

  2. Why this student might be having difficulty in the classroom?

  3. 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