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Bridging the Gap: Helping Children in Foster Care Reach Academic Success

Children in foster care face many unique challenges, both personally and academically. These challenges don’t just go away when a youth exits the foster care system. To address this gap in academic support for Nebraska youth who are moving towards permanency — whether that be adoption, guardianship, independent living or reunification — it’s essential to empower both children and their caregivers to find success in academics and ultimately in adult life.

Learn more about the impact of foster care on academics, what caregivers can do to help and how the Fostering Educational Success program is helping prepare youth in foster care for a better future.

Academic Challenges for Children in Foster Care

The challenges facing children in foster care are significant. “Children in foster care spend 20 months on average in foster care, and then they have on average three home placements and three school placements,” explains Emily Kunkle, the Fostering Educational Success Supervisor at KVC Nebraska.

Emily Kunkle, the Fostering Educational Success Supervisor

Emily Kunkle, Fostering Educational Success Supervisor



“With every school placement, they fall a half a grade to a full grade behind academically, and naturally that really impacts their outcomes.”


The data behind these averages are staggering. According to research by MSLPD Rethinking Behavior, children who have been in foster care may average three school changes before aging out of the foster care system or moving to permanency. And some adolescents may go through as many as seven school changes. 

The lack of educational success for children in foster care was even more significant in 2020 when the pandemic brought challenges to academics across the board. The first year of the COVID-19 pandemic produced a graduation rate of 55%. Additionally, only 3% of graduates obtained a post-secondary degree.

Mom dropping child off at schoolFor any child, transitioning to a new school (even under ideal circumstances!) can be chaotic. New teachers, new classes, new curriculum, new hallways to navigate, new friends, even a new cafeteria: it’s a lot of change at once. However, switching to a new school while experiencing a change in foster placement can be truly traumatic. 

Children in foster care are more likely to be prescribed medication, more likely to receive a mental health diagnosis and three times more likely to be suspended from school. By the time youth in foster care reach adulthood, the outcomes of these difficulties can manifest as lower-wage jobs, a greater chance of unemployment and even higher incarceration rates.

How Trauma Impacts a Child’s Ability to Succeed Academically

One of the biggest challenges to a child’s academic success is trauma. As Kunkle explains, “Anyone who has experienced foster care has experienced trauma to some degree.” Trauma negatively impacts children in foster care in four major ways:

  1. Cognitively: When a child is experiencing trauma, they have a harder time concentrating and problem-solving, two essential cognitive skills for learning readiness.
  1. Emotionally: A child working through trauma may have a hard time regulating their emotions. They may have limited coping skills and can become easily impatient, frustrated or overwhelmed.
  1. Behaviorally: As a result of poor self-regulation skills due to the trauma they’re experiencing, children in foster care often have little to no impulse control and may be particularly aggressive.
  1. Socially: It can be very difficult for children in foster care to develop attachments at school. In part, because they may frequently change school districts and leave friends. As a result, they may be reluctant to get to know new teachers and peers.

How Parents and Foster Parents Can Actively Support Children in Their Care

Knowing how to properly support a child in your care can be difficult. But as a foster parent, you have a lot of power to positively influence their academic success! Children who are successful academically need some amount of stability at home. Support needs to go beyond the basics of providing a desk and a quiet place to study. Here are a few specific things you can do as a parent or foster parent to encourage academic success:

Have Intentional One-on-One Time

Father helping childSpend at least 10-15 minutes of intentional one-on-one time with your child, focusing the conversation on fun and relational topics. Avoid stressful subjects like homework or discipline. The goal is bonding, not reviewing a checklist of academic to-dos!

Provide Thoughtful Support

If your child is struggling academically, be a resource of positive interventions that give them support. Many parents know what it’s like to ask “How was your day,” and be met with an eye roll or the silent treatment! Instead, try “What is one new thing you learned today?” Intentional questions reinforce the value of education while putting a positive light on the learning experience.

Advocate for Your Youth

Advocating for the child or teen in your care is one major way you can support them academically (and model how they can advocate for themselves too). In many cases, youth will have school-based supports through an IEP or 504 plan. To best advocate for the youth we recommend taking the time to understand the IEP or 504 document, communicate frequently with the school, and help the youth to understand their academic or behavioral supports. This will ensure preparation, so if a concern arises you are in a position to advocate for the youth.

Many youth in foster care have IEPs or 504s, for example, but these may not be adequately accommodated at school. Good communication ensures the utilization of IEPs and 504s and the support of the youth’s academic needs. Proactively introducing yourself to teachers can go a long way too. Then if the child in your care struggles down the line, you’ll already be connected.


Seek Additional Support

Mother, phone call and typing on laptop and working while girl play at home. Busy parent, entrepreneur or freelance worker trying to work or network on mobile technology and child drawing on paperIf you’re unsure how to best help your child succeed in school, it’s okay to ask for help! That’s exactly what programs like Fostering Educational Success at KVC Nebraska are designed to do. “One of the great things about our program,” says Kunkle, “is teaching [caregivers] skills to help them connect with school and demonstrate that education is of value to them.”

Fostering Educational Success teaches caregivers valuable skills like:

  • How to use and monitor their child’s school portal and other school technology and resources
  • How to effectively communicate with teachers and staff regarding both positive experiences and difficulties occurring at school
  • And how to advocate for their child’s needs in an academic setting

Fostering Educational Success: How We Help Youth Who Have Experienced Foster Care

The Fostering Educational Success program is for guardians, foster parents, biological parents, adoptive parents and kinship caregivers. Kunkle defines the program this way: “Fostering Educational Success is an education and family-based support program for youth exiting foster care into their permanency placement.”

Because this program is still in the research-study phase, participating youth must meet the following criteria:

  • Be between 7-19 years old
  • Either are in foster care currently or have a history of being in foster care
  • Live within 60 miles of Lincoln, NE or Omaha, NE
  • Have a caregiver committed and willing to participate
  • Be English-speaking (though English does not need to be their first language)
  • And be moving toward permanency (adoption, guardianship, independent living or reunification)

Portrait of a teenager boy studying at homeThrough teaching key academic support skills to caregivers, our hope is to empower children transitioning out of foster care to attain greater academic achievement. These key skills are divided into three components taught throughout the program: Family Cohesion, Academic Engagement and School Connectedness.

1. Family Cohesion

For this first part of the program, caregivers are taught skills from the evidence-based Strengthening Families program. Through videos and workbook exercises, topics include effective communication, problem-solving, identifying prosocial peers, drug and alcohol prevention and mindfulness. The ultimate goal is to integrate bonding, boundaries and monitoring into parenting and family practices.

2. Academic Engagement

Next, we dive into the specifics of academic practices. We work with caregivers and youth to establish good homework routines, assist in setting up tutoring if needed, teach organizational skills and ultimately aid in creating a healthy academic environment.

3. School Connectedness

This final component includes a modified version of the Check and Connect drop-out prevention intervention. KVC Nebraska’s Family Coaches collect data every day on youth behavior, attendance and grades to provide both intensive and basic interventions that help children in foster care find success in the classroom. This extends beyond the bounds of the school as well, providing support with extracurricular involvement, applying for jobs, writing resumes and post-secondary preparedness.

Academic Success is for Everyone

foster kids, academicThe Fostering Educational Success program isn’t exclusively for students who are at risk of failing classes, nor is it for those who have attendance or behavioral concerns. Every child experiencing foster care could use some form of support. Our goal is to help empower caregivers to be that support while also teaching children to believe in their potential.

Kunkle shares the story of one high school senior enrolled in the Fostering Educational Success program who was thriving academically. While she had a straight-A report card, the Fostering Educational Success team supported her in preparing for post-secondary education. Just recently, Kunkle received a text from this student celebrating getting into her dream university and being invited to join the team there as a collegiate athlete!

No matter your circumstances as a child in foster care or a caregiver, we want to help. We believe you have unending potential and just need the right resources to achieve your goals! Learn more about the Fostering Educational Success program and apply here.

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