I’m writing this blog post to get people thinking about how they support their students living in a group home or foster care. Few educators have personally experienced this or deeply understand the experiences of someone who has. So, here’s what I wish educators knew about teaching youth who live in foster care or a group home.
I write this as a person who lived in a group home for 3.5 years, from the middle of 9th grade until my first day at UCLA. If you’re interested in learning more about that part of my life, I shared it here in my short ShadowCon talk.
While I hope to be helpful and provide context and strategies that are applicable to all students, I can’t emphasize enough that my thoughts are extremely biased by my own experiences. I’ve broken this post into three parts: relationships, behavior, and academics.
I don’t know how to say this subtly, but in the time that I lived in the group home, two residents committed suicide. I wasn’t close to either of them, but when that is part of the environment you live in…
Building and maintaining relationships with the adults was also hard, but for a different reason. While most were very kind, ultimately it was a job for them and there were at least 20 people who were my guardian in 3.5 years. In that kind of situation, it feels like no one understands you and it makes you hesitant to open up because that person will be gone soon enough. Can you imagine how much I valued my relationships with the teachers who made an effort to connect with me? They were the most stable people in my life.
Making friends at school was also challenging. Maybe I shouldn’t have been, but I was embarrassed to live in a group home and I tried to hide it. Living in a group home also limited my ability to get together with these friends outside of school. I wouldn’t let them come to where I lived and there were also significant restrictions like non-negotiable bed times and limited free time to leave the facility. This made it hard to spend time together and made you feel like an outsider.
I remember also being embarrassed about my clothing. When I came to the group home, the entirety of my possessions were the clothes I was wearing and what fit in my backpack. Initially, I didn’t want to go to school because I would have to wear the same clothes multiple times a week and didn’t want to be teased. I didn’t tell anyone that. I just seemed like a kid who refused to go to school. Obviously this issue did get resolved, but I think it speaks towards where students are coming from. Maybe they have bruises they want to fade away. Maybe they haven’t gotten a haircut in a long time. Maybe all their clothes are hand-me-downs. The reality is that these students may appear to be defiant or non-cooperative, but this could be a symptom of a problem you wouldn’t suspect when you haven’t walked in their shoes.
Holidays were rough while living in the group home and even afterwards. It really made you self-conscious as it seemed like everyone else was excited to spend time with family, go on vacations, or receive gifts. Many kids living in group homes become sad because they feel left out or recall easier times from their childhood. For me, this actually continued into college. People would go home for the holidays like Thanksgiving and I wouldn’t have anywhere to go. For spring break I could at least stay in my dorm, even if there wasn’t food service. However for winter break I had to leave the dorms and sleep on my friends’ couches for two weeks. As a result, when I rented my first apartment during my junior year, I appreciated it far more than most. So, when you’re doing a holiday celebration and you’re thinking everyone is feeling happy, they may not be. Remember, if school is where it feels safe, then the last thing they want is to be in the group home for the next two weeks. Check in with them to see where they’re at.
Other things I wished I had in retrospect were more mentors. Remember that for a lot of students living in group homes or foster care, there aren’t role models to guide them. Going to college may not even be on their radar because it’s hard to think about the future when you’re concerned with just getting through the day. I really needed someone to build a relationship with me at school that lasted through my time there. Maybe someone who would have advised me on which courses to take to be competitive or even just basic life advice that guardians tend to pass on to their kids. While I love my life now, I occasionally wonder about how much farther I could have gotten with the right environment.