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.
 

Relationships
Making and keeping healthy relationships when living in a group home is not easy. Remember that people are coming into and out of that environment. Most kids lived there for about 6 months. So, if you did make a friend, it didn’t last. There were also new kids coming in who wanted to aggressively assert themselves, and it frequently felt unsafe. Think about what it’s like to be a kid who feels safer at school than at home… and school doesn’t always feel that safe.

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.
 

Behavior
I got suspended in 10th grade for breaking a stink bomb in class. It was dumb, I know, but it’s important that you understand why I did it. I was brand new to a school that went from 4th grade to 12th grade. Everyone else already had their close friends and I felt lost at sea and badly wanted to fit in. Someone gave me the stink bomb and told me to break it. I wasn’t thinking at all about the consequences. All I wanted was for people to like me and this seemed like what I needed to do. In retrospect, I am grateful that this was all I did. Can you imagine why many kids living in group homes and foster care turn to drugs or gangs in search of acceptance? The root issue here is wanting to feel loved and accepted, even if the symptoms manifest themselves in ways that aren’t easy to decipher. This is why it is so important to reach out and build relationships with students. There may be no one better than you for this job.

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.
 

Academics
So, amongst all of this, I was supposed to do homework and study for tests. Let’s just say that the group home was not an ideal environment for academic success. I don’t remember a single person in the 3.5 years I lived there, other than me, who intended to go to college. I was blazing my own trail. There were so many other paths that would have been easier for me to travel. Somehow I held on to the vision that the only way I could get out of this mess was to get a good education. Realize that there may be things educators take for granted such as having a quiet place to work or guardians who help out. What can you do to provide support that goes above and beyond your job description for these students?

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.
 

Conclusion
Sometimes when we don’t know what to do or say, we don’t do anything at all. For students who live in foster care or at group homes, this is not the way to go. They desperately need our help, but don’t know how to ask for it. They are looking for someone to love them and make them feel welcome. If at all possible, be that person for them. Be a fan who cheers for their successes. Be a mentor who will listen and give advice. Be someone who believes in them, even when they don’t believe in themselves. They may never tell you thanks, but it will mean a great deal to them.
 
Update - May 9, 2018
Please be sure to read Sandra Balestrin’s experience in the comments below. She is also an educator who lived in a group home and adds additional perspective.
 
Update - February 18, 2022
Sometimes when I re-read this blog post I wonder if things were really as challenging as I remembered or whether the stories grew in my memories over the years. Well I was recently sent a picture of a letter I had written soon after I arrived almost thirty years ago. It felt like opening a time capsule. Someone who worked at the group home I lived at kept this letter and uncovered it while cleaning her desk. I guess things were kinda like I remembered them.

59 Comments

      • Thanks for sharing, that has really inspired me to look at ways to work with my districts in educating teachers about these issues. I too grew up in a group home but from a different vantage point. My parents were what you call “teaching parents”, so we lived at the house with the boys (mostly high school age). Needless to say I saw and experienced a lot, both good and bad, but it has molded me into the person I am today! Your story is one more teachers need to hear.

    • My parents were foster parents when I was between the ages of 10-13. Even at my young age, I need noticed something that just about every foster child would do. They would deliberately break whatever they perceived to be the most important rule, or my parents’ biggest pet peeve. At first, I just thought it was defiance because they didn’t try to hide it, and all but dared my parents to do something about it.
      Then one day I overheard my parents asking (not yelling at) one of them why they had done whatever it was they did. The answer was sobering. He said he wanted to prove that they would THROW (his word) him away when he messed up, just like everybody else has done.
      That comes flooding back into my mind now every time I encounter a “rebellious” student, and I try to remember to first ask why. I usually don’t get an answer. I also try to let them know that even though I have to follow the school’s discipline plan because action have consequences, that it’s not personal, and it says nothing about their worth.
      That’s not always easy, and I don’t always get it right, but I am trying. Sadly, though, we don’t always know who is in a group home or foster care, but if we love them all, especially the “tough” ones, it won’t matter. I guess it’s true that the most unlovable need the most love.

    • Hello
      I use to work as a house parent with my spouse
      And im looking into getting back involved with house parenting. Is there anything that a house parent can do to make it better for kids living in a group home

      • Hi Lenee. I think just listening to children and making them feel loved is something they’d appreciate. I could never have enough stable people in my life.

    • Thank you for sharing. However, i do feel your view point does have a bitof bias in it and that you had a bad experience. I have worked in a group home for over 3 years. Although you do being up good points that are factual, it should be stated that not all groyp homes are bad. Yes, it is my job, but I still take it seriously and do what I am alloeed it do under the group home regulations and the Dept. Of Corrections.

      • Hi Susan. I was describing my own experiences. I don’t have the ability to make generalizations about all group homes. Overall, I am very fortunate to have gone through the group home that I did.

        That being said, it’s worth realizing that the perspective you have as someone who works for a group home just can’t be the same as living there. It’d be like a prison guard commenting on how not all prisons are bad. Until you’re a prisoner, you’re just not going to know.

  1. Thank you for sharing. When you got to college, what do you wish your professors would have known? I teach at a small liberal arts school and have several students who are former foster kids.

    • Interesting question. I guess I would say that my desires were fairly similar: I just wanted connection. Admittedly, that is much more challenging given that the courses are often only a quarter or semester long and you’re in a room of up to hundreds of people.

      That being said, I will always remember two professors: David Martinez (an English professor) and Alan Stacey (a math professor) who made me feel like I belonged.

      I’m not sure if that is useful, but I hope that helps.

  2. I am so grateful for your post and for your courage, both as the young person you were then and as the adult you are now. My students in the foster system are precious to me, and I always knew that our bond was a lifeline for them, but now I see that I never fully understood why. Thank you for helping me to understand some of the more hidden dimensions of their lives. It helps me to better support them.

    With a heart full of gratitude,
    Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

    • Thanks for the kind words, Elizabeth. I’m glad that this will give you a deeper understanding and connection with your students.

  3. A great and poignant reminder to understand where our students are coming from – thanks for the share. Relationships, relationships, relationships.

    • You are very right Doug. Most people just want to feel like they belong and are a part of something that matters. Relationships go a long way towards that desire.

  4. Your story is such a wonderful gift to us, Robert. Furthermore, your questions to make us think and suggestions for supporting (reaching out to students) are spot on. (Thanks you) x 1,000,000.

    I’m curious what questions teachers could ask their students at the beginning of the year or learn how to look more closely at student files to learn more about their students’ stories. Thoughts?
    How might administrators support teachers and emphasize the importance of positive student relationships?

    • Thanks bud.

      I wonder if having students in a teacher’s school/district do this activity and sharing a video of the results might be useful for all teachers to better empathize with kids. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DnTd1WT3UVc

      Once relationships are built and trust and rapport are established, then you could ask kids to write down what they wish you knew about them (not anonymously).

      That’s where I’d begin.

  5. You have a beautiful heart and an even more courageous soul for sharing your story so poignantly. Thank you, my friend. ~Maggie from Wisconsin; Maggie from the Elevator; Maggie from the Robert Kaplinsky sign Twitter pix (which will continue)

  6. Robert, it’s not very often this has happened but I am so grateful it has: I’ve admired your knowledge and your sharing of great Math thinking for a long time, the grace you showed when I gave you that awkward the first time we met aside , I deeply admire the strength and generosity to share your story to help others. So here it is, know that your journey and your story are making the differences in so many lives. Thank you for all you do and thank you for letting me call you friend.

    • Hey Jeremiah. I appreciate your reflection. If there’s been a benefit to all of this, I think it’s similar to what people who have a heart attack feel. It changes your perspective and makes you re-evaluate what’s really important. I had my “heart attack” as a child and it’s helped me keep better track of my priorities.

      Hope to see you soon.

      • That is an interesting perspective, that while no student would i want to have to live through this, finding some good in this is powerful. The sad part is in the truth of your comment, that this is as life threatening as a heart attack can be, and similarly, your survival depends on your “health” and resilience be it mental, physical or both. In any case, your words provide a needed voice to the conversation of what we must consider as educators in meeting the needs of our students.

  7. As a teacher who formerly served students from several group homes, I appreciate your thoughts and honesty. I plan to share your post with the alternate route teachers that I work with during the summer.

  8. Thanks for sharing this, Robert.

    Best thing I ever did: During my junior and senior years of college, I worked as a counselor in a group home. I was in charge of the “study hour” every night after dinner. It gave me an appreciation about all the things that students deal with that we’d never know just from having them in class. Honestly, I think a similar experience should be mandatory in every education program.