Sensitivity Training for Educators on Foster Youth Issues Needed, Advocates Say

Sensitivity Training for Educators on Foster Youth Issues Needed, Advocates Say

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Under the new school finance system, the state will soon be sending districts lists of their foster students so schools can direct more resources to them. Although the students will benefit, they fear their personal lives may be widely exposed and they may be stigmatized if educators don’t handle the information sensitively.

“Foster kids are very nervous about this,” said Michael Paynter, the Foster Youth Services liaison for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education. “They don’t want to be called out in public or identified in a way where they aren’t choosing the moment. We need some sensitivity training around the release of these lists.”

The new finance system requires districts to come up with Local Control and Accountability Plans that explain how they will use the extra funds they are receiving for low-income students, English learners and foster students to improve their academic achievement. For foster students, that could mean more mental health counseling or tutoring services, or help with college applications and financial aid.

In the past, social service agencies did not work directly with school districts, so often teachers and administrators were not aware of which children were in foster care. At times, they only found out when there was a problem with a student that required intervention by a social worker, attorney or foster parent.

“Some kids are sailing along without anyone needing to know their foster status,” Paynter said. Now that the focus is on them, foster students are concerned these lists might be misused, he said.

Former foster students speak out

Former foster students say they are excited that more resources will be funneled to foster students, but based on their own experiences they understand the concerns.

There are teachers who are “prejudiced” and expect less of foster students or think they might cause problems, said Jennifer Vasquez, 27, a former foster student who grew up in Moreno Valley. “Personally, I wouldn’t want anyone to know. I wouldn’t want what I was labeled to determine who I am.”

Prizila Dajia Vidal, 27, who is openly gay, said she was “outed” as a foster child numerous times in San Diego. Often when she would get in trouble in class, her teacher would say loud enough so the whole class could hear that she was going to call Vidal’s foster mom.

“That was something I wasn’t trying to let people know,” Vidal said. “It was hard enough letting people know that I was gay.” When the other students found out she was in foster care, they made fun of her, Vidal said, saying that her parents and siblings didn’t like her.

Michelle Lustig, the Foster Youth Services liaison with the San Diego County Office of Education, said Vidal’s experience is not an isolated case. She knows of numerous occasions when teachers have thoughtlessly mentioned a foster youth’s status during classroom discussions, unaware of the impact that would have on the student.

Some teachers are sensitive to what foster youth are experiencing, while others are “really clueless,” said Andrea Rico, 18, who just graduated from high school in Napa County in Northern California and is going to UC Santa Cruz. She remembers when her French teacher asked students to bring in a baby picture of themselves.

“I don’t have any pictures at all,” she said. “We had to pass the photos around and write about them in French. I was the only student without one.”

She made up a reason for not having the photo when other students asked. Even though she told her teacher the situation, he still deducted points for not bringing in the photo, she said.

But Rico also benefited from teachers who knew her situation and were sympathetic. She remembers one English teacher who pulled her aside when the class was about to read “Black Boy” by Richard Wright. The teacher was concerned that the autobiographical story about a child who spent time in an orphanage and was mistreated would be too difficult for Rico to read and discuss in class. Knowing how much the teacher cared about her, Rico decided to stay in the class and read the book anyway.

MJay Jackson, 21, lived in a group home, so the teachers and administrators at his charter high school in Los Angeles were aware of his foster status and that of the other group home students.

“I received a lot of love,” said Jackson, who is attending Pierce College in Los Angeles. “I got on the basketball team, on the honor roll. I got two college scholarships from the school.”

The school staff “totally understood” his situation, he said, “but they didn’t do affirmative action, they didn’t look at me differently. I was close with the principal, counselor, everyone. I still go back to visit the high school.”

Teachers need to understand the specific issues foster students face

Elizabeth Shaw Svensson, who teaches at a community day school in Santa Cruz, often works with students who are homeless, on probation, or in foster care. Even among students in troubled family situations, foster students have issues particular to them, she said.

“Teachers have to be aware of the isolation and aloneness that foster youth can experience” as well as the continual uncertainty about where they will be living, she said.

“Every teacher should protect the personal nature and situation of every student,” Svensson said. “I never say that a student is in drug rehab, foster care or homeless. I let the student say what he or she is comfortable with saying.”

But not knowing who is in foster care can also be problematic.

Teachers might make assignments that involve family history or activities that spotlight a student’s foster status, such as making cards for Mother’s Day. Vasquez said that happened to her, when she got a zero on a family tree and family history project. “My mom doesn’t even know her family tree,” she said.

Even simple things, such as asking what they did during vacation, can prove troublesome for foster students, Lustig said. “Their foster family may have gone to Disneyland or Maui and left them in respite care,” she said.

Vasquez, who is now rearing her own family, said, “People don’t see behind the closed door (of some foster homes). They treat their kids or grandkids better than you.”

Svensson said the new lists could be very helpful to teachers. If they know they have a foster student in their class, they can plan their curriculum with that student in mind. Now that California is implementing new Common Core state standards, teachers have much more flexibility and can better tailor their lessons to the students, she said.

Camy Ditter, an independent studies teacher at the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, works with foster students and agrees they would benefit from more thoughtful curricula. If teachers take the time to know their foster students, they will be rewarded, she said.

“Once you start working with them, it’s addictive,” Ditter said. “What they lack in the skills we judge, they make up for in other skills. They are resilient and almost universally highly compassionate and protective of each other.”

But Ditter, who has worked as a teacher for 20 years, said she also understands the pressures on teachers.

“I see that teachers’ lives are so extremely packed – so much is asked of teachers,” Ditter said. “So it’s hard to stop and say I don’t mention this to this student or address this to this student.”

“A teacher may have five classes with 30 kids in each class and one or two students are foster youth,” she said. If the assignment works for the vast majority of students, the teacher can modify it rather than throwing it out, Ditter said.

Austin Wade, who teaches 5th grade at Alvin Dunn Elementary in San Marcos Unified, said most teachers can make those sorts of changes in their lesson plans.

“If little accommodations are too much for a teacher, that teacher is walking on thin ice,” he said. “The foster student’s stress level is beyond what any teacher’s would be.”

For example, the purpose of the French teacher’s assignment to bring a baby photo was to promote writing in French, Ditter said. The teacher could have offered an alternative to the class. If students didn’t want to bring their own photo, they could choose a photo from a magazine or a friend’s baby photo, she said.

“Teachers need to be creative,” she said. “But I’m a little protective of teachers constantly getting slammed for not doing things right.”

Knowing that a student is in foster care can also help educators understand their behavior.

Patterson Chisomaga Emesibe, 24, and his siblings were raised by his aunt and uncle after his father killed his mother when Emesibe was 12. Updated: When he first moved in with his aunt and uncle in Hesperia, north of Riverside, the kids at school, who knew his cousins, kept asking about his parents, which was a trigger for him.

“I held it in. I became the class clown. I was trying to escape,” Emesibe said. Along with constantly getting in trouble for disrupting all of his classes, he also began partying and drinking. “I knew it was bad for me, but there were other youth drinking around me and I drank to feel accepted,” said Emesibe, who is graduating from Cal State Monterey this spring with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Teacher training programs regarding foster youth are available

Paynter said training teachers so they know how to respond to traumatized students would help foster youth, who often come from abusive homes. In the case of foster children, teachers should just assume they have been traumatized, he said. Close physical contact, even putting a hand on a shoulder, could retrigger the trauma and cause the student to unconsciously react, he said.

Training programs, such as “Endless Dreams” by the Casey Family Programs or “Ready to Succeed in the Classroom” by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, focus on being sensitive to foster students. Wade took part in the “Endless Dreams” program, which includes tutoring foster youth, as part of a course requirement for students who want to get into the CSU San Marcos teacher credential program.

“The tutoring experience opened up my mind to what these kids go through,” he said, adding that the program also made him more sensitive to kids with different kinds of issues. “Whether they are living with multiple families, have an absent parent or can’t access technology at home, I make sure they get the support they need.”

Lustig believes the new emphasis on foster students may benefit all California students.

“Now that foster students are on the radar, educators can learn to do a better job for all kids,” Lustig said. “How cool is that?”