The issue under review is the academic under-performance of foster care youth and the possible interventions that are available to improve school performance of foster care youth. Foster care youth are not only at risk of academic failure- they are in fact performing far behind their normative peers (Zetlin & Weinberg, 2003). Foster care youth are faced with many risk factors and a lack of protective factors that lead to their lower school performance. Common risks factors include frequent moving and the experience of prior abuse and neglect (Sullivan, Jones, & Mathiesen, 2010).
In addition to examining lower school performance of foster care youth and its causes, this review also discusses intervention strategies aimed at improving school performance. Specifically, this research review was aimed at investigating the use and effectiveness of mentoring programs with foster care children in upper elementary. After a review of the recent and pertinent literature on this topic this paper will finish with a discussion about why this research is particularly relevant to social work practice.
Over half a million children are in foster care in the United States at any given time (Zetlin & Weinberg, 2003). The foster care population disproportionately consists of racial and/or ethnic minorities, with almost 40% being Black, despite the fact that the general US population is only about 13% Black (Zetlin & Weinberg, 2003). Studies show that youth in foster care are more likely to have academic problems, which are probably due in part to their higher rates of absenteeism. Foster youth also have higher rates of disciplinary referrals and behavior issues at school (Zetlin & Weinberg, 2003).
According to one study, 75% of foster youth “perform below grade level and more than 50% have been retained at least 1 year in school” (Zetlin & Weinberg, 2003, “Educational Effects”, para. 1). Additionally, foster youth receive much lower scores on standardized achievement tests and earn lower grades than students in the general population. “In fact, whereas 10% of the general population receives special education services, 25–52% of children in foster care are placed in special education, generally related to either a learning disability or a serious emotional disturbance” (Zetlin & Weinberg, 2003, “Educational Effects”, para. ). Foster youth are twice as likely to dropout of high school and studies show that they spend much less time completing homework. Their effort on homework has been linked to poor foster parent involvement (Zetlin & Weinberg, 2003). Broadly, research concerning the poor school performance of foster care youth is useful because foster youth constitute a large population that the government has a duty to serve and the ill effects of low school performance often result in continued government involvement. Foster youth are in the care of state agencies, because they were not being properly protected and cared for with their families.
Part of safety is providing children with the skills and health to eventually protect and take care of themselves. Helping foster youth be successful in life is part of the states duty to protect and serve those in their custody. Furthermore, the state and federal governments often end up paying more for foster youth who are not successful in school. Most are at risk of ending up incarcerated or needing public assistance due to emotional issues and lack of employment (Zetlin & Weinberg, 2003). Studying school performance of foster youth uncovers the many issues that foster youth face.
The more research that is done on the risk factors and causes of lower school performance, the more likely it is that something can be done to start fixing this problem. Studying the comparative effectiveness of a variety of intervention strategies will provide the government with the necessary information to create programs that will help foster youth succeed in school. Higher school performance is associated with an overall improvement in emotional and social health and often leads to lower risk of delinquency among neglected children (Zetlin & Weinberg, 2003).
Therefore, “the school and child welfare systems working in coordinated ways can become an ‘antidote’ to children’s troubled home environments” (Zetlin ; Weinberg, 2003, “Strategies”, para. 1). Overall, the body of literature on foster care school performance seems to be in agreement. History shows that there is indeed a serious problem and the government agencies need to develop “innovative programs” to help foster care students succeed (Allen ; Vacca, 2010, section 3, para. 1).
A few theories were discussed in almost all of the literature as being responsible for the low school performance among foster youth. The literature sources overwhelmingly agreed that the foster youth mobility rate, the lack of social and emotional support, and the emotional effects of neglect and/or abuse greatly affected school performance. The mobility rate theory was the most influential theory and discussed a number of related factors such as missing long periods of school, lack of special services, greater emotional instability, and lack of awareness by school staff (Sullivan et al. 2010). Foster students change school and home arrangements frequently and therefore miss a lot of academic material. Student records for foster youth are usually missing information and are frequently delayed during school a transfer, which disrupts enrollment and allocation of special needs benefits (Zetlin ; Weinberg, 2003). Foster care youth are thrown into new home environments while simultaneously having to adjust to new teachers, administrators, and peers as well as try to get caught up with the school curriculum.
School staff are not always aware of the unique situations that their foster care students are in and when they do they often see them as transients and do not put that much effort into building positive relationships with them (Sullivan et al. , 2010). Foster youth mobility is so threatening to school performance that it actually increases the negative impact of that the other theories have. Foster care youth have already experienced rejection, neglect, and a lack of friendship and support and the moving just exacerbates these feelings (Zetlin ; Weinberg, 2003).
The studies mention the other theories as causes of the higher instances of behavioral problems of foster youth. Children who experience neglect and lack emotional supports have more cause to act out aggressively or defiantly. In a school setting this can lead to lower performance due to removal from class or poor teacher-student relationship. Overall, students who are facing extreme emotional issues are often not prepared to learn and have a hard time trusting their peers and teachers (Allen ; Vacca, 2010, section 2, para. 2).
In addition to theories and data explaining why this problem exists there are also theories about how to fix this problem. In this review an emphasis was put on finding literature that specifically discussed the affect youth mentoring may have on improving school performance of foster youth. However, the literature offers many solutions that are discussed at varying depths. Some of the ideas mentioned include, improving school to state agency communication, placing foster care youth with kin and/or siblings, developing students’ emotional and social skills, providing tutoring and after school resources, and of course mentoring (Zetlin et al. 2003; Sullivan et al. , 2010; Hegar ; Rosenthal, 2009; Shea et al. , 2010). Recommendations concerning policy and programs aimed at helping foster youth were mentioned in many of the articles. Specifically, these articles stated that the government should strengthen the education system, improve inter-agency communications, and provide more support and monitoring to foster care youth. One way to do this is to look at other foster care systems that are producing successful school outcomes for foster youth.
Allen ; Vacca (2010) look at a boarding school styled foster youth program that is in Germany (Section 3). The German program provides an environment where foster youth can learn how to build positive relationships and work through their emotional issues (Allen ; Vacca, 2010, Section 3). Also, since the German program houses its students it eliminates the issue of mobility, which has been shown to upset the school performance of foster youth (Allen ; Vacca, 2010, Section 3). The German model provides a useful example, but there are also promising programs in the U. S.
Shea et al. (2010) detailed the relief that foster youth in California have had since the passing of new state legislation. The policy “emphasizes a stable school placement, placement in the least restrictive educational program, and access to the same academic resources, services, and extracurricular and enrichment activities as other children” (Shea et al. , 2010, Introduction). The policy includes specific rules and regulations that make sure foster youth receive these benefits. One of the most useful and innovative specifications was the appointment of educational liaisons.
The policy dictates that “each local education agency must designate a staff person as a foster care education liaison to ensure proper school placement, transfer of records… and enrollment of foster youth” (Shea et al. , 2010, Introduction). The education liaisons help the schools, foster parents, and agencies remain in contact and set foster youth up in additional programs (Shea, et al, 2010). Other US communities have created tutoring programs for foster youth and community centers that provide information on education related needs, which have proven useful (Zetlin ; Weinberg, 2003).
However, foster parents and social workers must take the initiative to get foster youth involved in these programs, whereas the California policy outlines specific duties that focus on the educational needs of foster youth, which are officially assigned to people if specific positions. By formalizing these duties it holds the education liaisons responsible for making sure the educational needs of foster youth are met. All of the articles at some point mention the ill effects of abuse and/or neglect and the benefits of a positive adult relationship.
Human behavior theories that focus on childhood development often mention the importance that the actions and role of parents have on a child’s development (Hutchinson, 2008). Attachment theories are possibly the best example of this because attachment is thought to provide a foundation for emotional development (Hutchinson, 2008, 118). Furthermore, all the theories on attachment discuss the parents or main caregivers role in a child’s development. It is clear that children need supportive people in their lives who can teach them and guide them (Mech, Pryde, ; Rycraft, 1995).
For these reasons, particular emphasis was put on researching mentoring programs. Of the literature that focused on positive relationships and mentoring there were two bodies of discussion. One group of articles looked at mentor relationships and effective mentor programs in general, whereas the other group focused more on mentoring effects in older foster care youth and their adult outcomes. DuBois, Holloway, Valentine ; Cooper, (2002); Johnson, (2010); Hegar ; Rosenthal, (2009) focused mostly on the merits of foster youth mentoring and factors that could make it more effective in helping foster youth.
DuBois et al. (2002) says that foster youth mentoring could definitely be a protective factor, but it is important to look at the mentor-mentee relationship. Although, “positive relationships with extrafamilial adults have indicated… resiliency among [at-risk] youth” it is important to recognize that recreating these relationships through programming might not be as effective (DuBois et al. , 2002). Hegar ; Rosenthal (2009) explored the affect that kinship and sibling placements have on the success of foster youth and found that these placements were protective factors.
Moreover, this supports the idea that positive relationships and supports are helpful and that recreating familial type relationships should be a goal of mentor programs. DuBois et al. (2002) is concerned with the ability to create effective mentor programs and says that although necessary factors and guidelines exist there has been little research that actually tests the effectiveness of youth mentoring. Johnson (2010) responds to DuBois et al. by completing a study that looks at the effectiveness of foster youth mentoring, with specific focus on the duration and dosage of mentoring.
She found that foster youth mentoring is more effective the longer the mentoring relationship is and in most cases is detrimental if the relationship fails or ends prior to the 6-month mark (Johnson, 2010). Greeson, Usher, ; Grinstein-Weiss, (2010); Mech et al. (1995), and Ahrens, Richardson, ; Lozano, (2008) all discuss the benefits that mentoring can have on the adult outcomes of foster care youth. The studies provide evidence that having a mentor starting in adolescence through early adulthood can increase the chances of foster care youth successfully transitioning into adulthood.
Mech et al. (1995) spoke broadly about the different types of mentor relationships and of the promise mentor programs could hold for improving foster youth outcomes. The study was done when interest in foster youth mentoring was just starting to get attention. Later, Greeson et al. (2010) looked specifically at the influence natural mentors had on older foster youth. Natural mentors are mentors that are in the same broader social network as the mentee as oppose to program-assigned mentors.
The idea is that the natural mentor will provide a better fit and the shared social network could allow for longer-term relationships (Greeson et al. , 2010). The study claimed that foster youth with natural mentors display better health overall, lower incidences of arrest and homelessness, and an increased rate of employment compared to foster youth without mentors. The data supported the conclusion that one significant adult other than parents is a protective factor as well as a “normative component of adolescent development” (Greeson et al. 2010, Introduction section, para. 2). Ahrens et al. (2008) compiled data that also supported the idea that natural mentors may be more effective than program assigned mentors. Greeson et al. and Ahrens et al. also mentioned that there are several characteristics of the mentor-mentee relationship that may be important factors, such as length of relationship, amount of contact, and closeness. Overall, the literature was consistent when the same points were discussed.
However, the literature could have included more case studies and evidence from specific clinical trials. The literature actually discussed the need for more studies and data to be collected on youth mentoring and what specific factors are necessary for a youth mentoring program that serves an at-risk population. Also, more studies should be done with younger children; most of the literature discusses older children and the effects of mentoring on their adult lives. If mentoring is effective then starting it earlier might have a greater positive impact.
Furthermore, as children age it is harder for them to build positive relationships with adults due to the history of neglect and emotional trauma. Clinical trials that focus on determining the factors necessary to create effective mentors and determining the types of positive impacts that result from effective mentoring are needed. A study looking at the relationship between effective foster youth mentoring programs and the result on foster youth school performance would make a positive contribution to this literature.
As previously discussed, the issue of foster care youth’s school performance is important to research and study for policymakers and government, however it also has specific implications for social workers. The issue of the academic failure faced by foster care youth is relevant to social work because social workers play such a vital role when providing services to foster care youth. Social workers are employed directly by schools as well as by state and local foster care agencies, where they can use this knowledge to serve foster youth.
This research is also useful for social workers involved in the macro level of service. By continuously researching data on the population one is serving social workers will maintain awareness of the struggles or issues that affect the population they serve. Hutchinson (2008) discusses the importance of the using the life course perspective in social work. The life course perspective says that social workers need to look at the wide array of characteristics and factors that affect a client. Social workers need to blend broad knowledge with client specific knowledge to effectively assist clients.
By researching the school performance of foster youth social workers become aware of the specific risk factors foster youth face. Social workers can use that specific knowledge to recommend programs and services to foster youth and their caregivers. At the micro level, school social workers can provide added awareness to teachers and other staff about a foster child’s special situation and/or needs. They can also help a foster child adjust to a new school placement and help assist with ongoing emotional issues (Shea, Zetlin ; Weinberg, 2010).
The research that focused specifically on youth mentoring programs is important, because it provides social workers with the knowledge necessary to recommend programs, but also create programs. For example, a social worker in a school setting can utilize this research to create a school-based mentoring program. The research discussed certain components that are necessary for creating effective mentoring programs. A social worker creating or overseeing a mentoring program would want to be aware of these components.
Agency social workers can also be influential at the micro level, because they typically have access to the child’s entire state record. They work with a foster care child over several years, developing a relationship, and clear idea of the child’s needs. The more a social worker knows about a child the better they can help with providing services catered to a child’s individual needs (Shea et al. , 2010). In both sectors, it is important to be aware of the needs of the population one is serving and the successful interventions aimed at meeting their needs.
Furthermore, this research also provides insight into the impact that social workers have on foster youth’s school performance. A social worker at a school or agency may learn that lack of attention to cases or poor communication can cause problems for foster care youth with high mobility. Social workers who are aware of the consequences of their inefficiency may be more motivated to avoid those pitfalls. On a macro level, this research is relevant to social workers because policy directly impacts the role of social workers.
Social workers and the agencies they work for are usually charged with implementing policies that guide what services are provided. Social workers who are aware of successful programs or policies can influence services by adding to agency and local government conversations regarding foster youth services. For example, as a social worker in New Jersey, one could take the information on mentoring programs to get their colleagues and/or agency to focus on providing more information about mentoring programs to foster parents and foster youth as a protective factor.
Social workers could also work together and use this body of research to advocate for state policy changes like the one in California. Social workers have a duty to provide the best service available and part of that is working to expand services. In conclusion, research and continued learning is a huge part of social work. Social workers are in the business of humans. Humans are always changing and therefore the issues they face, theories explaining them, services available to them, and treatments for them are also always changing. Foster care youth are a delicate opulation due to their age and previous neglect and/or abuse. Based on this body of research, school performance is a serious issue that affects the current and continued welfare of foster youth. However, research also shows that there are effective interventions for helping foster youth perform in school, one of which is mentoring programs. Youth mentoring can provide the support and guidance foster youth often lack. Social workers in the foster care field have a duty to update their knowledge on the foster care population and the programs and interventions aimed at assisting them.