Why Do Children and Youth In Substitute Care Struggle Academically?

It has been a long held understanding of the Child Welfare community that “kids in-care” will struggle academically. Some agencies and advocates quote numbers as high as 90% will fail to graduate from high school. The outcomes for adolescents who do not complete high school are bleak, but when you lack natural advocates or a consistent, mature, support network, the reality becomes even more tragic. So tragic, that many people will treat the issue like a horrifying car crash. You see it coming; you can’t take your eyes off of it because aspects seem morbidly fascinating, but then at that moment where the carnage and catastrophe are the greatest, you close your eyes or look away. And so it is with the lives of youth in substitute care; we are engrossed to a point, but when the horror gets too great, we cannot bear to look, let alone critically examine. These young people become the bastard step-children of society, hidden from view and rarely talked about.

It is also widely known and understood that children and youth who wind up in substitute care, wind up there because of significant traumatic events. Either a single, profoundly traumatic event, or a series of stressful experiences that are traumatic because of their consistency, breadth, and/or duration.

So how does traumatic stress impact school functioning? The short answer is, traumatic stress impacts school functioning negatively.

Children and youth who have experienced traumatic stress, regardless of their background, often will share a number of characteristics, that are born out of a drive to cope with their experiences and survive in a world that they do not trust, and has not been kind to them.

One-on-one with adults these students function quite well. They will likely enjoy and respond positively to supportive or innocuous conversations with adults. Adults in supportive roles, like school counselors or success coaches, will often describe these students as likable or even endearing.  Some supportive adults will describe them as pleasant, charming or earnest. However, even in these smaller, calmer, more orderly environments these students will also be described as “jumpy”, have a hard time concentrating, and struggle with confrontation or attempt to hold them accountable.

In a variety of settings, in the classroom, with supportive adults, as well as in unstructured times such as in the lunchroom at lunchtime, these students will often be quiet and watchful, engaging in what most professionals call “hyervigilance”.

While in the classroom these students can be well liked by their peers, sometimes even described as the class clown, they often will have no real close friends. They will quietly slip away after school and make no real attempt to connect with classmates in the evenings or over the weekend. At home they often spend a lot of time alone, in isolated locations like their bedrooms or basements, literally playing video games for hours on end. Many of these children will surround themselves with stuffed animals, partly in an attempt to create a layer of protection around them, but also providing a source of comfort and support. This layer of protection and support is often not accessible to kids and youth in substitute care, as they often have lost many of their belongings in their journey. Therefore, they will feel less insulated, protected, nurtured or comforted and this leads to the placing an overemphasis in importance on their remaining few possessions. Their behaviour may seem irrational or obsessive to outside observers, but in reality they are channeling that same intense energy and emotion into fewer items.

Students who have experienced traumatic stress will also likely struggle academically in school, become easily frustrated, and fail to hand in their homework. They will struggle to concentrate and often will be diagnosed as ADHD. However, children who have experienced traumatic stress generally will not respond well to medication. Additionally, they will struggle with authority and once again coping well with confrontation or discipline.

Students who struggle academically, AND struggle to make meaningful relationships with adults, AND to establish any real any relationships with their peers will often enter a negative perpetuating cycle with the school. For example the more they feel disconnected from the school and the people therein, the less engaged they are academically. The more they struggle academically, the less likely they are to establish or enjoy meaningful relationships. School itself becomes an everyday struggle and children and youth in substitute care lack natural advocates or supportive adults to guide them in their struggle.