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.

Why are we so determined to throw rocks at one another??

Recently a friend posted an apology on Facebook.  I had not seen the original post, and so can’t comment on that.  But the subsequent apology caught my attention.  This a very caring person, who is a diligent parent, with four young children.  Her apology was for allowing her youngest child to “cry it out.”  She is a busy mom, with a baby who apparently is not sleeping.  I can imagine that is up all night with one, and then has to stay awake all day to care for 3 more.  Apparently she decided to try a new strategy that would maybe allow her and her baby to get more sleep.  Feeling frustrated, and likely overtired, she took to Facebook, to vent to her “friends” about her feelings and frustration.  Now, once again, I did not see what people’s responses to her post were, as it was deleted before I logged-on.  However, based on her apology-post, I can assume that people were less than supportive.

Here’s the thing, if you don’t have kids, don’t comment.  Don’t assume you know what someone else is going through, or what you would do if you had kids.  The reality is, YOU DON’T KNOW.  You don’t know what it is like and you don’t know what you would do.  Parenting is a complicated process.  Choices are never made in a vacuum, as isolated discreet choices.  They are often made on the fly while trying to negotiate a myriad of factors.  Take my friend as an example, she cannot decide how she will resolve her sleep “issue” without considering her needs, the baby’s needs, personality, preferences and temperament, her other children’s needs, personality, preferences and temperament, her husband’s needs, schedule, etc.  What you choose will rely heavily on whether you are a stay-at-home parent, or whether you have to work.  Does your child have special needs?  Do any of your other children?  Do you or your partner work shift work, or have a dangerous job where being rested is vital?Decisions are rarely as simple as “what is your opinion about letting kids ‘cry it out’?”  And the other truth about parenting is that your opinion about things often evolve with experience.  What once seemed absolute is often sacrificed on the alter or what we need to do to make our family work better.  I find the older I get, the more experienced I become the less I say silly things like, “My children will always…” “My children will never…” or “Why doesn’t that mother…” or “How could they…” with regards to what other parents are doing with their families.

And if you already have children, then you should know better.  There are elements to parenting that you only know by experience, they can be, to some degree, universal.  But every life, every family, lives their experience in their own personal windstorm of stresses, supports, demands, values, knowledge or perceived knowledge, past experiences, and present reality that can be both daunting and exhilarating.  It is this kaleidoscope that shapes each family into its own unique entity.  Which is why it is difficult for any of to accurately judge the circumstances of another family.  We cannot see their kaleidoscope, we can only see our own.  So when we judge, we need to understand that we are not seeing what they see.  It would be like trying to lifeguard from the change room.

To all the well-meaning parents out there, I would say, the sad reality of life is that people will judge you no matter what you do.  I know many of good parents who make vastly different choices. What they all have in common is that they love their kids and they do what they think is best for them.  At the end of the day, we can be a little more kind and a little more careful of the well-meaning rocks we throw at one another?