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Improving Educational Success for Children and Youth in Foster Care: Ensuring School Stability

By Debbie Staub & Mona Meighan

For youth in foster care, educational success can be a positive counterweight to the abuse, neglect, separation, and impermanence they have experienced in their lives. School psychologists play an important role in their lives and can significantly impact the educational success of these youth.

A growing body of research has documented the impact of child abuse and neglect on the psychological well-being of children. Studies show that individuals who have experienced maltreatment are 3 to 5 times more likely to experience depression. Victims of child abuse are about 12 times more likely to attempt suicide than individuals who have not experienced abuse. Child abuse also is associated with greater risks of substance abuse. Adolescents who are physically abused are 6 to 12 times more likely to have problems with alcohol and drugs, and youth who are sexually abused are 18 to 21 times more likely to abuse substances (Dube et al., 2001).

At least half of all victims of child maltreatment will experience serious problems in school, particularly conduct problems (Putnam, 2006). Children who have experienced abuse or neglect are likely to show aggression, increased sexualization, and other social behaviors that pose problems for them in school settings. These behaviors are coupled with the traumatic effects of abuse and neglect on intelligence, attention, and learning. Together, these factors lead to higher school dropout and expulsion rates for children who have been maltreated compared to those who have not (Putnam, 2006).

The great majority of children in foster care in the United States enter care because of abuse or neglect. Two thirds of the children and youth in foster care nationally (71%)—360,848 children and youth—are school age (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2007). Consistent with studies that show educational difficulties for children who have experienced maltreatment, research suggests that children and youth in foster care face many challenges to educational success. Compared to children and youth who are not in foster care, they are at heightened risk of lagging behind in reading proficiency, repeating one or more grades, and being suspended or expelled from school (Smithgall, Gladden, Howard, Goerge, & Courtney, 2004). Given these educational experiences, it is not surprising that many children and youth in foster care fail to graduate from high school and that few continue with postsecondary education. Youth in foster care are about half as likely to have graduated with a high school diploma by the age of 20 as are young people who have not been in foster care (Smithgall et al.). Despite the aspirations of many youth in foster care to attend college, few do so. One study found that only 37% of foster youth who graduated from high school went on to attend college, compared to a college attendance rate of approximately 60% of all high school graduates (Casey Family Programs, 2007).

The Impact of School Mobility on Educational Success

One of the most important barriers to the educational success of children and youth in foster care is school mobility, a barrier that can be successfully addressed by the educational and child welfare systems that have responsibility for these children and youth. Children and youth in foster care often experience school changes—when they initially enter foster care and throughout their stays in foster care as they move from one foster care placement to another. With each change in school placement, these children and youth face mounting obstacles to educational success.

When many children enter foster care, they are required to change schools because they are placed with foster families or in other placement settings (such as group homes) in other school districts. Between two thirds and three quarters of the children who enter foster care must change schools (Advocates for Children of New York, 2000; Smithgall et al, 2004). These school changes typically occur during the school year, with one study finding that almost 65% of the children entering foster care transferred to another school in the middle of the school year (Advocates for Children of New York). When children are required to change schools upon entering foster care, there is no guarantee that they will be immediately enrolled in their new schools. One study found that nearly half of the youth who were required to transfer to a new school upon entering foster care were not promptly enrolled in their new schools because of lost or misplaced school records (Advocates for Children of New York).

While in foster care, many children and youth move from one foster care placement to another. On average, children and youth in foster care move one or two times each year (Rumberger, Larson, Ream, & Palardy, 1999). With each placement move, the child may experience yet another change in school. In a study of young adults who had left foster care at age 18, one third reported having changed schools five or more times (Advocates for Children of New York, 2000). Another study found that 65% of youth who aged out of foster care had experienced seven or more school changes (Casey Family Programs, 2007).

School mobility has been shown to have a significant negative impact on children's academic outcomes and educational success. Studies document the relationship between frequent school changes and an increased risk of failing a grade in school (Wood, Halfon, Scarlata, Newacheck, & Nessim, 1993). One study found that by the sixth grade, students who had changed schools four or more times had lost approximately 1 year of educational progress (Kerbow, 1996). Given that the average child requires 4 to 6 months to recover academically after each school change, it can be expected that children and youth in foster care who change schools multiple times will not only fail to recover but will lose academic ground (Burley & Halpern, 2001).

With frequent changes in school, children and youth often do not perform well on standardized tests. Studies show that school mobility is a key predictor of poor performance on school accountability measures (Rhodes, 2005). Children in foster care are at particular risk of scoring poorly on standardized tests, in part because of school mobility. One study found that children and youth in foster care who attended public schools scored 16 to 20 percentile points below youth not in foster care on statewide standardized tests at grades 3, 6, and 9 (Burley & Halpern, 2001).

School stability, on the other hand, is associated with greater educational success for children, including children and youth in foster care. When children experience significant, if not traumatic, changes in their families' situations, remaining within familiar classroom surroundings with teachers and classmates who have been a part of the child's life can provide the benefits of stable social networks, peer groups, and relationships with adults. Importantly for children and youth in foster care, school stability can help ensure continuing educational progress and success. One study found that youth who had one fewer placement move each year—and greater school stability as a result—were almost twice as likely to graduate from high school before leaving foster care (Pecora et al., 2003).

Ensuring School Stability: State and County Policies and Practices

The importance of school stability for children and youth in foster care is broadly recognized, but it is far from a reality for many children and youth in care. In many communities, efforts are being made to promote the stability of foster care placements so that children have the benefits of continuity in caregivers, friends, and school setting. Several states and localities have established policies and practices that help ensure greater school stability for these vulnerable children and youth.

School psychologists who work in these states can benefit from information on these policies and practices that are designed to promote school stability for children and youth they serve. These efforts also offer important strategies that school psychologists in other communities can use to promote the development of school stability policies and practices for children and youth in foster care.

Oregon. In 2005, the Oregon Legislature enacted legislation that provides that a child is to remain in his or her school of origin "when a juvenile court determines that it is in the child's best interest to continue to attend the school that the child attended prior to placement by a public agency." The court, in considering "best interest," may consider: the distance from the foster home or other placement setting and the school of origin, the student's connection to other students and faculty, school programming and curriculum, and input from the school (Education Law Center, 2006).

Washington. In 2002, the Washington State Legislature directed the formation of a working group to develop a plan to address educational stability and continuity for children in short-term foster care. The legislation directed two school districts to implement a pilot project designed to assist children in foster care in continuing to attend the school in which they were enrolled prior to entering care. Following the release of the working group's report that contained recommendations on increasing educational stability and improving coordination between child welfare and education agencies, the 2003 Legislature enacted additional provisions (Christian, 2007).

  • A declaration of state policy that foster children, whenever practical, shall remain in the schools they were attending prior to placement;
  • A requirement that the child welfare agency develop protocols with school districts for communication, coordination, collaboration, and effective sharing of information;
  • A requirement that the child welfare agency establish an interagency oversight committee to develop strategies to recruit foster parents in school districts with high rates of foster care placements and to promote best practices for educational continuity; and
  • A requirement that the child welfare agency work with the courts to develop protocols to ensure that educational stability is addressed in initial court hearings.

New Hampshire. In 2001, the New Hampshire Legislature amended its education statutes to allow a child in foster care to continue attending the school he or she attended prior to entry to foster care, if the court determines that continuing in the same school district is in the child's best interest, the placement is within a reasonable distance of the school, and suitable transportation can be arranged without imposing additional costs on the school district or the state child welfare agency (Christian, 2007).

California. California's AB 490 places mandates on each local educational agency that serves a child in foster care regarding school stability. When a child initially enters foster care and at any subsequent change in placement, the local educational agency must allow the child to continue attending his or her school of origin for the duration of the school year, subject to certain exceptions (Christian, 2007). AB 490, however, does not mandate transportation to a child's school of origin even when continuing in the child's school of origin is determined to be in the child's best interest.

Maine. On June 27, 2007, Maine enacted legislation that addresses the needs of students who experience education disruption. Education disruption is defined as an interruption in the student's educational program for 10 or more consecutive days for a number of designated reasons, including foster care placement. The law requires that students who experience education disruption have a written "school recognition plan" that:

  • Is initiated upon the student's interim educational placement and that outlines how the student will accomplish and demonstrate work for completion or credit so that the student achieves learning results (for all elementary and secondary students) and other diploma requirements (for secondary school students).
  • Is developed or updated by the student, the parent or guardian, the sending and receiving schools, and others such as juvenile community corrections officers and community case managers no later than 10 school days after the interim placement of the student.
  • Includes for high school juniors and seniors ages 16 to 20 a determination as to how and when the decision will be made as to whether the student has met the requirements for a local high school diploma or should be recommended for a statewide review team meeting to discuss the Department of Education diploma. The law authorizes the Department of Education to issue a diploma to students who are unable to obtain a locally awarded diploma because of education disruption when they successfully demonstrate achievement of the state's system of learning standards.

In addition, the law requires that for every student who experiences education disruption, receiving school professionals must be assigned to ensure the complete transfer of all records, grades, credits, and all academic material from the sending school to the receiving school no later than 5 school days after the student enrolls in the receiving school. The sending school is required to transfer all pertinent records, including academic and health information records, to the receiving school or educational program no later than 5 school days after the student enrolls in the receiving school or educational program.

Broward County, Florida. Florida statute provides that the Department of Children and Family Services or agencies acting on its behalf shall enter into agreements with district school boards or other local educational entities to provide for "continuing the enrollment of a child known to the Department at the same school, if possible, with the goal of avoiding a disruption of education." Broward County developed an Interagency Agreement among the Department of Children and Family Services, the School Board of Broward County; and ChildNet, the private child welfare agency that is charged with administering child welfare services in Broward County. The Agreement provides that most students in foster care will remain in their current schools unless the child's best interest dictates otherwise. The decision regarding the child's school of origin placement is made collaboratively by ChildNet, school personnel, and the child's new caregiver or placement provider (Education Law Center, 2006).

Ensuring School Stability: Federal Policy

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (1987) is an important federal vehicle that provides education stability, continuity, and a unique system of support for many children across the United States. Children who lack a "fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence" are eligible for McKinney-Vento protections and benefits, all of which are designed to help children in transition navigate the educational system with ease and to support their academic and social growth. Among the educational rights to which eligible children are entitled is the right to remain in their original school when they move to a different school district, to the extent feasible, unless it is against the parent's or guardian's wishes. McKinney-Vento requires school districts to provide transportation to the original school in these situations, at the parent's or guardian's request. There is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates that the Act has successfully reduced many of the barriers that homeless children and other children in transition, including children in foster care, face in enrolling, attending, and succeeding in school. Federal data show that children served through the program are making substantial gains in reading and math assessments (U.S. Department of Education, 2006).

Neither the McKinney-Vento Act nor the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), which amended and strengthened McKinney-Vento, expressly cover all children in foster care. McKinney-Vento focuses on homeless children and provides that "children awaiting foster care placement" are eligible for the law's protections, including the right to education stability. There is, however, no definition of "children awaiting foster care placement" in federal law or regulations. Many states have created their own definitions. Delaware, for example, includes all children in foster care within this definition; most states, however, include only certain children in foster care within the protections and supports of McKinney-Vento.

NCLB identifies many categories of at-risk students into which children in foster care may fall. NCLB does not, however, specifically recognize children in foster care as disadvantaged children who are entitled to NCLB services such as supplemental educational services, school counselors, and mental health services. The reauthorization of the NCLB Act, including McKinney-Vento, offers a timely opportunity to work with educational systems to substantially improve the educational outcomes and attainment of all children and youth in foster care. Ensuring that McKinney-Vento applies to all children in foster care and that funding for services is provided at a level to serve all eligible children are critical steps in achieving school stability for children and youth in foster care.


School stability for children in foster care is the glue that binds together the services and supports that children and youth in foster care need to fulfill their dreams of education success, productive adulthoods, and full participation in family and community life. Children and youth in foster care also need school personnel who can address their needs, advocate for their services, and monitor their progress. In particular, school psychologists are vital to the development of services and supports designed to address the negative impact of maltreatment on children's psychosocial development and school performance. Are you aware of how your local district and state are doing in these areas? Here is a list of questions to ask so you can evaluate the supports foster youth are receiving in your locality.

  • Does your school district identify foster youth when they enroll in school and is this information shared with the school building personnel?
  • Has your state established policies and practices that help ensure greater school stability for foster youth?
  • Is your school district able to easily exchange data with child welfare agencies?
  • Are there advocates in place at state or local levels to assist youth and foster parents with enrollment, credit transfers, financial support for foster youth for postsecondary education and other educational barriers?

If children and youth in foster care are to receive the support they need and deserve to achieve educational success, child welfare agencies and educational systems must work together as collaborative partners. School psychologists are key members of that partnership.

For more information go to: www.casey.org and www.abanet.org/child/education.


Advocates for Children of New York. (2000). Educational neglect: The delivery of educational services to children in New York City's foster care system. New York: Author.

Burley, M., & Halpern, M. (2001). Educational attainment of foster youth: Achievement and graduation outcomes for children in foster care. Olympia: Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

Casey Family Programs. (2007). Educating children in foster care: The McKinney Vento and No Child Left Behind Acts. Retrieved July 3, 2007, from http://www.casey.org/NR/rdonlyres/E32D6828 -9DD6-4304-842B-723AEA2EF029/1146 /Casey_Educ_WhitePaperNCLB.pdf

Christian, S. (2007). Educating children in foster care. Retrieved July 5, 2007, from http://www.ncsl.org /programs/cyf/CPIeducate.htm

Dube, S. R., Anda, R. F., Fellitti, V. J., Chapman, D., Williamson, D. F., & Giles, W. H. (2001). Childhood abuse, household dysfunction and the risk of attempted suicide throughout the life span: Findings from the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. Journal of the American Medical Association, 286, 3089–3096.

Education Law Center – PA & Juvenile Law Center. (2006). Lesson Learned: Education Stability Conference, Chicago, IL, October 23–24, 2006. Retrieved July 3, 2007, from http://www .abanet.org/child/educ-1.pdf

Homeless Assistance Act, 42 USC § 11431 et seq. (1987).

Kerbow, D. (1996). Patterns of urban student mobility and local school reform. (Technical Report No. 5, October). Washington, DC: Center for Research on the Education of Children Placed at Risk.

Pecora, P. J., Williams, J., Kessler, R. C., Downs, A. C., O'Brien, K., Hiripi, E., et al. (2003). Assessing the effects of foster care: Early results for the Casey National Alumni Study. Seattle, WA: Casey Family Programs.

Putnam, F. W. (2006). The impact of trauma on child development. Juvenile and Family Court Journal,Winter, 1–11.

Rhodes, V. L. (2005). Kids on the move and NCLB. Retrieved July 3, 2007, from http://www.ncacasi. org/enews/articles_feb06/kids_on_move_m obility_nclb.pdf

Rumberger, R. W., Larson, K. A., Ream, R. K., & Palardy, G. J. (1999). The educational consequences of mobility for California students and schools. Berkeley: University of California at Berkeley, Policy Analysis for California Education.

Smithgall, C., Gladden, R. M., Howard, E., Goerge, R., & Courtney, M. (2004). Educational experiences of children in out-of-home care. Chicago: University of Illinois, Chapin Hall Center for Children.

U.S. Department of Education. (2006). Report to the President and Congress on the implementation of the education for homeless children and youth program under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Retrieved July 5, 2006, from http: //www.ed.gov/programs/homeless/rpt2006.doc

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2007). The AFCARS Report: Preliminary FY 2005 estimates as of September 2006 (13). Retrieved July 3, 2007, from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ cb/stats_research/afcars/tar/report13.htm

Wood, D., Halfon, N., Scarlata, D., Newacheck, P., & Nessim, S. (1993). Impact of family relocation on children's growth, development, school function, and behavior. Journal of the American Medical Association, 270(11), 1135–1338.