School May Be Key to Improvement for Kids in Foster Care

New Swedish research shows that children in social care, or out-of-home (OHC) care, tend to have poorer mental health and lower academic scores than those who live with their parents. However, the findings show that OHC kids do have trust in the school staff, which can act as a strong pathway for helping them improve.

“It’s positive that children in OHC trust professionals. This means we’ve found a channel for reaching these children,” says psychologist Dr. Rikard Tordön, who conducted the research as part of his doctoral thesis at Linköping University in Sweden.

Tordön’s previous roles include national coordinator for Skolfam, a program aimed at increasing the school results of children in foster care. His experience as a psychologist motivated him to research children in state and municipal care.

“When I worked as a psychologist in the foster care sector, I discovered that it is guided by values and political decisions, not by knowledge. I saw a lack of research about what actually works. My thesis shows that initiatives in school can help the children perform better. And these initiatives must be implemented,” says Tordon.

In Sweden, social services takes on the care of more than 10,000 children and adolescents each year, who for various reasons are not able to live at home. In 2018, for example, 39,000 children and adolescents lived in foster families or in various types of homes.

Previous research shows that these children are at risk in terms of poorer health, abuse and developing drug addiction. In addition, they have worse prospects at school and on the labor market.

Tordön’s doctoral thesis consists of four studies, published in different scientific journals.

In the first study, he shows that abuse and mental illness are more common among final-year upper secondary students in out-of-home care (OHC). The study also found that these children, compared to their non-OHC peers, are less likely to reveal any abuse, in particular to police and social services.

The second study shows that kids in OHC tend to have less trust in the adults in their (foster) homes, compared to non-OHC pupils. Of pupils in OHC, one in five reported that it is difficult to turn to their foster parents, although they trust teachers, school nurses and healthcare professionals.

The third study shows that the intelligence of kids in foster care is significantly impacted by their insecure situation. An assessment of 856 children in elementary school shows that children in foster care have lower scores on tests of, e.g., literacy and mathematical skills. They have difficulty with text decoding, literacy and mathematics.

However, what surprised Tordön was not that intelligence was affected, but how much it was affected. Children in OHC had a mean value of 91 points, compared to 100 points for children who live with their parents.

But the good news is that this can be remedied. A total of 475 kids from the previous study participated in a second mapping, following individual intervention according to the Skolfam model. After a two-year individual training plan, the children performed better, in mathematics and literacy, which are considered higher-order executive functions.

Intelligence increased from 91 to 95 points, as mean values, after the first two years of the intervention. However, lower-order executive functions and affective (emotional) functioning, such as text decoding and impulse control, did not change.

“It is possible to help these children do better in school, and school has a protective effect in the long-term. Now we have to start to measure, systematically, how good we are at helping our vulnerable children, so that we discover what works, and what doesn’t work.”

Source: Linköping University


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