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Five Things School Staff Should Know About Students in Care
Shenandoah Chefalo

Shenandoah Chefalo is a writer and advocate for foster youth and foster care reform. Her memoir about growing up in care, Garbage Bag Suitcase, is available at garbagebagsuitcase.com.

Chefalo is also a trainer focusing on trauma-informed care for organizations, foster parents, and communities. The following list is based on her interviews with hundreds of youth who are or were in care, as well as her own experience.


Children in foster care have been removed from their homes and families because of abuse or neglect that was itself traumatic. The removal causes more trauma, and the upheaval affects everything—including school. Trauma is often the root cause of excessive frustration, acting out, difficulty concentrating, problems following directions, anxiety, and other behaviors that may be misunderstood. Children suffering from trauma and possibly living in chaos can have a hard time understanding and expressing themselves. Here are five things foster kids wish school staff knew about them.

#1: I am scared; I don’t know what’s happening.
People tell me that things will be OK, but that doesn’t seem to be true. I may have been removed from my house in the middle of the night. I haven’t seen a single person I recognize since I was removed. Nobody’s explained foster care to me.

Why can’t I sleep in my own bed in my own home? Why am I in a new school? When will I see my friends? Who will my teacher be? When do I get to see my mom?

#2: I value my education, but my basic needs may not be met now. I can barely function because my food, housing, and safety are in question.
I value my education, but things were chaotic before I was removed. Now that I am in care, I am missing school for court dates and counseling appointments.

I could be moved from my current situation at any time. Depending on when my birthday falls, I could end up homeless. With all of this uncertainty about my basic needs, it is difficult to keep school and homework my top priorities. Please be patient with me.

#3: My socializing may be for survival.
You might think I’m a very social creature. I’m actually trying to figure out who has an open couch for me to sleep on tonight. Foster homes aren’t always safe or welcoming. I may or may not eat today, and I can’t tell anybody because I’m not sure who I can trust.

#4: Please tell my teachers what’s going on, so I don’t have to.
I’m not sure how I fit in at home, and I’m trying my hardest not to let the other kids know what’s going on. I feel like an outcast. And it feels like everyone is judging me, trying to figure out what I did wrong to end up in care.

Please explain my situation to other teachers, so that students won’t overhear that I’m in foster care. I don’t want my teachers to think I’m slacking and making excuses about why I have missed homework or school. Sometimes I need extra time to finish my work.

#5: Everyone needs someone to empathize with them and their situation.
I need you to be one of those people.

It’d be great to have someone look in my eyes and tell me they care, they get it—and say out loud that they have no idea what it’s really like, but that they care. Skip yelling at me for being late, absent, and behind on my homework. I feel alone, scared, and wonder if any adult at all cares about what’s going on with me. I don’t always know why I do what I do; that’s part of trauma.

You might think you’re “only” my principal/teacher/counselor, but I may not have any role models in my life. How you look, talk, and act affects me. You’re a grown-up, a professional who gets paid to be around kids! You should be one of my favorite people—and I should be one of yours.

This situation will change. I will change.

Please know me, see me, and support me.

Luisa Tucker
All Expert Advice articles are written by Maria Luisa Tucker, Youth Communication's Editorial Director, and based on interviews with our advisory board of mental health profressionals.
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(EA-2016-10-10)

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