Foster care, special education, and learning and thinking differences: What you need to know

At a glance

  • In most cases, foster parents don’t have the right to participate in their foster child’s special education.

  • There are still ways to help your foster child work through challenges at school.

  • The Every Student Succeeds Act offers some protections for kids in foster care.

Working closely with the school is key to getting the best help for kids with learning and thinking differences. But if you’re a foster parent, that can be difficult.

Foster parents don’t have the same legal rights as biological or adoptive parents. So, you may be limited in how involved you can be with the school, and in how much you can advocate for your foster child.

But even with these limitations, you can still play a vital role in helping your foster child work on challenges. Read on to learn more about foster care and learning and thinking differences.

is the federal special education law. It gives biological and adoptive parents certain rights, starting with the right to participate in their child’s special education. Under the law, they are presumed to be the primary decision makers for their child. That means schools must try to involve them.

That’s true even if their child is in foster care. Parents have these rights even if they live in another state or can’t travel to the school. It’s also not unheard of for parents to call in to school meetings by phone from prison to participate.

As a result, foster parents often have few rights. Depending on the state they live in, foster parents may not even have the right to know if their foster child has been identified by the school as having a learning or thinking difference.

It’s also not clear whether foster parents have the right to view school records. Some legal experts think that child welfare agencies can release the records to foster parents under FERPA. Others think that biological or adoptive parents must give their consent first.

Here are some of the things foster parents may not have the legal rights to do:

All this can change if the biological or adoptive parents have lost or given up their parental rights through court order. Or if they can’t be located or won’t respond after repeated attempts to contact.

In these cases, IDEA allows others, like foster parents, to serve as the educational decision maker for the child.

That decision might be made by the school or a court. Foster parents can then take steps to be involved in the child’s special education. That includes going to IEP meetings and signing consent for evaluations.

If the foster parent doesn’t want that role, the school or the state may appoint someone else. That person might be a relative, mentor, or someone from an approved list. (A lot of this can vary depending on state laws regarding special education and foster parents’ contracts. So it’s important to check what those laws say about your rights.)

Foster parents may not have the same rights as biological or adoptive parents. But they often have valuable information to share with the school. Many schools look to foster parents to learn more about the child. Sometimes, the biological or adoptive parents may ask for foster parents to be more involved as well.

If you have a foster child in the special education process, it’s important to ask the school about what your rights are.

Finding out about learning challenges

The information available to foster parents can be very limited. If the child welfare agency does not provide you with school records, you may not know how much your foster child struggles in school, or why. But you still may be able to get an idea of the challenges in other ways.

First, your foster child might tell you and share what’s happening at school. You can also ask direct questions like:

  • “Are you having a hard time in school?”

  • “Are you getting help at school?”

  • “Do you have shorter homework assignments than the other kids in class?”

There are certain behaviors that might be signs of learning and thinking differences, too. Your foster child might say things like “I’m dumb” or “I can’t do it.” You might see signs of anxiety about school, such as your foster child refusing to go to school or frequently complaining of stomachaches or headaches in order to stay home.

You might get an indication from teachers, too. The teacher might tell you that your foster child has a hard time in class and describe the difficulties. In that case, you can ask if the teacher could recommend strategies to help your foster child at home. (Learn more about how to decode teacher comments for signs of learning and thinking differences.)

A child and family team (CFT) meeting is a good place to ask questions about your foster child’s challenges in school. These meetings might also be called family team meetings or family group decision-making meetings. They’re run by your state’s child welfare agency.

CFT meetings include parents, other family members, social workers, foster parents, and people in the family’s support network. You might also want to ask if the biological or adoptive parents would allow you to see school records and attend IEP meetings or any disciplinary meetings.

The sooner you know that your foster child has learning and thinking differences, the sooner you can provide support at home.

Risks and protections for kids in foster care

Foster care and problems at school are closely linked. Data show that kids in foster care are at greater risk of having learning and thinking differences. They’re also less likely to graduate from high school than kids who aren’t in foster care — whether or not they have learning and thinking differences.

Many kids who enter foster care have slipped through the cracks at school. It’s often not until they’re in the foster care system that they’re identified as eligible for special education. By then, they’ve lost valuable time for intervention and special education supports and services.

Being in the foster care system can create disruptions that can cause kids to fall further behind. Transferring schools is known to set students back as much as six months academically. Missing school or transferring to a new school can be especially hard for kids in foster care who have learning and thinking differences. Here’s why:

  • It takes time for teachers to learn what supports each child needs. And it takes time for kids to learn what is expected of them at a new school.

  • Schools don’t always teach the same information at the same time. The new school might expect students to already know something that your foster child wasn’t taught at the previous school.

  • Kids in foster care also often have a harder time trusting adults and building new relationships.

  • High school students have the added risk of losing their credits if they transfer in the middle of the year.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) offers some protections for students in foster care who are switching schools. Under ESSA:

  • Students are allowed to stay in their original school if it’s in the child’s best interest.

  • Schools must work with the child welfare agency on a transportation plan for students in foster care.

  • Schools must immediately enroll kids who are in foster care even if they don’t have paperwork or documentation. The school can make the request for records from the previous school.

  • If the child has an , the new school must provide comparable services to the child’s current IEP. The school can develop a new IEP or can have the IEP transferred from the previous school.

Learn more about what happens to an IEP when a child switches schools.

Emotional challenges and school discipline

Trauma is common for kids in foster care. It might be the result of abuse or neglect, or of being separated from their parents. Kids who have experienced trauma may act out both in and out of school. Having learning and thinking differences can create even more anxiety and negative behavior.

Kids who are in foster care are more likely to be disciplined at school than other students. So are kids with learning and thinking differences. They sometimes act out when they don’t think they can do what’s being asked of them.

Here are some ways you can help:

  • Allow your foster child to express feelings, even if they’re intense. Try to remain calm. Remember that it’s normal for kids in foster care to be upset or angry. This is especially true when a child has been placed in a new foster home.

  • Talk with your foster child about social and emotional challenges.

  • Talk to teachers about your foster child’s home situation. If teachers know that a child is going through a hard time, they can provide more supports at school. They may also give more leeway and be more understanding.

  • Observe and take notes on your foster child’s behavior. Share them with the school. Also share any specific challenges your child expresses about schoolwork, assignments and coping with life at school.

Understanding learning and thinking differences

Many learning and thinking differences run in families. So, it’s sometimes easier for biological parents to understand their child’s challenges than it is for foster parents. The more you know about learning and thinking differences, the easier it will be for you to help and support your foster child at home.

Get basic facts about learning and thinking differences. Experience what it’s like to have learning and thinking differences with our Through Your Child’s Eyes videos. And watch as an expert talks about what to do when you and your child don’t “get” each other.

Key takeaways

  • Even though foster parents aren’t covered under IDEA, it’s important to check your state’s laws relating to special education.

  • As a foster parent, you have valuable information to share with the school.

  • Talk with teachers about specific challenges your foster child expresses about schoolwork, assignments, and coping with life at school.


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