Feb 17, 2023

How to Help Our Children in Foster Care Create, Navigate, and Maintain Relationships


By Tanya Collins and Nanmathi Manian

Every student has unique learning needs, experiences, and reactions to these experiences. Balancing these individual needs can be challenging. Being aware of our students’ history and sensitive to any trauma they may have experienced can be a first step in the right direction to influencing a student’s ability to be successful in school.

Our first post in this blog series offered some overarching points that educators should be aware of concerning students in foster care. One of those points centered on the impact trauma can have on the lives of these students and their need to feel connected and to belong. 

In this post, we will delve deeper into trauma-informed (TI) understanding through the lens of relational trauma and how this lens can support the needs and behaviors of children in foster care. By gaining a more nuanced understanding of relational trauma, schools and teachers can take a conscious approach when establishing practices, policies, and classroom culture.

Framing the Issue of Relational Trauma

Too often, early in their lives, children in foster care experience a lack of stable caregiving relationships. The lack of these stable relationships, known as relational trauma, can affect their ability to develop new relationships with peers, family members, and teachers. As shown in this figure, trauma, loss of attachment, and placement instability can intersect and become a barrier to academic success for children. 

Recommendations for Educators

An understanding of the ways in which relational trauma impacts a child’s ability to relate to others is important for the successful development of a safe and supportive relationship. Here are a few important strategies that can support your students:

•    Create a safe environment for students
Provide a safe, predictable, and equitable classroom to foster environments needed to help students and teachers calm their emotions and focus on teaching and learning. Examples include creating consistent schedules and predictable classroom routines, which are beneficial to all students.

•    Support emotional and behavioral regulation
Consistently use individualized, agreed-upon strategies to support youth in developing effective regulatory/coping skills that are foundational for student success and learning. Consider using tools that provide additional information about student's current social-emotional level and the behavior(s) they may be exhibiting.

•    Build relationships and connectedness
Actively build and nurture a school climate that emphasizes healthy relationships within the school as well as in the extended school community. Help students build the skills they need to form and maintain those healthy relationships by incorporating TI learning environments and social-emotional learning (SEL) activities into the classroom and allow time to foster relationships.

•    Increase awareness and skill development
Engage in professional learning that increases awareness about trauma, its impact, and the importance and benefits of TI practices. Doing so can support the mindset and the necessary skills for interacting with students in trauma-sensitive ways. This type of learning is also a great way to focus on teacher self-care and foster adult social and emotional competencies that are critical for creating safe and supportive learning environments.

•    Connect to resources on trauma and mental health
Use school psychologists or counselors who are trained in TI practices and who are embedded within the education system to provide coaching, consultations, and training. Schools and other healthcare partners can generate a catalog of services available at the school and in the community to disseminate to staff and families. 


In our next blog post, we will consider how effective collaborations within the school can provide a framework that supports the development of positive relationships for students in foster care.