Education professor aims to raise awareness of youth in foster care

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Feeling a sense of belonging in school — the sensation of connectedness and experience of feeling cared about, respected by and important to one’s peers, teachers and the broader school community — is an essential ingredient for young adults’ academic success, according to a Penn State education professor. He and colleagues have done research that indicates youth in foster care often lack that type of support and community at school, and offer multifocal strategies to help this underserved group achieve success.

“Schools are an important social context for youth in foster care. In fact, for some, it may be the only context in which they experience some sense of stability and safety,” said Royel Johnson, assistant professor of education (higher education) and research associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education in the College of Education.

Royel M. Johnson Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

“Yet, we know very little from research about how youth in foster care experience school, the nature of their relationships with peers and teachers, and the extent to which they feel connected to or apart of the larger school community," said Johnson.

Johnson, along with colleagues Terrell Strayhorn, professor of urban education at LeMoyne-Owen College, and Bridget Parler, a higher education doctoral candidate in Penn State's College of Education, conducted research to “center and amplify the often-unheard voices of youth in foster care and their experiences in high school” in their article, “I just want to be a regular kid: A qualitative study of sense of belonging among high school youth in foster care,” which was published in the April 2020 edition of Children and Youth Services Review.

As part of the study, the researchers drew on qualitative data gathered during in-depth focus groups with 46 high school youth in foster care. Drawing on a sense of belonging as a theoretical framework, they addressed the following questions: (a) How do youth in foster care describe and make meaning of their sense of belonging in high school? and (b) What factors help facilitate or thwart belongingness among high school youth in foster care?

Youth in foster care (YFC), according to the researchers, are one of the most underserved and vulnerable student populations in the United States. There are currently about 430,000 YFC across the country, many of whom have experienced some form of abuse or neglect.

Additionally, roughly 60% of those in the system are of school age. About half of YFC graduate from high school, Johnson said, with only 20% enrolling in college and as little as 3% earning bachelor’s degrees.

“The statistics are quite remarkable,” he said. “It’s curious that more educational researchers, especially those in higher education, haven’t taken up this important work, as there is much we can learn to improve the delivery of educational services and programs for youth in foster care.”

While Johnson never was in the foster care system, he said, he does feel an affinity for YFC. As a child, he benefited from kinship care — commonly defined as "the full-time care, nurturing, and protection of a child by relatives, members of their tribe or clan, godparents, stepparents, or other adults who have a family relationship to a child,” according to Child Welfare Information Gateway.

“In many ways, (the experience) has inspired me to be engaged in this work,” he said.

The youth in foster care project, Johnson said, originated about five years ago while he was a postdoctoral scholar at Ohio State University and “grew out of concern for youth aging out of foster care in Columbus.”

The project was part of an outreach commitment of the research center where he was working, and that center also was partnering with local agencies to increase student success among YFC. The program brought 35 to 40 YFC to campus each semester and conducted focus groups in which the participants were asked probing questions about their relationships with peers and teachers, as well as their perceptions of their school’s climate and their fit within it.

The researchers’ findings, Johnson said, were “quite powerful.” YFC in the study frequently reported feelings of being marginalized in their school settings and stereotyped as incorrigible, deviant, etc.

Those stereotypes, he added, constrained the students’ ability to feel normal and led them to negotiate disclosure of their (foster care) identity within the school context. An additional complication that the researchers discovered is that the YFC student didn’t always have a choice as to whether to keep their identity secret and were often “outed” by external circumstances, such as social workers showing up at their schools to check up on them.

Findings from their research also illustrate how a lack of sense of belonging may impact a student’s academic and social behaviors in school. Johnson noted that all of those facets are inextricably linked. The researchers point out that feelings of alienation and marginalization among youth in foster care often result in academic disengagement such as skipping classes and other behavioral challenges.

“Belonging is powerful because it’s a correlate to so many other important outcomes in education,” he said.

Compounding the YFC’s problems with stereotyping and lack of privacy, Johnson said, was the disruption of stability in their lives when they switched schools. For instance, some YFC in the study reported multiple school transfers in a single year, which disrupted relationships and hindered academic progress as they struggled to adjust to a new school environment.

“When youth in foster care have to transfer schools due to a placement change, it disrupts their established communities at school by requiring them to sever ties with peers, teachers and staff who may otherwise be a stable source of support,” Johnson said. “Residential and school placement changes can also negatively impact a student’s academic progress, and in some cases, result in delayed high school degree attainment.”

According to the researchers, their findings have significant implications for policy and practice. In the past five years, Johnson said, the federal government has tried to mitigate the problem of school mobility with legislation such as the Every Student Success Act (ESSA), which requires that schools and child welfare agencies partner to ensure the educational stability of the child while in foster care.

Teachers can extend that progress by making a concerted effort to help transfer students feel welcome in the classroom and integrated with their non-YFC peers. Additionally, the researchers suggest that outreach coordinators and professional development staff could use information from the study to “raise awareness about how those in helping professions might inadvertently ‘out’ students as YFC, which can be embarrassing, stigmatizing and demeaning, according to our informants.”

A couple of possibilities, they wrote, could be offering sensitivity training and workshops on cultural competence and implicit bias.

According to Johnson, YFC are an overlooked population in educational research, particularly in the field of high education. One of the goals of his research is educating institutional leaders and the broader education community about the unique challenges that students impacted by foster care face and what can be done to support their needs and set them up for success.

“Part of my work has been trying to raise attention and awareness of the topic,” he said.

Johnson recently had a chance to address the issue when he participated in the inaugural National Conference for Engaged Scholarship on Foster Alumni that was held in February 2020 in Washington, D.C. He was a part of the leadership team for the conference, which brought together diverse researchers in higher education, social work and other fields to consider current research and to form interdisciplinary research teams for empirical research studies to be conducted in the 18 months following the conference.

A follow-up national conference is planned for Sept. 15-16, 2021.

Last Updated March 31, 2020