Working with Families with Foster Children

A smiling woman and young child cuddling.
Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

by Megan McQueen

As an educator, I had the chance to work with families as they became foster parents. I watched excitement build as families anticipated meeting their new children. I watched families field comments from well-meaning friends and was struck by one conversation in particular. When one parent shared they were getting ready to bring a new child into their family. Another parent said, “I could never do that. I would just get too attached.” The foster parent (who already had children) responded, “Oh, I will get attached too. But, isn’t that the point?” 

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Working with foster children and parents requires sensitivity and understanding of the parenting needs they may have that are similar to those other families face as well as needs that may be unique.  Foster families may be in transition to adoption or may be fulfilling a temporary need. Many of the children in foster care have experienced multiple forms of trauma and neglect. They may be experiencing fear, deep distrust, grief, and nonattachment. Parents may be exhausted and overwhelmed from emotional outbursts, living with children who are unhappy, and navigating social work systems, and also joyful as they get to know a new child in their family, and excited about experiences they will share together. Parents may also be carrying a range of emotions, including excitement and joy or worry and fear. They may also be dreading a looming date when they will have to say good-bye to their foster children.

Considering the unique needs of foster families can help parenting educators better support and serve all families across their community. Try these strategies with the families you serve: 

Teach self-care and calming strategies. Caregivers may experience a range of emotions – from joy to relief to depression and demoralization. Learning calming strategies may be especially helpful for this group of parents. Self-care can ward off bleakness, provide families tools to manage hectic schedules, and model positive habits for their children. Begin parenting classes with a small practice to calm parents, give them a tool to practice at home at the end of classes (there is a list of some practical ideas here – such as #29: Start a genuine conversation with someone you care about that covers the following: things that are going well, things you’re having a hard time with, and things you are grateful for), then check in at the next session about their homework. Demonstrate with your time the importance of this effort. Tools can be simple, such as taking a quick walk around the block, scheduling medical appointments, and a time-out for parents, or more thoughtful and time intensive, such as finding back-up childcare and creating an organization system for schedules. Move beyond bubble baths and manicures; prioritize routines and efforts that will create a long-lasting effect.

Help families learn about child development. Validate families’ feelings by sharing child development milestones. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has a helpful website to bookmark for families. When people understand children’s emotional phases and why they may be “stuck” there, families can offer more patience and compassion to the children and themselves. They will be more likely to react in helpful ways because they better understand what their child needs from them. Parents can build in practices at home that will provide growth in emotional intelligence that may be missing. 

Encourage families to play together. Never underestimate the power of play! Create time for play before, during, or after your class. Inspire families to play together by sharing simple ideas that they could try at home with minimal resources. Play will help new families bond and create positive memories. Children may also work through some of their fears or stress through role-playing, safe physical play, or free play. Adults need to play too! Even if the children are in childcare during parenting classes, create a playful atmosphere, laugh together, and blow off steam through playful exercises built into your classes. I love the idea (found here) of classmates writing answers to a question on a small piece of paper, then putting their paper inside a balloon. Everyone blows up the balloons, ties them, then takes a few moments to toss the balloons around the room. After 30 seconds or so, people grab a balloon, take turns popping it open and reading the suggestion inside. Put out coloring sheets and colored pencils for students to use throughout class, build in short games that will ask students to move and laugh together, find things to celebrate together.

Build community within your class. Foster parents need to connect with others they can lean on. This may be friends, extended family, or a religious group. It can also be your parenting class cohort! By getting to know each other better, families will find common ground and relate. Community is often built in small ways over time. Help the group connect with each other and encourage them to share contact information or social media names so they can continue their friendship after the class ends. Often people are reluctant to ask others for help. It takes a village to raise a child, no one can go it alone. Remind parents of this often. There is no shame in asking for support.

Foster parents know that the reason for their efforts is to create positive connections with their children. When we hold onto our “why” of creating strong resources for families, we can all make powerful, positive progress. 

  • Play together!
  • Share the importance of self-care for children and adult
  • Teach stress management techniques for children
  • Teach child development science – help children reduce shame, help caregivers feel validated about what they see
  • Provide calm, consistent environment
  • Teach self-regulation skills
  • Encourage families to visit with birth parents if possible
  • Promote strong connections between babies and foster parents
  • Encourage connections with medical team, early intervention, early education

Children’s books:

Picture books: Maybe Days by Jennifer Wilgocki and Marcia Kahn Wright and Families Change by Julie Nelson

Middle Grade: Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata

Young Adult: Three Little Words: A Memoir by Ashley Rhodes-Coulter

Web Resources:

Applying the Science of Child Development in Child Welfare Systems : Harvard’s Center of the Developing Child created suggestions based on research to help support children.

A Home Within : Trainings to educate about the impacts of trauma.

Every Child Oregon : An organization that works with the Department of Human Services to support vulnerable children.

National Foster Parent Association : This website complies many resources for foster parents.

Please visit our tip sheet of working with foster families.

Megan McQueen is a warmhearted teacher, coach, consultant, and writer. She grounds her work in empathetic education, importing a strong sense of community and social skills to those with which she works. Megan prioritizes emotional learning and problem solving skills. When not at work, she is most likely playing with her husband, two children, and puppy.

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