Six Things You Should Know About Special Education and the Foster Care System

Last updated: August 22, 2023, at 3:06 p.m. PT

Originally published: August 22, 2023, at 2:34 p.m. PT

Two tween aged children looking at books in a library.

Youth in foster care often face unique challenges and may require additional support to meet their educational goals. Whether you are a current caregiver to a foster youth or you are thinking of fostering, it’s essential to understand these challenges so you can better provide the necessary support and advocate for them. 

1. Statistics you should know

  • Many youths in foster care often fall behind their peers in academic progress due to moving schools with each new placement. Because of this, it’s best to talk to their social worker and school district to determine if it’s truly in their best interest to move schools rather than advocate for alternative transportation so they can finish out their academic year in the same school. The McKinney -Vento Act ensures educational stability for youth in foster care and can work with school districts to provide alternative transportation options if the youth is placed in a foster home outside of the district.
  • “In Washington, 46 percent of students in foster care graduated from high school, compared with 80 percent of students in the state.” Katie Weaver Randall - Director, Education Research and Data Center, Washington State.
  • A Treehouse study showed that “a student in foster care loses approximately 6 months of academic progress per school change [and] they are twice as likely to repeat a grade and to change schools mid-year, relative to peers not in foster care. Additionally, they often have special education and behavioral needs that must be assessed and supported to be successful in school.

 2. Special education

Special education is a system designed to provide individualized support and services to students with disabilities. Identifying foster youth who have disabilities ensures they receive an education tailored to their unique needs and enables them to thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.

3. What’s an IEP vs. 504 Plan?

Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and Section 504 plans (504s) are two essential frameworks within special education. IEPs are comprehensive plans tailored specifically to students with disabilities, which outline their unique learning goals, the accommodations and services they require, and methods to measure progress made towards them. Whereas 504 plans provide accommodations and support for students who have disabilities, or support for those that require behavioral management but may not need the same level of specialized instruction as those with IEPs. 

Understanding the world of special education — particularly IEPs, and 504s — is essential for foster parents. By familiarizing yourself, with the key players and actively advocating for your child, you can help ensure they receive the support they need to thrive academically and beyond. Remember, you are not alone on this journey. Utilize the resources available to you, for example, Treehouse education specialists, can help navigate the special education landscape with confidence and empower your child to reach their full potential. Getting licensed with the Y means you will always have a partner in advocating for youth in your care. 

4. The Team: Key players and their roles 

When it comes to special education, it's essential to know who makes up the team responsible for supporting your youth’s educational journey. The special education team typically includes professionals such as special education teachers and a special education case manager who collaborate to develop appropriate strategies, accommodations, and goals for your child's education. Additionally, both you and the assigned DCYF (Department of Children, Youth, and Families) social worker are invited to meetings to discuss academic progress and any additional support to best meet academic needs.

If you are licensed with the Y, your Y case manager will set up a case plan discussion meeting and invite all the necessary parties. Again, you are not in this alone. Our team is well-equipped to advocate for any transportation needs to remove barriers that make education inaccessible. One of the benefits of being licensed with a child placement agency, like the Y, is that your Y case manager will initiate any necessary meetings to advocate for the unique needs of your foster youth. It can be a lot to navigate on your own, which is why the Y partners with our families to provide the best support to youth in our programs and will initiate inviting all of the necessary support people to ensure that happens. This can include not only the DCYF social worker but also the youth’s Y therapist and other organizations that work with kids in foster care like Treehouse, who specialize in providing educational resources and support to foster families.

5. Treehouse education specialists 

Treehouse education specialists play a crucial role in supporting foster youth’s education by providing guidance, resources, and expertise to foster parents and educators alike. They can help navigate the special education process, offer insights on assessments and interventions, and ensure that your child's educational rights are upheld. Your student’s Y case manager can assist in making this referral if they are not already assigned a Treehouse education specialist.

6. Advocating as a caregiver

Unfortunately, due to the nature of foster care, many youths do not have a consistent adult who can share insights and identify patterns that can be documented and follow them from one school to the next. Y case managers understand how important it is to document any observations from the student’s support system so that information can follow them, no matter where they end up.

In this way, as a foster parent/caregiver, you play a vital role in advocating for your child's educational needs. Closely observing your child's learning experiences and sharing your observations with their case manager and the rest of their team will enable better informed, more appropriate assessments and interventions. Your active involvement can significantly impact the success of your child's educational journey.

If you're interested in becoming a foster parent or advocating for kids in foster care, subscribe to our monthly newsletter or reach out to our team by filling in this simple form.