7 Tips for Foster Parents: Preparation for a Successful Placement
Being a foster parent is a job that requires an enormous amount of love, affection, patience, tolerance, and flexibility. Many of the children in the foster care system have experienced life events that have shaped their worldview in a manner that leads them to expect the worst from life. Foster parents take on the brave, compassionate, and tremendous challenge of changing this worldview. Whether a placement is successful or unsuccessful depends on a large number of factors, and there are several strategies that can help parents increase the likelihood of the placement being successful.
1. Use the transition period.
The pre-placement period is a crucial time in the process of transitioning a child into a new foster home. Every move for a child presents a potentially traumatic experience, and it’s important to take the steps necessary to minimize the risk of having to end the placement before the appropriate time.
Take advantage of this period to learn about the child’s interests, behaviors, triggers, effective and ineffective interventions, traumatic experiences, and other possible barriers or useful information. Allow the child to ask questions as well, although she may be reluctant to do so initially. It might be necessary to have someone work with her to formulate a list of questions that can be answered via email, phone, or face-to-face.
Consider the needs and wants of the child when scheduling introductory visits and phone calls. She may feel safer doing the visit at her current placement or she might desire another location. The child may be excited about the process or might want to take things slowly.
Try to avoid scheduling visits during periods when the child might have other enjoyable or treatment activities scheduled. Phone calls, onsite visits, off-site visits, and in-home visits are valuable learning experiences for both parents and children. To maximize the benefits of these interactions, it’s important that the child be in a positive state of mind.
Whether it’s an overnight visit or a simple phone call to check in, sticking to the scheduled interactions can help build a trusting relationship before the placement occurs. Many children in the foster care system have learned not to trust caregivers, and there are many simple things that can be done to build trust, such as a scheduled phone call at a specific time or foster parents making themselves available to help the current caregiver manage a crisis situation with the child.
Before placement, make sure the living environment in the home is safe and inviting to the child. This is one of many aspects of placement where the child can be allowed to collaborate in the transition process.
Consider the advantages in allowing the child to collaborate in the formation of clear, reasonable, and enforceable expectations and consequences, as well as privileges that can be earned. If possible, a crisis plan should also be developed with the child to help parents recognize the early signs of a crisis, triggers, and to establish a list of do’s and don’ts for intervention.
2. Expand the knowledge base.
Foster parents can benefit greatly from learning as much as possible about the conditions and traumatic experiences that are likely to have an impact on the child’s behaviors. Most behaviors have a function, and behaviors are often a symptom of a larger condition.
Learning about the barriers of children can help parents gain a greater understanding of the driving forces behind behaviors, and strategies to intervene effectively. The Internet has a wealth of information for parents. Social workers, therapists, other foster parents, and community organizations can also serve as useful resources for trainings, information, and strategies.
It might also be helpful for parents to learn a bit about how their foster child’s brain works. About 90 percent of the brain develops in the first five years of life, and the brain develops from the bottom up and from the inside to the outside. Each part of the brain has a different level of responsibility and function, and when brain development is disrupted, the part of the brain that is developing at the time is most likely to be affected.
There are several factors that can impact how the brain develops and functions, such as trauma, neglect, abuse, and a wide variety of psychological factors and conditions. These factors have the ability to create barriers such as poor memory, lack of impulse control, difficulties with attachment, underdeveloped motor skills, emotional regulation, and many more.
Parents can engage in numerous proactive and reactive strategies to minimize the negative impacts of these barriers.
3. Set up and use a support system.
Being a foster parent is a job that carries a particular set of challenges, stresses, and rewards. To maximize the rewarding aspect of the job, parents must take care of themselves, and additional support may be needed to achieve this goal. A strong support system can include extended family members, neighbors, human service professionals, community organizations, and other foster parents.
Each support can assist to varying levels and serve different roles in the web of support. Some roles that may be helpful to assign are respite caregivers, people who can assist in crisis situations, people who can assist with transportation needs, and someone for parents to talk to when they need to strategize or just vent.
Professionals in human services, education, and other areas can also be valuable resources for foster parents and children. It’s especially important for immediate family members to support one another.
4. Create a safe and predictable environment.
Creating a safe and predictable environment can contribute to a successful placement, and carries benefits for everyone in the home. Many children within the foster care system, because of the various traumas they have experienced, have learned that they must fend for themselves. Establishing an environment that’s predictable, safe, and free of behavioral triggers is the first building block for foster children to begin trusting the new foster parents.
A safe environment consists of age-appropriate measures ranging from baby-proofing the house to locks on cabinets to securing car keys. Considerations should be given to sensory needs as well.
Some children may experience sensory overload if the environment is loud, too colorful, messy, or chaotic. Foster parents can benefit from learning about the environment from which the child came. This can help them identify safety barriers that existed and ways to overcome those barriers. Adjustments may need to be made as safety concerns may change over time.
Creating a predictable environment is essential to achieving desired outcomes for behavior, growth, and development. One way to promote predictability is to create structured daily, weekly, and monthly routines. Scheduling times for meals, homework, bonding, sleep, chores, and leisure allows children to know what to expect, which may help create a feeling of safety and security. This can also help parents more easily identify patterns of behaviors. Recognizing patterns and triggers of behaviors can lead parents to take a proactive approach to managing behaviors, and it also helps them understand that they are seldom the cause of challenging behaviors.
Another part of creating predictability is taking a consistent approach to setting limits and enforcing positive and negative consequences. Parents must be willing and able to enforce all limits set in a caring and predictable manner. This doesn’t mean that spontaneous approaches can’t be used, but it’s important to help children understand the connection between their behaviors and both positive and negative outcomes of those behaviors.
When attempting to change patterns of negative behavior, things often get worse before they get better. Parents must be patient and also remember that positive and negative reinforcements are designed to create desired behaviors and not to punish the child.
After crisis situations, parents should allow all parties to gain control, review the facts, talk about patterns and alternatives, reach agreements on changes, and then they should give control and responsibility to the child in crisis. Consistency is key in debriefing after a crisis, as this is a time when the child may feel most vulnerable. Allowing them a safe space to calmly talk about what happened and how to move forward will help build trust and understanding and could serve to prevent future crisis situations from occurring.
5. Manage the balancing act.
There are numerous aspects of life as a foster family that must be balanced, and there are many times when this may be difficult. Foster parents may need to balance time spent as an entire family with time spent one-on-one with each biological, adopted, and foster child, as well as other foster parents if present.
Giving each family member the necessary time and attention can be made easier with the use of schedules and a strong support system. Family time might also need to be balanced with time spent at work or other obligations. Situations may occur when parents are pulled away from these other obligations to attend to an emergency regarding one of their children, and these emergencies can sometimes occur with regularity. Time spent away from work could result in loss of pay, friction with management or other employees, and possible termination.
Foster parents might also have to balance risks to safety with the safety and well-being of other children and family members. Many children in the foster care system learn unsafe behaviors from their environment, and these behaviors may cause risk to other children or they may be replicated by other children. Knowing the risk behavior prior to placement can allow foster parents make an informed decision as to whether or not to accept the placement, and it will allow them to create a safety plan for the risk behavior if the placement transpires.
6. Be prepared to make tough decisions.
Caring for children in the foster system can create decisions that are difficult for foster parents to make. In some situations, the behaviors exhibited by children may lead to disapproval by extended family members. These behaviors may cause disturbances to family events such as holidays or birthday parties.
Foster parents may be forced to choose between attending the events without certain family members and not attending the function at all. If conflicts occur due to time spent away from work, foster parents may need to decide to either end the placement or make changes to their employment. It might be helpful for a foster parent to have conversations with their employer regarding their role as a foster parent and potential conflicts that may arise. This will allow for all parties to be aware of the plan of action when such occurrences take place.
There are a lot of tough decisions that all parents must make throughout of the course of raising a child, and some of these decisions can be made more complicated when concerning children in foster care. These decisions include those involving dating, curfews, friendships, driving rules, access to the home, attendance of social functions, and countless more.
If there are biological children living in the home, it’s likely that children in foster placements will make comparisons in regards to the equality of privileges, and they may lack the ability to understand why different levels of privileges exist.
7. Know the long-term options.
It’s necessary for foster parents to know the plan for long-term and short-term placement. Oftentimes, there’s a dual plan in place. Foster parents may go into a situation expecting the placement to be short-term, and circumstances may cause the need for an extended placement, which may lead to the question of adoption.
If reunification with their biological family is the child’s long-term plan, foster parents can serve to be a part of the transition or a barrier to the reunification. It may be difficult for foster parents to get on board with a change of placement if healthy relationships have been formed or if they don’t agree that a change of placement is in the best interest of the child.
Knowing what all of the options are ahead of time can provide parents with an opportunity to be prepared when change of placement is getting near. It’s important to consider that the child may have mixed emotions about reunification. On one hand, they might have formed an attachment with their foster parents, and disruption of this attachment might be traumatic or cause anxiety. On the other hand, reuniting with biological family can be exciting and frightening at the same time. Exciting because they can finally be with their family again. Frightening because they may have grown accustomed a safe, predictable, and caring environment that might not exist in the environment they’re moving to.
Having all parties on the same page will reduce any feelings of guilt the child may feel about leaving one placement for another, and a collaborative approach will be helpful in transitioning smoothly from one placement to another.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of the Journal of Safe Management of Disruptive and Assaultive Behavior. Certified Instructors, log in to read more JSM articles.