Foster Care, Mental Health and the Classroom

For children who grow up in foster care, life is unpredictable. They have to struggle with the instability that comes with moving from family to family, while trying to cope with the reasons why they are unable to stay with their biological family. Because of these challenges and others, children in foster care are more at risk for mental health issues than children in the general population. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics calls mental health issues the “largest unmet health need for children and teens in foster care.”

According to Psychiatric Times:

  • almost 50% of children in foster care ages 2 to 14 were diagnosed with a clinically significant mental health issue;
  • 42% of adolescents in foster care had at least one mental health disorder; and
  • Some adolescents experienced two or three disorders.

To put that into perspective, that’s more than double the one in five rate we expect in the typical population, based on figures reported by the Child Mind Institute. And that can have a significant impact on the child and their performance in school.

Prevalence of Mental Health Challenges in Foster Care Children

The National Conference of State Legislature (NCSL) confirms that adults who come out of the foster care system have higher rates of mental illness than the general population. For example:

  • 21.5% of adults who were in the foster care system were diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), compared to 4.5% of the general adult population.
  • While only 3.6% of the general adult population experiences Panic Disorder, that number climbs to 11.4% for adults who spent time in foster care.
  • And while 0.5% of the general adult population struggles with drug dependence, 3.6% of adults who grew up in foster care have drug dependence.

The estimated 400,000 children in foster care in the U.S. also face significant hurdles in the classroom, according to the National Foster Youth Institute. They cite a California study that found students in foster care were consistently among the lower performing groups in math and English, and had the highest dropout rates among all students.

The Risk Factors for Kids in Foster Care

According to the NCSL, contributing factors for mental illness among these children include a history of exposure to complex trauma, lack of stability, difficult family relationships, and inconsistent access to mental health services. Because children in foster care are more likely to be exposed to these risk factors, they are understandably at a greater risk for developing mental health issues than their peers in the general population.

These risk factors can exacerbate the stress a child in foster care experiences and can contribute to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress. For example, if a child is moved from a unstable home that included drug use and is placed in foster care with a new family, not only must he or she cope with the loss of living away from their biological family, he or she must also start at a new school (starting in the middle of an academic year is even more stressful), make new friends, and adjust to a whole new environment. That would be a significant adjustment for anyone, let alone a child. The child may struggle with leaving his or her biological family, at the same time trying to adjust to the new routines and rules in the family. And if the child does not have an adequate support system and coping skills, he or she may be at an increased risk for developing mental health issues.

How trauma plays out in the classroom

Children who grow up in foster care are more likely than their peers to be exposed to traumatic events. This trauma might include experiencing or witnessing abuse or violence both inside and outside the home, repeated separation from their primary caregiver, exposure to substance abuse, experiencing homelessness and poverty, frequent moving, undergoing or witnessing emotional abuse, or experiencing or being exposed to chronic health problems.

In the classroom, you might witness the effects of this trauma in a child who throws fits of anger, is distracted or fidgety, or sullen and withdrawn. If you have developed a close bond with a child, they may even tell you about feeling depressed or having suicidal thoughts, looking for support from someone they trust.

Because of the added risks for children in foster care, they deserve special attention in the classroom to be sure they have the resources they need to cope with their challenging situation and manage their mental health. As a youth worker, you and your school can play an important role in supporting their mental health wellness.

Julia Marie Hogan

Julia Marie Hogan is a counselor in Chicago and owner of Vita Optimum Counseling & Consulting, LLC. She also leads workshops and writes on topics related to self-care, relationships and mental health. Her book, It's Ok to Start with You is all about the power of embracing your authentic self through self-care. She is passionate about empowering individuals to be their most authentic selves. You can find more of her writing online at

Julia Hogan, LCPC

Counselor + Writer
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The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.