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. For educators, it’s important to realize that children in foster care are at greater 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 the Psychiatric Times:

  • almost 50% of children in foster care ages 2 to 14 were diagnosed with a clinically significant mental health issues
  • 42% of adolescents in foster care have at least one mental health disorder
  • a number of adolescents experience two or three disorders

To put that into perspective, that’s more than double the one-in-five rate we expect to see in the typical school population, based on figures reported by the Child Mind Institute. For educators, it’s important to understand the added risks your students in the foster care system may be under.

Prevalence of Mental Health Challenges in Foster Care Children

The National Conference of State Legislature (NCSL) confirms that children in foster care have higher rates of mental illness than the general population. For example:

  • 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 grew up in foster care.
  • 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 NCSL also reports that foster care children are prescribed medication for their mental illness at a higher rate than non-foster care youth, and this can definitely have an impact on their school performance.

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, living in poverty, and inconsistent access to mental health services. 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.

Consider a child who was moved from a unstable home that included drug use and 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 making new friends in the classroom, and may be reluctant to form any strong attachments, knowing they might be moved again at any time. And because children in foster care often lack an adequate support system and well-developed coping skills, the mental health risks are escalated.

Helping Starts with Understanding

When a child experiences situations like these, their emotional, cognitive, and physical health can be impaired and that can contribute to the development of a mental health issue. For example, if a child lived with a caregiver who had a substance abuse problem and often became physically and emotionally abusive, the child may find themselves experiencing intense anxiety or panic attacks when encountering something that reminds them of that parent. It could be something as innocuous as a song you play in class that was playing one time when their caregiver came home drunk. It could be the smell of the perfume or cologne their caregiver wore, or even seeing a similar car. Because children in foster homes are at a higher for experiencing trauma, it is critical that educators be aware of these risks, and advocate for appropriate screening to get them the help they need.

Children in foster care deserve special attention when it comes to coping with life’s challenges and managing their mental health – and the classroom is a great place to bring some balance and stability into their day. A helpful resource for any adult working with foster children is our Children's Mental Health guide. This handbook helps answer questions like what mental illness is and what it looks like in a child, and can provide more insights on how you might help the foster child student in your classroom or school.

Julia Marie Hogan, LCPC

Counselor + Writer

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

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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.