It’s hard being the new kid at school. You don’t know what to wear or how to find your way to the cafeteria or the restroom. You don’t know which teachers have a reputation for kindness and which for meanness. You don’t know who will be your friend or who will make fun of you.
Photo credit: cafemama / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
Foster kids are the new kids and over and over again. Sometimes five or ten or fifteen times before they graduate—or, more likely—drop out. Research coming out of England’s Warwick Medical School found a correlation between frequent school changes and the development of hallucinations and transient psychotic symptoms in adolescence. These findings emerged for adolescents who had switched schools as few as three times.
The author suggests that feeling marginalized creates a vulnerability to the development of emotional problems. Certainly we all prefer the feelings of belonging to those of trying to fit in. Belonging to a group gives us comfort. We know the social rules of the group and count on the members for care and companionship.
Situations in which we feel as if we don’t fit in create anxiety. We expend a lot of energy scanning the relational landscape, trying to understand the implicit rules of social interactions. We may suffer the injuries of rebuffs that come from misreading cues or misunderstanding the group culture.
Many kids attending a new school can find comfort in the familiar routines of family at the end of the day. Even if they are in a new home in a new community, the smells and sounds and tastes of family life will be largely unaltered. Parents and siblings will behave in the same endearing and annoying ways.
In contrast, for foster kids, being the new kid at school usually also means being the new kid at home—whether in a new foster home or a new group home. When home is also new territory they find no respite from the unfamiliar–no calm space in which they can relax into what is known to be safe
Photo credit: woodleywonderworks / Foter / CC BY
Children and youth in foster care live on the margin, not just in school, but in life. A marginalized life is a stressful life. We know that when stress reaches the level of toxicity it can and does have profoundly negative physical and neurological effects. Human beings are simply not designed to operate at high levels of stress over extended periods of time. We need a break—time for our bodies and minds to recharge.
The instability in foster children’s lives leaves them little opportunity to recharge. They bounce from one new and stressful situation to the next. They are the new kid at school and then, perhaps before their records from the old school have even arrived they are the new kid yet again. It is little wonder that so many stop trying to fit in or hoping that they will ever belong.
By Toni Heineman