Supporting the ‘Team’ to Help Youth Thrive

By Mike Sidwell, Treehouse Educational Advocate

When I first met Harry, he was returning from a two-day suspension from his elementary school. As a fourth-grader in foster care, Harry had a history of behavioral issues in the classroom. While his school had created an individualized education plan (IEP) to address his social-emotional disability and behavior, Harry’s caregivers (his aunt and uncle) were not satisfied with how he was being treated at school. Aside from his behavior, Harry is Native American, and the school he attends has predominantly white faculty and students.

Part of my role as and Educational Advocate is to make sure that everyone on a student’s “team”—caregivers, social workers, teachers, school staff, etc.—are on the same page about the supports and services a student needs to be successful. I was invited by Harry’s caregivers to attend an upcoming team meeting at Harry’s school where they were set to discuss Harry’s IEP.  Since emotions were high, I decided to set up preliminary meetings with Harry’s caregivers and school administration to get a better understanding of the issues and how I could support each party.

I spoke with Harry’s principal for an hour. He explained some of the challenges the administration was facing when it came to communicating with Harry’s foster parents and how that caused misunderstandings. I shared with him some of the difficulties surrounding being a foster parent and provided strategies to make communication more clear.

Next, I sat down with Harry’s caregivers to talk more about their concerns. They wanted Harry’s IEP to be rewritten and expanded to better address Harry’s needs. They also wanted the IEP to focus on positive goals for Harry and to encourage good behavior. We talked about the systematic oppression Native Americans face, the importance of community in Native American culture and how Harry not finding that sense of community at school might be negatively affecting him. I asked Harry’s foster dad if he would be willing to share his personal experience as a Native American at the team meeting. He agreed. We made a plan for the team meeting that would help keep everyone focused on their goals for Harry.

When it came time to meet as a group, I supported Harry’s caregivers by talking about the challenges any youth in foster care—especially a Native American youth—face in trying to develop connection and a sense of community. The school listened intently to Harry’s caregivers’ desires and agreed to adjust Harry’s IEP to encourage him to engage in group settings. They also wrote interventions that allow Harry to go to adults he trusted in the school if behaviors arose. De-escalation tactics were developed with Harry’s input, and previous discipline that seemed excessive was addressed. Better communication practices were established. The team established once per month check-in meetings to review and celebrate Harry’s progress toward his goals.

Today, Harry’s school team communicates his progress and collaborates with his foster parents to support learning and educational strategies when he is at home. Harry has become a mentor at recess for younger kids, and he meets his daily goals most of the time. Improved communication between Harry’s foster parents and the school have eased frustrations on both sides while supporting Harry’s learning and behaviors both in and out of school.

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About the Author

As a Treehouse Educational Advocate, Mike Sidwell, collaborates with schools, social workers, foster families and youth in foster care to resolve difficult issues and remove barriers to kids’ school success.

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