School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Foster Care in the Age of Neuroscience

It is common for assistance programs to use chronological age cut-offs to determine eligibility. In the foster care system, this typically means that children must exit foster care at age 18 even if they are in no way prepared to do so. In a recent interview on NPR, Gary Stangler, executive director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, described the process this way:

 So when you are [a foster child] at age 18, on your birthday you’re very often handed all of your belongings in a plastic trash bag and you’re assumed to now be fully independent and on your own, even though other people have been making all of your life decisions for you up till now.

 And the consequences are fairly predictable. Homelessness is very common, at least temporarily among young people leaving foster care. Many don’t go on to complete their education. And for many who are couch surfing, trying to find places to live, the rate of child bearing is higher than the regular population.

The latest research in brain development suggests that helping foster children transition from foster care to independence means we need to look past bright-line tests of chronological age. This is because during adolescence, the brain experiences a phase of major development similar to that of early childhood. During these latter stages of growth, all children, including and especially those in foster care, are learning to become adults.

And that’s where life as a foster child can become terribly complicated. Most adolescents rely on their family and an extended network of friends and others to acquire the basic skills of adulthood through part-time jobs, extra-curricular activities, internships, etc. From this process, adolescents learn to take risks and become independent within a relatively risk-free and highly supportive environment. So whether it’s getting a short-term loan from a parent to cover a few months of rent, or working after-school at a part-time job for the parent of a friend, it is common for adolescents to rely on an informal support network as they transition to adulthood.

In foster care, children are raised in a system where decisions are made for them in almost every instance, because the system was designed for the care and safety of young children removed from the custody of their biological parents. But as children grow older in foster care, they need to learn new skills that will help them function independently as adults. Right now the system for the most part throws them in the deep end of the pool at age 18. But a few states are trying a new approach called Positive Youth Development, based on research from the Jim Casey foundation.

In Positive Youth Development, adolescents are provided opportunities for “healthy risk taking via constructive, meaningful activities.” They receive counseling to help them determine their strengths, interests and passions. Family-based networks provide the adolescent with an environment where getting a part-time job is the norm, and participation in extra-curricular activities is encouraged. Most importantly, adolescents are taught to pursue their interests and proactively plan for their future by learning decision-making skills. In sum, they begin the process of owning their future.

Foster care is but one example of a social services system where policy-makers are examining the role of brain development to help improve outcomes. In other arenas, such as gifted education and special education, neuroscience research again suggests we should reconsider the role of brain development throughout childhood in administering these programs, particularly when it comes to over-reliance on chronological age cut-offs for testing and eligibility.

Beth T. Sigall
November 7, 2011

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