Frequent Moves Make School Tough for Foster Kids

May 25, 2015 Updated: May 26, 2015

Foster children are four times more likely to move and change elementary schools during an academic year than children not in foster care.

All those new homes and new schools can lead to academic and behavior problems that require special intervention.

A new study clarifies the negative impact of school moves experienced by children in foster care but also points out ways to limit the damage.

3 Moves By Age 4

Researchers tracked 86 foster children and compared them with 55 children from non-foster families from preschool to fifth grade, using data collected from children, caregivers, school districts, and social service agencies in a midsized Pacific Northwest community.

All those new homes and new schools can lead to academic and behavior problems that require special intervention.

Published in the journal Child Development, the findings help clarify previous studies, most of which had relied on the recall of foster children after leaving the system in their late teens, says study coauthor Philip A. Fisher, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.

Earlier research has shown that by age 4 children in foster care already have moved an average of three times.

Policy implications for social service agencies, the courts, and schools emerged as the five-member research team explored academic and behavioral problems. Foster children who began school unprepared were the ones most likely to have troubles later.

School Readiness

“The sobering message of this paper is that foster children make a lot of moves, but the study also offers a ray of hope,” says lead author Katherine C. Pears, a senior scientist at the Oregon Social Learning Center and a courtesy research associate in the psychology department.

“For foster kids who entered kindergarten with good language and literacy skills the moves didn’t have a negative effect on them. If you can start children out ready for entering the school system, you will be inoculating them to protect them against subsequent moves.”

There should also be a concerted effort to keep foster children who move or must change families in the same schools or, at least, in the same school districts, Pears says.

Such an approach would provide social stability for foster children, allowing them to maintain already existing relationships with teachers and friends. It would also help foster
children keep pace.

Children in the new study had been part of an earlier project that studied transition to kindergarten. Researchers continued to gather data on a subset of the children as they moved toward grades 3–5.

“This gave us a real time look at what happened to these children between grades through records we gathered by following each child,” Pears says.

“We were able to track their movements, even when they moved to other nearby school districts, out of the county or out of state.”

The National Institutes of Health supported the work.

This article was originally published by the University of Oregon. Republished via under Creative Commons License 4.0.