Finding the right preschool for kids in foster care
Christa Murray didn’t give up on finding the right preschool for her twin foster children.
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
Our journey to becoming foster parents was not atypical.
Having spent time in relative foster care (placed with a family member) as a youth, I knew that helping children was always going to be part of my life. We discussed it early on in our relationship. Our plan: Have two to three biological children, and when they were older, start foster care for teenagers (knowing they were often the hardest to place). Life had other plans for us. When we discovered we could not easily have children on our own, we reexamined the option of foster care.
Becoming a licensed foster parent is a lengthy, complex process. There are mountains of paperwork, days spent in trainings, multiple home inspections, interviews, and to top it off, more paperwork. All this required a great deal of intrapersonal examination of how we were raised and what qualities we wanted to carry with us as parents.
At the end of the 10-month process, we discovered a lot about our strengths as parents along with our limitations. Being young adults ourselves, taking on teens at that time seemed beyond our capabilities. We decided to become licensed to care for two children from birth up to age 6.
Foster parents are faced with many hardships: Children's emotional struggles that often manifest in behaviors, being the last to know about an important factor that affects a child's needs, feeling at the mercy of others’ choices that often impact your everyday life, just to name three. Yet the one I felt most blindsided by was the challenge of advocating for my children's educational needs. I felt the weight of these choices; they would have lasting effects across their lifetimes. Parenting children from hard places means they don’t always thrive in a system created with others in mind. We’ve learned to explore all the options available to advocate for their needs.
We were excited to move our 3-year-old twins into a preschool program; they had been our foster children for a year and made great gains in their social development. Typical brain development is interrupted when a child is experiencing extreme adversity. We knew more support from a childcare program designed to work with kids from tough circumstances would be beneficial, but it became evident early on that it wasn’t working out as planned. Both kids’ personalities and learning styles were not matching up with their new teachers.
Our first step was to meet with their teachers. I provided tactics that were working at home, along with ones that we learned from their counselors, and shared research on trauma-informed care and how early childhood trauma affects brain development.
Children who experience abuse and neglect early on spend the first years of their lives learning that adults are not a source of support and comfort. When an infant’s cries are not met with a comforting response (being fed, changed or cuddled), an insecure attachment to their caregivers is created. Their brains are now wired to no longer seek others for support. Along with the absence of nurturing, they have not received good modeling on how to calm themselves down, leaving children without the ability to regulate their emotions or know where to turn for help. The end result is often a child who has emotional meltdowns whenever they begin to experience even the slightest amount of uncertainty.
Trauma-informed care is about understanding the effect that trauma has had on brain development and meeting the child where they are at. Our breakthrough in parenting came when we were able to identify the difference between a typical tantrum and an emotional meltdown. There may seem to be only a subtle distinction between the two, but the effects are enormous.
For our son, a normal child tantrum resolves itself with a time-out or correction of the behaviors. But when he’s struggling to manage his emotions, time-outs result in prolonged, often escalated meltdowns. What he needs during a meltdown is not a consequence, but rather connection with an adult modeling how to self-regulate emotions. These are best handled with time-ins. Our version looks like us sitting with him, talking calmly even as he yells, hits and kicks. We share with him why his actions were not OK and what he needs to do to correct it, all while knowing only a fragment of this information is making its way in. The point is to demonstrate how to calm down and use his words to express his frustrations; it is not a free pass for bad behavior. Once calm, he is required to correct his previous actions, often picking up the toys he threw when the meltdown began.
We shared these insights with his teachers in hopes they would see the merit and usefulness of our tactics. I went into that meeting feeling hopeful, but sadly felt unheard and left with only excuses as to why these couldn’t work in their classroom setting. We gave it time. Our son struggled with change; the move to this new preschool had already been rough on him. We wanted to give him time to adjust, not just whisk him away to another program where we may find similar issues. After several weeks with no improvement, we knew something needed to change.
I began looking elsewhere. I thought I had taken care in finding the right place the first time. I realized I may not have been asking all the right questions. Yes, I wanted to know how their center focused on child development, an overview of their discipline policy, along with countless other criteria that indicate high-quality childcare. But I also needed to know how the teachers connected with students: What they thought the role of nurturing was for children in preschool, how they would partner with us as parents when concerns did arise. All these questions gave me a more well-rounded picture of what our twins’ experience in this preschool would be.
After several tours and meetings with teachers we finally found a preschool that met our kids’ needs. Now, after having spent over a year there, we are continually encouraged by the support the teachers offer. Even on a particularly rough day, they find something positive to share. We discuss what is working both at home and at school as a way to make sure the children receive a consistent message. Without the extra time and effort we put into recognizing the issues and searching for a better fit, both children would not have progressed as much as they have. They are building the foundation of knowledge and social emotional skills for a great educational start. We are confident that when they reach kindergarten, they will be ready to learn.
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