Charles A. Williams III PhD
Stoneleigh Foundation Fellow
Associate Teaching Professor of
Psychology and Education
Foster youth in America disproportionately face the likelihood of negative outcomes—i.e., incarceration, homelessness and high school dropout. Their level of social and cognitive functioning is often comprised due to the reasons for placement, i.e., physical and sexual abuse, neglect and maltreatment. Therefore, it is imperative that educational professionals - in formal learning environments, are aware of this reality for foster youth, if they are to support their overall social and cognitive development. This also calls for an exploration of evidence-based practices, which can support foster youth in formal learning environments. One such approach could be to offer social skills training, while pairing foster youth with mentors. This enhanced mentoring model could improve overall outcomes, while specifically supporting educational attainment.
For the roughly 500,000 youth in foster care in America, the likelihood of facing negative outcomes—i.e., incarceration, low college attendance, poor health, high school dropout, homelessness, economic problems, and early parenting—is quite high (Berzin, 2010; Gramkowski, Kools, Paul, Boyer, Monasterio, & Robbins, 2009; Leve, Fisher, & Chamberlain, 2009). Moreover, “a sizable literature details the disparities in the child welfare system population compared to the general population on indicators of health, mental health, and social and economic well-being” (Leve et al., 2009, p. 1870). Also, Landsverk, Burns, Stambaugh, and Reutz (2009) state that between one-half and three-fourths of children and youth in foster care experience behavior and social-emotional problems (given the traumatic experiences which they face –often repeatedly), which warrant intervention.
Out of home placement
Several factors may lead to a child being placed in foster care. Specifically, Leve et al. (2009) report that the most common reasons for child placement are parental neglect (67%), physical abuse (16%), sexual abuse (9%), and psychological abuse (7%), with much of this taking place in early childhood. Often, these early child hood experiences can lead foster care youth to develop internalizing and externalizing problems (Stein, 2001). Repeatedly experiencing traumas related to placement into the child welfare system, may lead specifically to poor academic achievement, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, and lower future expectations. It can also lead to higher rates of emotional difficulties and mental illness (Rosario, Salzinger, Feldman, & Ng-Mak, 2008; Stein, 2001), further explaining the disproportionality of negative outcomes for foster care youth. This, then, requires an effective intervention.
Mentoring Foster Youth
According to a report by the Corporation for National and Community Service titled Mentoring Children in Foster care: considerations and partnerships for Senior Corp Directors, foster care youth are in need of mentors or adult role models (Kaplan et al., 2009). Mentoring is often defined as the contribution of a trusted, non-parental adult in the life of a child or youth (Gordon, Iwamoto, Ward, Potts, & Boyd, 2009). “The presence of a positive, trusted, adult role model has been recognized as a protective factor against violence and other maladaptive outcomes for youth” (Cheng, Haynie, Brenner, Wright, Chung, & Simons-Morton, 2008, p. 944). However, traditional mentoring efforts may be enhanced by adding a social skills training component, thereby, making even more likely that foster youth will maintain and develop social competence.
The study of social skills has a rich history reaching back several decades, with early researchers providing a theoretical template for both the conceptualization and study of social skills (Quay, 1986). Merrell and Gimpel (1998) refer to two different ways to conceptualize/define social skills, which concentrate on three general types of constructs. These are peer acceptance and behavioral and social validity. Stepehens (1978) created a comprehensive listing of four broad categories and 30 sub categories of social skills, which were used to create a social skills training curriculum (these 30 sub categories have been used by other theorists and educators to address social skills issues). These four broad categories are:
1. Self-related. Accepting consequences; ethical behavior; expressing feelings; positive attitude toward self; responsible behavior; self-care
2. Environmental behaviors. Care for the environment; dealing with emergencies; lunchroom behavior; movement around environment
3. Task - related behaviors. Asking and answering questions; attending behavior; classroom discussion; completing tasks; following directions; group activities; independent work; on - task behavior; performing before others; quality of work
4. Interpersonal behaviors. Accepting authority; coping with conflict; gaining attention; greeting others; helping others; making conversation; organized play; positive attitude; toward others; playing informally; property: own and others
Out of these four broad categories, six explicit skills can be constructed and they are:
1. Responds to teasing or name calling by ignoring, changing the subject, or using some other constructive means
2. Responds to physical assault by leaving the situation, calling for help, or using some other constructive means
3. Walks away from peer when angry to avoid hitting
4. Refuses the request of another politely
5. Expresses anger with non-aggressive words rather than physical action or aggressive words.
6. Constructively handles criticism or punishment perceived as undeserved
School-Based Social Skills
As has been mentioned, foster youth struggle with externalizing and internalizing problems, which can lead to academic challenges. This is the case because children and youth, who face these types of social and emotional challenges, find it difficult to connect with peers as well as receive support from teachers. In fact, research suggests that children who face such challenges often lack social competence, i.e., they are not socially-skilled. Furthermore, Lane, Gresham and O’Shaughnessy (2002) point out that children who exhibit disruptive/acting out behaviors in the classroom (externalizing behaviors) may underachieve academically, given that their acting out behaviors may cause them “to miss out on essential instructional activities” (p.321). O’Shaughnessy (2002) also states that “over time, this lack of participation in classroom activities results in academic under achievement” (p.321). Such statements suggest a relationship between students’ social competence, or the lack thereof, and their academic performance. It also suggests that foster youth may benefit from developing social competence through social skills training (and mentoring).
Mentoring as a tool to improve social skills
Mentoring has also been found to specifically improve conduct problems and social skills in school-aged youth (Brown & Enriques, 1997; Cheng et al., 2008; Horn & Kolbo, 2000; Wyatt, 2009; Zand et al., 2009). This is the case because as children learn, grow and develop, they seek out regular and consistent, high quality, positive interactions with significant adults in their lives (Draper, Siegel, White, Solis, & Mishna, 2009). Through positive social relationships, with these significant adults, children often learn and model appropriate social responses to such things as conflict and disappointment; and they learn such things as how to effectively communicate and express feelings and emotions (Williams, 2006). Mentoring has not only been shown to address social skills and behavior problems, but as has been previously mentioned it can also influence academic achievement (Glomb, Buckley, Minskoff, & Rogers, 2006; Gresham, 1998; Williams, 2006).
A Dynamic School-Based Intervention: Mentoring and Social Skills Training
A dynamic mentoring model-- which blends traditional mentoring and social skills training, could have an overall positive impact on socially desirable outcomes for these very vulnerable youth, specifically academic performance. Also, given that most states have compulsory education laws for children and youth (up until the ages 15-17), schools could serve as ‘service sites’ for such efforts. Moreover, by using the schools as a base of sorts for a mentoring program – enhanced with social skills training, it is likely to support recruitment efforts. This could be the case, given that the community may be more invested in insuring positive outcomes for their youth as opposed to say recruiting at-large -- in a city or town.
In the final analysis, given that students – foster youth notwithstanding, are required by law to attend school, it would stand that school could serve as optimal site for interventions aimed at youth. In this instance, a recommendation is being made that education professionals become more aware of the fact that foster youth are also their students; and that they should become more familiar with the challenges they face. This, in turn, will enable educational professionals to advocate for evidence-based practices to serve them. The author feels that mentoring- enhanced with social skills training, is such a practice for which educational professionals should be advocating.