Adults aren’t stepping up for vulnerable kids in school

(Credit: Getty Images)

Adults need to do a better job when dealing with vulnerable children who face barriers to success in the classroom, a new study reports.

Researchers asked young adults to look back on their experiences with maltreatment, homelessness, and their time in school.

“Whatever our roles might be—teacher, social worker, or child welfare worker—we have to take that role seriously and understand its importance.”

“It’s as though they’re asking us as adults not to give up on them, to stick with them,” says Annette Semanchin Jones, an assistant professor in School of Social Work at the University at Buffalo.

For the study, Semanchin Jones and colleagues explored the youths’ experiences at the intersection of the systems intended to address multiple stressors and adverse experiences. Their findings suggest that even the most vulnerable kids could point to specific adults who made a difference in their lives.

“Whatever our roles might be—teacher, social worker, or child welfare worker—we have to take that role seriously and understand its importance.”

Study participants spoke often about professional service providers, family members, and other adults who fulfilled those important roles and had a positive impact on youth, says Semanchin Jones.

“There is room for these systems to identify and mobilize that support in a structured way so adult providers can be there for youth.”

“It wasn’t stated explicitly but in the analysis it was obvious that we also need to work better not only within these systems, but across these systems,” she says. “We need to find better ways to ensure youth don’t fall through the cracks. Improving communication would allow different systems to share goals and data and create teams that include the youths among their members.”

Communication is critical

The study, which appears in Children and Youth Services Review, began as an informal discussion about various projects involving each of the researchers’ work. Semanchin Jones’ research focus is child welfare. Elizabeth Bowen is an expert in homelessness and homeless youth, and Annahita Ball’s expertise is in school social work services and positive youth development.

“We realized that in many cases we were talking about the same group of youth,” Semanchin Jones says.

Although there is existing research that examines educational outcomes for youth who experience homelessness and others that look at educational outcomes for youth in foster care or who have been maltreated, few studies have examined how all of these obstacles affect school performance.

Not far from childhood

Since vulnerable youth often interact with multiple systems at once, the researchers combined their areas of expertise to explore possible protective factors and interventions, as well as other elements that might hinder educational outcomes.

They interviewed 20 participants between the ages of 18 and 24. The group was diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Researchers asked them to recall and describe as much as possible about their experiences with these various systems.

“Interviewing the participants as young adults provided a unique perspective,” Bowen says. “They were not very far removed from childhood, but they were also able to reflect on their education and earlier experiences in insightful ways as emerging adults.”

The conversations highlighted several key factors as barriers to a good education:

  • They often felt completely on their own, as if they had raised themselves.
  • They felt a lack of control, with various systems making decisions about them, not with them, like where they could live and go to school.
  • They experienced instability across all aspects of their life, including residential, school, and placement, which often caused problematic absenteeism and disrupted social networks.
  • They had a lack of trust. Youth stressed the need to have a safe person to discuss maltreatment at home or in a foster home, bullying, and other behaviors, but often didn’t know what to disclose and with whom they should share the information.

In a second paper, published in Youth & Society, the team explored the participants’ transition to adulthood, a crucial time period for seeking stability and pursuing educational, career, and relationship goals. The team is also exploring the ways in which schools’ existing student support services may be able to intervene differently or earlier to better address youths’ needs.

“We need to hear from youth who tell us, ‘We’ve been through this and here’s how you could have been more helpful,'” Semanchin Jones says.

Source: University at Buffalo