Experiences of education and learning of young people who have been in foster care: Defining success

Year: 2019

Author: Miller, Hannah, Bourke, Roseanna

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Positive and successful social and educational experiences can benefit the wellbeing and aspirations of children and young people in foster care. However, assumptions for educational success, founded within dominant discourse, are generally that success is narrowly defined in academic terms. Using this narrow definition, children and young people in foster care are positioned in the margins of educational disadvantage. Research into alternative and holistic understandings of educational success is emerging, and provides another lens to view success more inclusively.

Children and young people in foster care must navigate unique and difficult life experiences, and can experience success in different ways. Therefore to meaningfully improve their educational outcomes, children and young people must have more than a voice; they need to be actively involved in decision-making. This is a legal requirement in New Zealand under the Vulnerable Children’s Act 2014, that mandates children’s involvement in decisions around their education and participation in decision-making; and Article 12 of UNCRC, ratified in 1993, includes the right for children to have a voice.

This paper presents the findings of a study that involved seven participants who were in or had been in foster care. The qualitative study involved in five in-depth individual interviews and one focus group with these young people. Grounded theory analysis was used to ensure that findings were generated from the data and reflected participants’ perspectives.

Findings highlighted that educational success is foregrounded by the social experiences of the young person. Specific experiences of success differed between participants, and ranged from varying degrees of achievement at school, to simply turning up to school. Successes were elucidated by a shared theme of navigating the hardships of foster care and trauma experiences, while the foster care experience also prevented achievement of other ideals of success. Being in foster care was integral to their sense of identity and belonging; where these young people reported feeling different and contrasted their experiences to ‘normal’ experiences. They revealed tensions between wanting to be treated the same, but also needing teachers to be understanding of their experiences. Supportive relationships, achieving success and receiving praise impacted on participants’ self-confidence and was in contrast to the negativity and hardships they had experienced, “You feel good about yourself I guess, like not like a failure.”

Critically, this study identifies ‘what constitutes success’ and how individuals define success in ways that challenge the notion of a traditional view of success.