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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Good Law: School Assignment for Foster and Homeless Children

“There ought to be a law”-- we’ve all said that at times. Unfortunately, not every law has the outcomes we’d like to see, and it can be even harder to alter a law than to create a new one.

Most states have problematic but well-intentioned laws about children’s attendance at public schools. Children are generally expected to attend the school to which their residential district assigns them-- sometimes a school near the child’s home, but sometimes not. Because school expenses are paid by the school district of the child’s residence, there is concern about having payment go from one district to another, except in the unusual case where one district can offer needed services and another cannot. If a school district discovers that a child’s family has moved to another area, the child will often not be allowed to continue to attend the familiar school, even for a few remaining weeks of the school year. A few, but by no means all, school districts will allow parents to pay substantial fees to keep their child in a public school even though the family lives out of the district. Even when arrangements can be made for the child to attend school out of district, however, the distance between the home and the desired school may be prohibitive unless parents can manage transportation.

The result of these laws about school assignment is that children whose living situation changes must very often change schools as well as homes. Two groups who have been strongly affected by this are children who are moved from their familiar (but neglectful or abusive) home to the care of a foster (or “resource”) family living in some other area, and children whose families have become homeless and are residing in a shelter or similar environment. Because familiar schools and established relationships with teachers and with other children are important stabilizing factors in school-age children’s lives, the requirement that they change schools removes yet another element of stability in situations where unfamiliarity of people and/or places is already creating stress. Such changes create problems both for children’s emotional lives and for their educational process. Entering a new school always means a loss of friends, and may mean conflicts as a newcomer has to make his or her way into the pecking order; these changes, when combined with the emotional impact of foster placement or homelessness, may interfere with a child’s self-control and result in fighting, sulking, or withdrawal that generates even more negative consequences in the school environment. In addition, because schools do not have identical educational practices or daily lesson plans, children changing schools may miss instruction, and busy teachers may not be aware of developing educational problems.

Today, though, we have reason to be delighted that there is a new law in New Jersey that should have a very beneficial effect on foster children and homeless children (see This law protects children placed in foster care from having to change schools, when moving to the district where the foster parents live, if it is different from the area where the parental home was. It also protects children living in homeless shelters or group homes from having to change schools, allowing them to continue at their familiar schools. Of especial importance, this law establishes payment for transportation of children to their accustomed schools, and prevents municipalities from making laws that would discriminate between use of schools and recreational facilities by children living with their families in the district and by children in other situations. The New Jersey legislation thus removes some emotional and educational obstacles that have further interfered with the positive development of children whose living situations were disrupted by situations that themselves had negative impacts.

What about other children whose lives are disrupted if they have to change schools at awkward points? A group who are obviously affected are children of divorce. Children whose parents divorce frequently find themselves moving to a new house or apartment because parents who are dividing their resources can no longer maintain the living standards that were possible with combined incomes. The familiar home, neighborhood, and friends are replaced by unfamiliarity, and often by unfamiliar surroundings that are less comfortable or safe than the original home. The move may be at the beginning of a long school vacation, which would give the children time to become acclimated and even make some new friends before starting at a new school-- but it may just as well be in the middle of a school term, with nothing to soften the “school shock” as they plunge into an entirely new situation. And, of course, many school systems nowadays have abandoned the old-fashioned long summer vacation in favor of short terms with a few weeks’ break between them. In these cases, children may lose much that could offer comfort and buffer the impact of divorce on their mood and learning.

Let’s hope that the legislation for foster and homeless children may be the beginning of more child- and family-friendly school policies for all families undergoing significant changes.

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