Laying the Foundation for Children’s Academic Success

By Vicki Spriggs
Chief Executive Officer of Texas CASA

It’s the first day of school, and Noah’s teacher asks for volunteers to come up to the front of class and share their favorite stories from summer vacation. Hand after eager hand shoots up high in the air, and excited whispers start to fill the classroom.

But Noah doesn’t raise his hand or join in on the chatter. Instead, he tries to make himself as small as possible. You see, for him, this is not a moment of excitement; it’s a moment of high anxiety – because his summer vacation wasn’t a vacation at all.

Noah’s summer was moving to two different foster homes in the span of a month. It was calls with his caseworker, therapy appointments, structured family visits and preparing to start at yet another new school. It was the friends and memories he left behind, not the ones he made. So he hides in plain sight, hoping no one notices him… because if anyone asked what he did over the break, what would he even say?

As we enter the back-to-school season, we in the child welfare world are continually reminded that the odds are against kids like Noah in so many ways. According to recent TEA data, children in foster care are nearly five times more likely than their peers to drop out of school, and more than 30 percent less likely to graduate. We’ve also seen, time and time again, that these children can beat these odds, meet their potential and live successful, happy lives. But as CASA advocates, how do we even begin to help these children get there, when so many of them are just trying to keep their heads above water?

Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There are five basic levels of needs: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. According to the theory, the lower needs must be met before advancing to the next level. Self-actualization – the desire to achieve one’s potential and become the most one can be – is at the very top of the pyramid.

Imagine you’re Noah’s CASA volunteer. Ask yourself: where is he currently falling on the hierarchy of needs? With that in mind, do you think that sitting him down and talking about academic goal-setting and achievement would be the most helpful for him right now, or are there other more pressing needs that must be addressed before he can meaningfully look towards the future?

The reality is that many of the children we serve are facing situations like Noah’s: starting over as the “new kid,” playing academic and social catch-up, and worrying about how they’ll explain why a caseworker visits them during the school day. Every child has a need for social acceptance. Children in foster care are no exception. If anything, fitting in at school can be even more critical for kids in care who have already been through the unthinkable.

When these children feel safe and accepted, school can provide a wonderful opportunity for normalcy, self-expression and relationship building – essential parts of healthy social and emotional development. So when it comes to preparing children for academic success, keep their day-to-day in mind at least as much as their future. The children you serve are the best experts on what’s going on in their lives, and what they want and need in order to feel confident facing the new school year. Talk to them! Everything else should follow. Ask them: what are their feelings about school starting? Are they excited? Nervous? Scared? Whatever their answer, what can you do to help them feel more ready?

Can you help them feel more confident and comfortable socially? Do they have clothes, supplies and other resources that are comparable to those of their peers? Do they need new glasses? Do they have the right calculator, or do they have an old model that could single them out? These kinds of things might sound small – but remember that they’re already coming into the school year with burdens on them that other kids don’t have. The more social pressures and anxieties you can eliminate for a child, the more they’ll be able to focus on other things, like meeting their academic goals.

Connect with the child about adults who can support them during the school day. If they’re coming back to the same school, identify with them the teachers they already know and feel comfortable around – they might be able to serve as mentors. On the other hand, if they’re starting at a new school, see if you can have preliminary conversations with their teachers and other involved adults before the year begins. School faculty who understand the child’s unique situation, hopes and anxieties from the beginning can keep an understanding eye on them and help shepherd them into the newness.

Beyond the classroom, talk to the professionals involved with the child’s service planning about how you can all work together to avoid disrupting their everyday life as much as possible. Can therapy move to Saturdays? Can the caseworker visit at the home instead of coming to school?

The education system, like the foster care system, is complicated; even messy at times. CASA volunteers, know that you don’t have to face it alone. We’ve done the research and the heavy lifting for you with our Educational Advocacy Guidebook – providing you the baseline knowledge of how the education and child welfare systems intersect and giving you the most up-to-date information and tools to help you make a difference for a child in the school setting.

School is just a few weeks away. So in addition to studying up on educational advocacy, now is the time to look at your CASA child with an extra-compassionate eye, and talk to them about how you can help them feel ready and start on the right foot. These small actions and extra steps could be the qualitative difference, setting the foundation for their academic and social success.

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If you are not currently involved with CASA, I ask you today to consider how you can play a part in making a difference in the lives of our most vulnerable children. Are you ready to take the first step towards becoming a CASA volunteer? Visit BecomeACASA.org to learn how you can speak up for a child who needs you. You can also support the work of Texas CASA by making a secure online gift that will benefit the local CASA volunteer advocacy programs across the state.

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