By Vicki Spriggs, Texas CASA CEO
Right now, we hope children and youth all across Texas are enjoying their summer vacation, kicking back, relaxing and basking in their freedom and time away from structured learning. Before they know it, they’ll be back in the classroom—and because of last year’s school shutdowns and the stresses of the pandemic, many students will be coming in behind, with learning losses. Knowing this, and knowing that students in foster care face heightened educational challenges, how can CASA volunteers help set the children we serve up for success?
First, prepare yourself—put your educational advocate hat on! Brush up on the school system and how it works, the services the young person you’re advocating for is getting, and how to best advocate for their educational needs. Our Educational Advocacy Guidebook is full of useful guidance for advocating for children of all ages and abilities, including a deep dive into special education and section 504 services.
Next, find fun ways to exercise kids’ brains over summer vacation. One of the best ways to do this is to encourage them to keep reading. Younger children tend to enjoy story time; some might even like to read to you aloud. It can be a much bigger challenge for older youth if they’ve developed an aversion to required reading. Fight this feeling by encouraging them to read what they want! Try out comic books and graphic novels. If they don’t have a library card, can you help them acquire one (and understand the system of fines for late book returns)? Is there a teen program at their local library? They might be pleasantly surprised to find that it isn’t all Shakespeare, Steinbeck and dry textbooks. Another way to keep a young brain healthy and curious is to get outside. It can be tempting during the Texas heat to stay in the AC, but soaking up the sunshine and staying active provides many physical, mental and emotional benefits.
You can also help prepare kids emotionally to return to school. Some students will be going back to school in person for the first time in more than a year. Talk to them! Are they nervous about being behind in classes? Seeing their classmates again, or not knowing who their friends are? Having health anxiety around COVID-19? If they are anxious, first acknowledge and validate these feelings. It may ease their nerves to remind them that many of their classmates will be feeling the same way. Be sure they know they can come to you for support and encouragement.
If a youth is in crisis and needs additional, specialized support, the best advocacy a volunteer can provide is information on where they can get the support they need. CASA volunteers are not meant to be crisis counselors. Share our Lines of Support crisis hotlines card with them, and make sure to tell them that these phone numbers might be helpful for them, their friends or someone they know, and that all the phone numbers and text lines are completely confidential.
Whatever this new school year brings, we know there is no limit to what young people can accomplish with a caring, dedicated CASA volunteer by their side. Thank you for everything you do to make a difference.