Ask the Experts


On this page you will find questions posed to our panel of experts drawn from the community of trauma-informed clinicians in A Home Within. Anyone who takes one of our online trainings is entitled to submit a question. We assign inquiries based on the particular expertise and interests of the clinicians. 

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I teach seventh grade in an urban, inner city middle school. Many, if not most, of my students have traumatic histories—family abuse, child abuse, poverty, witness to community violence, and incarcerated parents.  It’s abundantly clear to me that these children struggle with social and emotional traumas that interfere with their ability to take in information and engage in classroom learning.  There are moments of brilliance and creativity in all of them but, really, it’s all I can do to control the disruptive classroom behavior, much less follow a standard lesson plan.  I don’t know what to do to help these kids—emotionally or academically.  Do  you have any suggestions?
 
Your situation, unfortunately, is not uncommon. Many kids have trauma in their homes, and they carry their trauma as a live charge within them, pulsing and ready to erupt. Your classroom has become an extension of their emotional upheaval, so the goal is to create an environment which is safe and accepting, with clear boundaries.  
It’s important to set boundaries and hold them firmly, even when the kids push the limits. Their homes are chaotic, causing them to feel chaotic inside, which frightens them. A chaotic classroom will add to their fear. They need to know you’ll hold the line, even if they test you. Setting up basic rules, based on kindness and respect, will help them. For example: No bullying — verbal or physical. No racist, sexist, homophobic comments. No shouting. This classroom is a safe place for everyone. Perhaps your students can help you write the rules for the classroom, to involve them as active agents in creating this new, safe learning environment. Can you use this to hook into a lesson plan? (For example, if studying American History, the class’s Bill Of Rights can be compared to the country’s Bill Of Rights). 
I’m going to toss out some ideas, gearing my suggestions to your age group (seventh grade). You can use these ideas, or build on them to create your own ideas. I’m brainstorming, because traditional approaches to teaching aren’t working for your students. Is there a way you can bond class members to work together on projects? Can you turn the “lesson plan” into a game? (Jeopardy, for example). Humor bonds kids extremely effectively. If something funny happens, let them enjoy it together. If a student becomes disruptive (or wants to catch himself before he becomes disruptive), can you set up a “deep breath chair” where he/she can sit, without shame, to calm down? Would it be possible to begin class with 2 minutes of stretching/yoga? Music and rhythm can be a huge help in learning and retaining information, and in calming disruptive brain activity. Can you have students take turns drumming (not too loud!) on their desk, while other kids “rap” the information you’re teaching?
This may take a lot of trial and error. Hang in there. Thank you for the work you do.
 
Amy Kaufman Burk, DMH
Novelist, Blogger, Consultant for A Home Within

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 I am a teacher with a foster child who needs a lot of help. When I try to get the foster mother to come in to talk to me, she says it’s the caseworker’s job. The caseworker says to talk to the foster mother. Who is actually responsible for this child?

How frustrating!  Both are responsible for the child, but the ultimate responsibility rests with the caseworker.  Call the caseworker and ask if the child has a lawyer and/or a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate).  If so, you can talk with one of them and let them know the child’s needs are not being met.  They can help you advocate for the child and, if necessary, bring the matter to the attention of the judge.  If the child does not have a lawyer or CASA, you should contact the caseworker’s supervisor.  Some states have laws or procedures that provide for an educational surrogate for a foster child.  The court can appoint a responsible adult to advocate for the educational needs of the child including requesting an IEP and participating in the process.  This child is lucky to have a concerned teacher who cares about the child’s success.

The Honorable Donna J. Hitchens (Ret.)
Board Chair

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I work in a group home. I think that one of the residents has a crush on me. Should I tell her I’m gay?

Well, let’s think about that. Wouldn’t the message be that otherwise, if you were straight, it would be fine for her to have a crush on you and it might even be reciprocated? The point being that one of the most important and challenging parts of ensuring healthy bonds with youth in out-of-home care is to keep very careful boundaries while at the same time offering empathy and support. This does not mean that you never disclose to residents your sexual identity. Just that you know the reasons why you would be doing it when you do. In this case, for the purpose of addressing her crush on you, there would be no good reason to do it. The main message is to convey in every way possible that whatever her feelings toward you, you will continue to be a trusted and respectful adult who cares for her in a caretaking but never romantic way. This assures her that she will have a safe relationship with you, no matter what her romantic feelings. And those romantic feelings may still swirl around in her fantasy life, no matter what your sexual identity, even if she knew it. In the meantime, it is never easy when residents fall in love with us, so make sure you have supports around you to deal with any uncomfortable feelings that might come up for you as you continue to build a positive relationship with this resident.

Diane Ehrensaft, PhD
Consultation Group Leader

 

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I am a new foster mother with a three-year-old boy who has been placed with me for two months. I can’t get him to fall asleep by himself. If I rock him to sleep, he cries when I try to put him in his bed. He will fall asleep if I lie down with him, but wakes up when I get up. I don’t know what to do.
Your little guy sounds like he’s worried about you not being there when he wakes up.  It’s scary to know that the person you count on to take care of you might not be there, and he’s already had that happen before.

What might help is to talk to him about how he can hold onto something of yours even when you’re not around.  There’s an excellent book called The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn, that is a good example for this.  In it, a mom gives her son a kiss on the hand for him to hold onto in case she’s not around to give him one herself.

You can tell your foster son that you’ll be with him while he falls asleep.  Try sitting next to the bed, rather than sleeping in it with him.  It’ll let you move without disturbing him when he falls asleep.  If he does wake up, let him know he’ll have the kiss (or whatever your reminder is) to help him feel safe.  If he needs another, he can come to your room.

It will take some time for your new toddler to get used to this.  Be patient, and keep to a bedtime routine that reassures him you’ll be there and are thinking of him even when you’re not with him.

Loong Kwok, PsyD
Director, Fostering Relationships

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My seven-year-old foster son still wets the bed. My neighbor says I should make him wash his own sheets but he doesn’t really have time before he goes to school and I don’t want wet smelly sheets around all day. Do you have any other suggestions for getting him to stop?

Many possible reasons exist for bedwetting for children up to 5 and even older in some cases.  Your foster son’s bladder may be small or he may sleep too deeply and not wake up when his bladder is full.  Practically speaking, you can cut off liquids 2 hours before bed and do a wake-up call about half way through the night to ensure he empties his bladder.

However, children often communicate to us through non-verbal cues.  Bedwetting is one way of letting parents know something may not be right.  If a child has been dry overnight for several months, is above 5 years old and suddenly begins to wet his or her bed more than two to three times per week the cause may be emotional stress.  It’s important to consider the transitions your foster son has experienced and remember the amount of trauma and loss he could be managing on a daily basis.  Of course it’s important to be as sensitive as possible and assure your son that bedwetting is not his fault.  You can begin to ask him what he might be feeling or think about his life experience and make links for him.  For example, “You saw your mom yesterday and last night you had an accident.  I wonder if here might be a connection.”

Most important will be to not embarrass your son and keep the bedwetting a private matter, only including people who you can trust.  It will also be important to ensure your son has emotional support.  Contacting an experienced clinician could offer support for any duress he may be experiencing.  This can also be helpful to you as his foster parent as it can be very trying to address difficult emotional issues while also dealing with the practical implications such all the daily living stressors a parent must manage.

Molly Saeger, MFT
Director, Clinical Chapters

 

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I’m twenty-three and my thirteen year old sister was taken away from my mother. She’s been living with me for about six months. I think that she’s starting to scratch herself with paperclips. Do you think she’ll stop if I just ignore it? I think that my mother was pretty mean to her.
I’m glad you wrote to ask about this. It’s never a good idea to ignore it when people intentionally hurt themselves. People cut (or scratch) for lots of different reasons, from trying to get attention, to being really angry or sad, to re-enacting some aspect of a traumatic experience from their past. (And these are only a few of the possible explanations.) Whatever the specific reason, people don’t hurt themselves on purpose unless they’re in a certain amount of emotional pain.

It’s important to talk with your sister, and to be as direct as possible. You might begin by simply saying that you’ve noticed her scratches, and that you’re concerned about her. You can ask her if she knows why she’s done this, but be aware that lots of people who hurt themselves — especially young people — don’t have a clear understanding of why.

Thirteen can be a difficult age under the best of circumstances, and it sounds as though your sister has been through a lot. Let her know that whatever she’s feeling is fair, but that hurting herself is not okay. Don’t let her persuade you that it’s no big deal. Whether she’s scratching or cutting, it might not seem physically dangerous, but it’s really unhealthy, and she needs to find other ways to cope.

Self-injury can become addictive, so it’s a good idea to help your sister find someone to talk with as soon as you can. A therapist will not only be able to evaluate her self-harming behavior, but also offer her a safe place in which to identify and explore her feelings, and help her find other ways to soothe herself when she’s feeling overwhelmed.

Amy Wilner, Ph.D.
Clinical Director

 

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I’m a caseworker with thirty-six kids on my caseload. I don’t think I can do this much longer, but if I leave, the kids will just have to get used to someone new—again—and some of my coworkers might have to pick up the slack until they hire someone. I don’t think I can stay and I don’t think I can leave.
Wow. I’m so sorry to hear how stuck you feel. Clearly, you want to do a good job and are having a hard time figuring out how to take care of the kids on your caseload and yourself. Even though you care about your co-workers, it’s not your responsibility to take care of them and if you stayed on the job to protect them, you would probably end up feeling resentful, which wouldn’t be good for them or you.
I don’t know if you have a supervisor or co-worker you trust enough to talk with about how desperate you feel. Staff turnover is incredibly costly for agencies and organizations; it’s possible that your supervisor might be able to rearrange your schedule or reduce your caseload. But, I understand that you might not feel as if you could even ask.
It’s important to remember that there is only so much that you can do. Try to find ways to leave work at the office—create a ritual of walking 100 steps when you end the day—50 for work and 50 for home, to help you make the transition, or stopping—even for a very few minutes every day at the same spot on your way home to mark the time and place that you move from work to home. Those are just a couple of ideas—you will know what fits for you.
I do hope you find a good way to resolve this dilemma.

Toni Heineman, LCSW, DMH
Executive Director

 

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I was in foster care for five years. I’m trying to earn money to help with college by working in a group home on the weekends. I thought it would be easy because I know what they are going through. But I think that maybe it’s just making me remember how awful it was. I feel like I should give back because I have it better than a lot of foster kids, after all, I’m in college not in a homeless shelter or jail.

I can understand how working in a group home initially seemed like a good way to earn money and give back to the foster care community. I can also understand that the memories that you are having and the feelings that go along with them have surprised you. It is very common and normal to become uncomfortable when we find ourselves in a physical or emotional environment that is similar to ones in which we suffered in the past.

I have a couple of suggestions that might help. First, if there is someone who you trust and respect who works at the group home, you could ask to talk to her or him about how you are feeling. The act of sharing can be a relief. If this is a possibility for you, you might try it a few times to see if it helps you to separate the past from the present.

If you don’t have someone in mind who could be your sounding board, or if this idea doesn’t sound like something you want to do (or it doesn’t work), then I have another suggestion. Your desire to give back is a wonderful intention. Doing it in a hand’s on way (working in the group home) may not be a good fit for you. Instead, look for a weekend job that has nothing to do with foster care, with the knowledge that you will give back to the community later in your life and in other ways, like helping to organize an event that shines light on the needs of children in foster care, or fundraising, or some office type of support for an organization that provides hand’s on help.

Learning how to be self-protective is an ongoing process. It is a skill that we all need in order to make choices in life that really work for us. One of the best ways to develop this skill is through recognizing that we may have made a choice that doesn’t really work well for us. I think your question reveals that you are developing this skill, so whatever the outcome, you are on your way.

Lia Rudnick, PhD
Fostering Relationships Consultant

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Why isn’t there more funding for relationship/attachment based psychotherapy for children in foster care or foster care alumni, given the emerging evidence that they continue to experience significant difficulties into adulthood.

That’s a complicated question that could be approached from multiple perspectives. I think that there is often the hope that we can ease the pain that foster youth experience quickly, which leads to focus on reducing or eliminating the problematic symptoms arising from depression or anxiety, for example, rather than focusing on building relationships. Relationships are hard, often messy, take time, and often don’t bring quick symptomatic relief. Fortunately, the idea that healthy relationships are not only desirable, but vital to emotional well-being is making its way back into the public conversation. I hope that in ten years, no one will be asking this question!

Toni Heineman, LCSW, DMH
Executive Director