What does it take to engage students who age out of foster care into supportive relationships on the college campus? It helps to understand that relationships formed with supportive adults, such as caseworkers, foster parents, guardians ad litem and other professionals, while in foster care can change frequently for youth, and often without warning, due process or closure.
Some youth have experienced multiple relationship changes throughout their adolescent years, which compounds any already existing challenges related to ambiguous loss, grief, attachment injuries and developmental gaps related to separation from their birth families. Moreover, youth who age out of foster care often live with some degree of trauma, which is stored in the nooks and crannies of implicit memory and the reflexive nervous system, or outside of conscious control. All these conditions bring unique challenges to relationship development.
Although trauma is typically unwelcomed (both by youth and people relating to them), it is most helpful to view it not as a problem but as an adaptation to problematic events and circumstances. Children raised in abusive, neglectful or otherwise violent conditions adapt to survive. Much of the adaptation is unconscious and focused on survival.
For example, the nervous system adjusts to stay “on alert” to the unpredictable moods of a caregiver so as to minimize physical abuse; the digestive system recalibrates so that hunger is not felt when food provisions run out; or an environment mute to encouragement, praise, play and supportive communication shapes the social engagement system to be suspicious of compliments.
Engaging, establishing and maintaining relationships with youth who live with trauma and without continuous nurturing relationships from adult caregivers is not a straightforward process. The unwieldy path of untangling trauma, especially complex trauma, is a difficult road that cannot be forced or rushed. The human body organizes in response to trauma in favor of self-protection; that is, keeping oneself safe from harm at all costs, including the price of relationships with other people.
While there is no guidebook, there are several helpful resources to prepare supportive adults (who may or may not have professional training) in establishing and maintaining relationships with youth who age out of foster care. For example, the “Child Development and Trauma Guide” highlights indicators of how trauma manifests and impacts children and youth at different stages of development. The guide also provides general tips on how to respond to youth who exhibit trauma symptoms. The “Transformational relationships for youth success” report reveals characteristics of supportive adults who help youth thrive, such as individuals who consistently show up for youth during the highs and lows, and challenge them to be a better version of themselves without judging them. Finally, “Relationships First: Creating Connections That Help Young People Thrive” provides a developmental framework and a wide variety of tips to creating strong relationships with youth.
THE EMERGENCE OF A COACHING MODEL
It’s been over 10 years since the Seita Scholars program emerged into existence as a program of pride at Western Michigan University. The program, designed to support youth who age out of foster care to earn a four-year college degree and to thrive after graduation, was an incubator for developing strategies to build relationships with supportive adults.
When the program began in 2008 there was little research and few resources available to guide efforts to support successful transitions from foster care to college campus. We operated from the belief that the primary driver of the human experience is relationship to others, and we understood that attachment and belonging is compromised for many youth aging out of foster care owing to abuse, neglect and system failures.
Given the dearth of information available at program startup, we learned about building relationships with the students as we created programming elements. We regarded every youth enrolled in the program as an expert on the experience of aging out of foster care and into college. Collectively guidance from the student body — known as Seita Scholars — greatly shaped program decisions and operations.
The campus coach role was created in 2008, and five years later, through careful listening and many instances of trial-and-error, the Fostering Success Coaching model emerged as our primary approach to supporting college students aging out of foster care. Our efforts to investigate the coaching model’s effectiveness in 2017 through survey research indicated that coaching matters to students.
Individuals hired for the coach role are screened to have some level of exposure to the experiences that youth face in the foster care system. We have found that it’s critical that supportive adults listen fully, without judgement, and believe youth as they share their stories. Once coaches are selected, the coaching model trains them to engage youth in relationship by applying a communication structure that is predictable, strengths-oriented and promotes well-being. The fostering success coach model is specifically designed to equip coaches with a skill set designed to address complex challenges in multiple life areas for youth.
Coaches learn a three-part structure of communication, known as a coaching interaction, that involves the following:
Step 1: Students assess their strengths and struggles in seven life areas (i.e., education, finances, housing, health, relationships, identity and life skills);
Step 2: In partnership with students, prioritize with students their current needs in the context of the long-term goal of college graduation. This step uses a modified Maslow’s hierarchy that prioritizes need by examining opportunity for individual growth as well as action for system change;
Step 3: Apply the teaching and learning cycle wheel to focus on developing student’s insight, knowledge or skill in a particular life domain.
The three steps comprise the coaching interaction, which, when consistently and predictably applied over time, develops a trusted pattern of communication between coach and student. This lays the groundwork for youth to thrive in relationship with the coach, as well as develop other relationships on campus.
Predictability builds trust in relationship. Trust creates a felt sense of safety, which promotes generalization of skills learned across time, topics and people. The benefit of a predictable pattern of communication for youth who have encountered a multitude of state-appointed caregivers and decision-makers in their lives is that youth learn how to discern the message from the messenger and distill the information that is most needed in the moment and best fits their particular situation and preferences.
In addition to the coaching model, and other sources of knowledge listed earlier, an understanding that all youth (and supportive adults for that matter) are trying their best, and an attitude of gentle curiosity lays the groundwork for experimenting with a strengths-oriented approach to developing relationships. Even with the best available knowledge and a positive attitude, relationship development is not always smooth.
It helps to lead with the question: What does it take to support youth to heal from trauma histories filled with ambiguous loss, grief and “things no child should have to experience” (a phrase commonly expressed by students in the program)? The coaching communication interaction is a staple to anchor communication and promotes a felt sense of stability or safety in the relationship between coach and student.
Research by Timothy Huffman showed that supportive adults who exhibit “embodied aboutness” — which literally means making your body about the other person — were most effective at engaging homeless youth in relationships that ultimately brought them benefit. Peter Levine refers to the notion of “touching another with your presence.”
These authors help us understand that relationship development with youth who have aged out of foster care requires much more than learning knowledge and developing communication skills; it also requires a keen sense attunement to both self and others. The felt sense of the relationship dynamic between coach and student ebbs and flows over time along with the content of life as it unfolds.
The structure of coaching interaction provides a map that affords repetition without redundancy through the emotional and intellectual highs and lows of the ever-changing context of relationship development and the evolving college experience. It also allows for the uniqueness of each youth to be revealed and rooted in a stable sense of self. And it provides coaches a frame for reflection on their own growth and learning.
There is no magic recipe for building optimal relationships with youth, even with the many different tools to learning relationship skills. The past decade of working with youth who have aged out of foster care have taught me that genuine curiosity in learning another person without expectation that they be fixed or changed is a healing way forward. Viewing youth from a lens of how did they adapt to adversity to survive gives clues about how their actions (or inactions) are responses learned and shaped by previous environments.
Furthermore, this view prompts us to seek to create new experiences and expose youth to new environments that yield healing, supportive and thriving relationships. It helps to remember that we are always in relationship with youth, whether the nature of the relationship is expressed as energy-giving (e.g., joy, reciprocity, sharing and celebration) or energy-draining ways (e.g., mistrust, avoidance, frustration). Although the purpose of the coaching relationship is to provide opportunities for youth, when authentic interdependence is achieved meaningful learning, growth and connection happen for both parties.
Yvonne A. Unrau, Ph.D., LMSW (clinical and macro), is a professor of social work and the director of the Center for Fostering Success at Western Michigan University. She has dedicated her career to improving services to youth and families whose lives have been touched by foster care, and is a developer of the Fostering Success Coach Training model.