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What school means to young people in foster care in Sweden


Aim. The aim is to explore young people's experiences of, and attitudes towards, school and whether these change after placement in a foster home. Questions are:


  • What factors influence foster youth's scholastic performance?
  • What affects their creation of meaning regarding school?


Background. The background is findings from previous research. The educational attainment of foster children is significantly lower than that of the general population. The poorest outcomes are among young people who have experienced intervention during adolescence. This may result in educational shortcomings after leaving care, leading to limited employment (Jackson & Cameron 2012; Vinnerljung, Öman & Gunnarsson 2005).

Method. This was part of a study of young people's everyday life in different types of foster families. The selection of participants consisted of 17 young people entering various types of foster families (kinship, other network family or traditional foster family) in their teens. They were between 13 to 16 years old at the time of placement and had lived in the foster family from three to 18 months. About half participants in the group were girls, half boys.

In the study were used mixed qualitative methods. The main method was non-standardized, low-structured, focused, interviews. After one year a follow-up study of 15 of these foster youth was made. Other methods were network maps and «beepers». The young people draw their network map of significant others, like foster family, birth family, teachers, peers etc. and showed how close these people were to them, emotionally, on the map. «Beepers» meant in this study text responses via mobile phone that the young people sent to the researcher around six times a day, for six days. The questions they got from the researcher were the same every time: Where are you? With whom? What are you doing? How does it feel?

Findings. When I analyzed data the change of school situation after placement for at least 2/3 of the young people was striking. Therefore it became the focus of the first article in my Ph.D. thesis (Hedin, Höjer & Brunnberg 2011).

What I found was that 10 adolescents had serious difficulties at school like long periods of truancy etc. before placement. When they told about their school experiences after placement a remarkable change was obvious. For some the main difference since placement. The change of school situation meant they now attended school regularly. From having failed grades in several subjects they now had passed grades in most subjects.

In the adolescents narratives a gradual change of attitude towards school was also visible. They had an increased interest in learning, a stronger confidence in their future possibilities, sometimes explicitly inspired of their foster parents' lives. Briefly, many of the young people appreciated school now.

I found two aspects of the ways school empowered the young people; school as an arena for learning - good performance make them happy and proud - and school as an arena for socialization - finding peers at school gives them self-esteem.

The foster family was an important part in this process of empowering the foster youth. Routines (for example enough sleep, regular meals), support from teachers and foster parents, participation, and negotiations in the foster family normalized the young people´s daily life compared to before placement and made them more self-confident.

In the follow-up study after one year it was obvious that the few breakdowns that had occurred influenced these young people´s school performance in a negative way, among other things because they had to move and leave their class and couldn´t start in a new class for a while.



  • Succeeding at school gives hope for the future and a feeling of pride.
  • Routines, rules, and support in the foster family provide these youths with a foundation for scholastic achievement.
  • Foster children's motivation and ability for academic improvement, even despite previous school problems, are illuminated.
  • The young people are actors/agents shaping their own lives, but they are also being shaped by their circumstances.
  • Breakdowns in foster care effect the school situation in a negative way.


Key references

Hedin, L., Höjer, I. and Brunnberg, E. (2011). Why one goes to school: what school means to young people entering foster care. Child and Family Social Work, 16, 43-51.

Hedin, L. (2012). A sense of belonging in a changeable everyday life - A follow-up study of young people in kinship, network, and traditional foster families. Child and Family Social Work. DOI:10.1111/j.1365-2206.2012.00887.x

Jackson, S. and Cameron, C. (2012). Leaving care: Looking ahead and aiming higher. Children and Youth Services Review, 34, 1107-1114.

Vinnerljung, B., Öman, M. and Gunnarsson, T. (2005). Educational attainments of former child welfare clients - a Swedish national cohort study. International Journey of Social Welfare, 14, 265-276.

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