Educators' and Child Welfare Professionals' Perceptions of the Academic Achievement and School Functioning of Children Dually Involved in Child Welfare and Special Education
The purpose of this study is to understand potential sources of risk and resilience for the academic achievement and school functioning of children dually involved in child welfare and special education. Children who are involved in child welfare have high rates of disability (e.g., Wulczyn et al., 2009). When children have “milder” more “hidden” disabilities, such as LD and ADHD, they can be especially vulnerable to certain types of maltreatment (Helton & Cross, 2011). In many respects, they appear to be typically functioning children. Their difficulties can be misinterpreted as laziness, disobedience or disrespect. They are at risk for disengaging and eventually dropping-out of school (NCES, 2006). This study asks: What do child welfare professionals and educators perceive to be sources of risk and resilience for the academic achievement and school functioning of elementary school-aged children with specific learning and behavioral disorders whose families are involved with child welfare?
This qualitative study is informed by cultural-developmental theory (Shweder et al., 2006). It is part of a larger ethnographic study conducted in Minnesota where 39% of children placed in out-of-home care have disability diagnoses. The most frequent categories of disabilities include behavioral and specific learning disorders (Minnesota Department of Human Services, 2009).
We purposively sampled educators (n=12) and child welfare professionals (n=23) until saturation was achieved. They participated in in-depth, semi-structured, audiotaped, phone interviews. Interviews focused on professionals’ observations of the academic achievement and school functioning of dually-involved children. Probes included discussion of risks and resilience, and the extent to which those processes differ from those experienced by children involved in only child welfare or special education.
Interviews were transcribed verbatim. Emic codes were induced (Shwandt, 2007) through repeated readings of interview transcripts by two independent coders to identify a range of perspectives. Inter coder agreement was adequate. Disagreements were resolved through discussion. Credibility was further enhanced through member checks and peer audit (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).
Professionals viewed some children with dual system involvement as eager for the relationships with adults, structure and predictability offered by school. Others were viewed as difficult to engage in those trusting relationships necessary to addressing their disabilities and engaging in school. Family crises and children’s concerns about fulfillment of their basic needs sometimes eclipsed any responses to children’s disabilities including regular school attendance and structured homework support. In some families, home-school relations were strained given parents’ own negative experiences with education and child welfare systems. Challenges in cross-system communications between child welfare and schools also may impede information sharing necessary for coordinated case planning.
Conclusions and Implications
Elementary school-aged children dually involved in child welfare and special education are especially vulnerable to disengagement from and non-completion of school. Understanding the challenges faced by these children, as well as potential sources of strength, is necessary to providing effective preventive interventions. Results suggest that polices and interventions focused on enhancing cross system and family-school collaborations are needed. Additional research is being conducted on the experiences and perspectives of dually-involved children and their parents.