ARC Reflections: Helping Caregivers Understand and Respond to Kids in Foster Care

Posted June 1, 2018, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Best friends

There is no prescribed path for repairing a young life rocked by trauma — but ARC Reflections can help. The nine-session curriculum, developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Justice Resource Institute, teaches foster parents a critical skill: how to understand and respond to children who have endured challenging times.

One way that ARC Reflections delivers this lesson is in the form of “Olivia’s Story.” A composite case study of a child at different ages and developmental stages, Olivia’s Story gives caregivers an intimate view into another foster home — and sets the stage for learning by example.

A sample scenario:

Olivia, a 7-year-old in her fourth foster care placement, had a hard day at school. Children laughed at her and called her stupid, someone scribbled on her notebook, and a teacher said she needed to work harder. Slamming the door when she arrived home, she ignored her foster parent’s greeting. When asked what was wrong, she angrily replied: “School sucks. I don’t want to go back.”

This scenario, shared with caregivers, paves the way for an open discussion on how to respond to Olivia’s anger. Common reactions might include setting limits (“I don’t care how angry you are, you can’t slam doors.”), pushing the child (“What do mean you don’t want to talk about it?”) or minimizing the problem (“It’s only a notebook, you can always get another one.”).

More supportive options, however, would involve:

  • Validating Olivia’s perspective without necessarily agreeing with it (“It’s so hard to feel like people don’t like you. It makes sense that you are upset if you feel like that.”); or
  • Normalizing Olivia’s experience to reduce shame and isolation (“I can imagine how upset I would be if I felt everyone was being mean to me.”).

According to the ARC Reflections guide Mirror, Mirror: “Children and teens affected by trauma are sending us signals or clues all the time, and the clues don’t always make sense or feel good to those around them.” As a caregiver, the guide acknowledges, “it is easy to react to those signals or clues without fully understanding them.”

Observing a child is a critical skill — one that requires looking beyond surface behaviors and focusing on verbal and nonverbal clues, such as tone of voice, facial expressions and body tension, according to experts. By mirroring a child’s language and behavior, foster parents can help that child feel seen and understood.

As part of the ARC Reflections training, caregivers also learn how to tune into their own experiences and needs so that they can stay calm in trying circumstances. “There’s a lot of self-exploration that takes place in the curriculum,” says clinical psychologist Margaret Blaustein, co-author of ARC Reflections. “I think that is really valuable for foster parents.”

All ARC Reflections materials are available online, free of charge. These materials, which incorporate everything a child welfare agency would need to conduct the training, include an implementation guide, PowerPoint presentations, facilitator guides and more.


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