Generating Signals of Safety for Kids in Foster Care

Posted October 28, 2017
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog signalsofsafety 2017

An approv­ing thumbs up.

A quick fist bump.

A reas­sur­ing smile.

These and oth­er sup­port­ive ges­tures — called sig­nals of safe­ty — can go a long way when care­givers are work­ing with kids and teens who have expe­ri­enced trau­ma. If offered reg­u­lar­ly, such sig­nals of safe­ty can help young peo­ple build healthy con­nec­tions with adults.

When work­ing with chil­dren and youth,” says Kel­ly McCauley of KVC Health Sys­tems Inc., every­thing stands or falls on the qual­i­ty of a child’s rela­tion­ships. No inter­ven­tion is going to make a lick of dif­fer­ence if chil­dren do not believe their fos­ter par­ents gen­uine­ly care about them, hold them in warm regard and have got their backs.”

In fact, these ges­tures pack such an impact that they’re the sole focus of a new guide, Gen­er­at­ing Sig­nals of Safe­ty. The guide teach­es fos­ter par­ents about cre­at­ing sig­nals of safe­ty that con­vey warmth, con­cern and empa­thy. Its tips include:

  • Catch­ing chil­dren being good. Using warm, spe­cif­ic descrip­tions of a child’s accom­plish­ment when prais­ing their actions;
  • Being gen­uine. A child will rec­og­nize insin­cer­i­ty, which can rein­force mistrust;
  • Stay­ing with it. Brief, reg­u­lar sig­nals of safe­ty can coun­ter­act harm and build trust over time;
  • Engag­ing oth­er trust­ed adults. For exam­ple: a school librar­i­an or cafe­te­ria staff can help a strug­gling stu­dent by pro­vid­ing a few min­utes of pos­i­tive atten­tion dai­ly; and
  • Match­ing activ­i­ties to children’s strengths. For some kids, an arts pro­gram can build self-esteem more effec­tive­ly than high­ly com­pet­i­tive sports.

The guide’s lessons are a key strat­e­gy of Trau­ma Sys­tems Ther­a­py for Fos­ter Care (TST-FC), a pow­er­ful new cur­ricu­lum to help kin and fos­ter care­givers meet the needs of kids and teenagers who have expe­ri­enced trauma.

Writ­ten by McCauley, in con­sul­ta­tion with Dr. Glenn Saxe of NYU Lan­gone Health, the TST-FC cur­ricu­lum spans four group ses­sions in which facil­i­ta­tors lead care­givers through role play­ing, hands-on exer­cis­es and reflec­tive con­ver­sa­tions that con­nect a child’s life expe­ri­ences with his or her behav­ior. The train­ing also includes detailed facil­i­ta­tor guides, pre­sen­ta­tions, hand­outs and a fos­ter par­ent resource guide.

The Casey-sup­port­ed cur­ricu­lum empha­sizes the role of the care­giv­ing team — fos­ter par­ents, social work­er and fam­i­ly ser­vices coor­di­na­tor — in sup­port­ing a child’s heal­ing and development.

Fos­ter par­ents often feel that they are car­ing for their kids alone,” McCauley says. We designed the cur­ricu­lum for the shared train­ing of fos­ter par­ents and agency staff. Time after time, we found that a shared lan­guage helps fos­ter par­ents and child wel­fare pro­fes­sion­als devel­op inte­grat­ed plans of care that are effi­cient and effective.”

The TST-FC train­ing has been test­ed by child wel­fare agen­cies and eval­u­at­ed by the non­prof­it research cen­ter ChildTrends. It is avail­able online, free of charge.

Go to the train­ing curriculum

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