There is practically no greater challenge than being a teacher. Being responsible for the physical and emotional well-being, as well as the academic and overall growth, for anywhere between 25 and 100 students is an unbelievable feat. This in itself is quite the balancing act, but when you have students whose needs and safety are compromised outside of school, things can get all the more challenging.

Considering that over half of all public school children are living in poverty, the dynamic for teaching has shifted a great deal in the past few decades, and teachers are at the forefront of it all. Children enter classrooms with home lives and backgrounds that can range from heart-wrenching to downright horrific, and educators, like the students themselves, need as much support as they can get.

As an emergency children’s shelter, AAHN’s Place sees these children firsthand, and know exactly the struggles—as well as incredible successes—that can come from working with children in the foster care system. We thank teachers so much for their service, and from working with foster care children outside of school, believe we can share some insights and valuable reminders.

Be welcoming, but not overbearing.

In some schools, you might get a week’s notice for a new student—in others, it might be a call just moments before the student shows up at your door, or zero notice at all. No matter the age, remember that this is a child, and they’re probably nervous, if not terrified.

If you can’t make a name tag for the student (or it’s not necessary, due to older grades/changing classes), have a desk ready for them as soon as possible. Preferably, this is set up before they even enter the class, which is also a good behavior management strategy, but another option is to try and always have a spare desk and seat ready to go for an incoming student. If that’s not possible (and in many schools, it’s not), have a buddy student designated in each class who can share their space, and serve as a good model.

When the student enters the classroom, smile, introduce yourself, shake their hand, and have a plan for how to introduce them to the class. For elementary grades, bringing them into your morning circle and doing a class-wide icebreaker is a great move (even better is if you get the chance to model and review including others with your class before they arrive). For older grades, you might not need to have any kind of production, simply give them some space, call on them (if it seems appropriate) for an easy-to-answer or funny question, but use your best judgment.

Make zero assumptions.

It’s sad but true: when we hear “foster care” or “removed from the home,” we often worry about what burdens this child bears that come through the door—and how the dynamic of everyone else will be affected. It is natural to worry about the behavioral issues that might arise, and try to think about what you should do if and when they come up.

As with any and every student that comes across your path, erase your mind of all assumptions. A child in foster care is still a child, and while they may need some extra empathy, patience, and time, you cannot raise, or lower, your expectations based on their circumstances. Don’t try to catch a child making a mistake, instead, look actively and focus heavily on all the good that you see them do. Even if that is sitting in their seat, or writing their name, acknowledge them for participating with the class.

Ultimately, remember that this is a child entering your room, and no matter if they’re eight or 18, they’re a child, and they’re scared. They might seem mad, upset, silent, calm, happy, goofy, or any combination of these emotions, but underneath it all, they are scared. You can absolutely be the one to make a connection, and help assuage some of their fears.

Teaching is a challenge in general, but getting students who have some intense and heavy things going on in their lives can be even more challenging. Yet with this increase of difficulty can come the greatest rewards, because the connections you make will mean so much more, and go so much deeper. AAHN’s Place is the children’s shelter that is here to help. Learn more about supporting or volunteering to our children’s shelter, and teachers, thank you so much for all that you do.