Ask the expert: 8 strategies for foster carers

Posted on 11 February 2016 by Barbara Schwalm

Smiling young boy in focus with his foster family out of focus behind him

Therapeutic Foster Care Practitioner Barbara Schwalm shares her top strategies for positively managing challenging behaviours… and keeping yourself calm and centred at the same time.

Like all parents, foster carers have good days, challenging days, and days when you might wonder if it’s all worthwhile. This is natural, particularly when you are caring for children and young people who, through no fault of their own, may have endured traumatic or difficult experiences.

As a foster carer, you can do a number of things to help the child in your care to manage his or her emotions and behaviours while also keeping your emotional and mental wellbeing in check.

  • As a start, try to keep yourself centred – stay calm and soothing. Check in with yourself. Create space between reaction and your response. Remember that the child’s behaviour is a learned survival strategy, rather than anything personal against you.
  • All behaviour is communication. Before responding to a child’s behaviour, be curious about what the child or young person is communicating. This allows you to find the best response for the situation.
  • Attend to the child or young person based on his or her emotional functioning at that point in time. If he or she is angry and expresses the anger in a similar way to a four year old child, for example – respond as you would with a four year old child. This means dropping the expectation the child should be able to act more maturely, and instead accepting where the child is at.
  • Reassure the child or young person that he or she is safe and you are looking after them. Repeat frequently.
  • After the child or young person is calmed, invite communication and apply reflective listening skills. Encourage the child or young person to record his emotions in a diary. End the conversation on a positive note, for example by asking the child what they learned from the situation and something they did well.
  • Reinforce the child or young person’s use of modulation skills. For example, “I’m really proud of you for calming yourself down”.
  • Model your own calming strategies. For example you can say, “That was a bit exciting, wasn’t it. I better take a few slow breaths so I can get back to being calm”.
  • Avoid power struggles by using the “When-Then” strategy. “We can play a game after you complete your task. The quicker you complete your task the longer we have time to play.”

Most importantly, remember self-care. Look after yourself well, so you are able to model regulated responses to behaviour.

Remember, you are not alone. If you need to discuss any of these strategies, behaviours, or ways to keep yourself centred, please contact your MacKillop caseworker.

Learn more about becoming a foster carer with MacKillop.