Foster Children and Their Challenging Behaviors

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Foster Children and Their Challenging Behaviors

By Nikki Bays, April 26, 2018


Children in foster families can demonstrate challenging, sometimes even severe behaviors. Identifying the cause of these behaviors is very important because it helps the foster parents and other members of a foster care team to plan and use effective behavior prevention and interventions.

According to US Department of Health and Human Services 2017 AFCARS report, the number of youth in foster care in the United States reached 437,465 in 2016.  The number of children in foster care has increased every year since 2012.  Not only is this a large number of children experiencing trauma, this number alludes to the high probability of challenging behaviors.  As foster parents that provide care to these children, you may become overwhelmed, upset, and eventually burned-out by these behaviors.

However, being mindful of the context your foster child has come from can help you better understand the cause of the behaviors you are witnessing. A deep understanding of your child’s history will help you work with him or her in a calm and positive way. 

Behavior Intervention in Child Trauma-Survivors

Removal from a familiar home and family causes trauma.  The situation gets more difficult as your foster child has experienced additional trauma and needs extra support.  It is most likely that your child is coming from an environment that may have consisted of abandonment and neglect, abuse, or parents with addiction or mental health problems, where he or she witnessed behaviors such as a lack of impulse control, emotional insensitivity, destruction, aggression, anger, depression or self-harming, to name just a few. It is not unusual therefore to see the similar behaviors in your foster child as well. This is a normal reaction to their harmful earlier experiences.

When a foster child that experienced trauma arrives in your home, you will want to give them an overabundance of love and support. After all, you became a foster family to make a difference in the life of a child.  Yet, you may feel no affection in return. This is normal as well.  Keep in mind that children and adolescents tend to “act out” when they feel confused, uncertain, depressed or scared.   This “acting out” combined with the behaviors mentioned above, can make it difficult to know where to start and how to move forward.

Challenging behaviors can change if these children receive support, security, and structure from their foster parents.  It is very important to create a therapeutic environment in your home where the child will feel safe, understood, and supported and intervention strategies are used in a positive and therapeutic way.

Creating a therapeutic environment for a child means that you are able to respond to challenging behaviors in a positive and encouraging manner.  In order to respond appropriately to your child’s challenging behaviors, you need to become mindful of your own emotions and reactions.  Self-reflecting on your emotional state will help you recognize whether you are responding to your child’s behaviors or to your own issues.

Creating a supportive environment where your child will feel that his or her needs are met also means that you:

  • Use a calm tone and composed facial expressions.
  • Provide a daily structure to ensure stability and consistency.
  • Use positive responses for desired behaviors, no matter how small improvements may be.
  • Allow natural consequences for unacceptable behaviors.
  • Redirect ineffective behaviors.
  • Set the firm boundaries and stick to clear rules and expectations.
  • Be consistent in applying and following through with the rules.
  • Offer choices and teach the positive expected behaviors.

Tracking the Behaviors and Behavioral Journal

Prevention and intervention are effective ways to address different behavioral issues and shape the desired behavior one step at the time. However, treating only the behavior without considering its underlying causes misses the deeper level of behavioral change. Understanding the causes of challenging behavior can help you teach your child empathy, positive behavior patterns, and positive values.

A helpful tool in child’s behavior intervention includes tracking the behaviors and providing context for challenging behaviors by journaling.  Moreover, tracking behaviors and providing their context by journaling helps therapists who work with your child tailor their therapy plans. It also helps caseworkers better understand the level of support and areas of support you and your child.

Every behavior has its cause. Every behavior communicates a fear or need.  Thus careful documentation can help you in understanding problematic behavior’s causes. Tracking behaviors can help foster parents see if there is some improvement - without tracking you might miss the small, but important successes. It’s these successes that encourage us to continue the efforts.  The best way to understand your child’s problematic behaviors includes a three-step process of using a journal to track the behavior, interpreting the behavioral journal, and making changes based on the journal interpretation. 

Behavior Journal

A behavior journal allows you to track behaviors and emotions with the purpose of recognizing their underlying context. In addition, journaling helps you to keep a record of your child’s behavior and notice any changes as they occur. Also, it helps you recognize and respond appropriately to your child needs. Finally, keeping a behavior journal helps caseworkers and other members of a foster care team to better understand the dynamics of your home and your child’s behaviors. This, in turn, enables the foster care team to provide you with the support and resources you need to successfully help your child change their behaviors.

ABC’s of Functional Behavior Assessment

Tracking your child’s behavior with a journal helps identify the patterns in their behavior and determine specific times a certain behavior occurs. Make sure you note the time of the behavior as well as:

  1. The antecedent of the behavior. Record what happened right before the behavior.
  2. The behavior. Describe as objectively as possible what the behavior looked like and how long it lasted.
  3. The consequences. Write down what consequences the behavior brought to your child. If there is more than one consequence, write them down as they occur.

When you add behavior tracking and journal entries as part of the behavior intervention process, you are able to do several things.

Firstly, tracking and journaling allow you to spot trends or behavior patterns. For example, you’ll be able to note whether a challenging behavior spikes on weekends, at the beginning of the school week or at a specific time during the day. Also, you will be able to see how long have the behaviors been going on for. Tracking the behaviors daily helps eliminate inaccurate memories. If your memory is inaccurate, it affects your judgment and your reaction to the behaviors.

Secondly, tracking and behavior journals provide context. As already mentioned, tracking behaviors gives you insight into when the behavior began, what else was going on around that time and what these issues have in common. Sometimes the answers to the causes of challenging behaviors can be found in the tiniest of the details.

Finally, journaling is proven to help reduce stress. It allows you to process everything you went through in dealing with a child’s behavior. In the end, reducing your stress levels in demanding situations will help your child as well.   When you began this journey, your goal was likely to make a difference in the life of a child, not knowing what trauma experiences they may bring to your home.  Your reduction in stress enables you to be calm, positive, responsive, and consistent, creating a therapeutic environment your child can survive and thrive in. 


Nikki Bays is a parent of biological children, former foster children and adopted children, a special education teacher, an early childhood specialist and Co-founder of FosterCare.Team.  FosterCare.Team is a web-based collaboration platform designed to facilitate communication between members of a foster care team, leading to greater support for foster parents and an increase in the quality of care of foster children.  Journaling and behavior tracking are two prominent elements of FosterCare.Team.   Learn more at