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Setting Expectations for Foster Youth

When teens are placed into a new foster home, the fear of the unknown can be the scariest part of the process. When everything around them feels like it’s built upon a shaky foundation, it’s your job as a foster parent to help ground them while in your home. While piling more rules and expectations on a foster youth may seem counterintuitive to building a relationship with them, by clearly defining your role as a foster parent and setting realistic expectations for the foster youth in your home, you are giving the foster youth a road map on how to feel safe and avenues to make the best choices in the future.

This article will cover the topic of Setting Expectations for Foster Youth as a means to building a relationship with them, instilling appropriate behaviors, and creating lasting change in their lives for the better.

Power of Praise

One of a foster parent’s super powers is the Power of Praise. This is an extremely important tool in a foster parent’s arsenal. Praising the foster child in your home will increase the likelihood that they will repeat the behavior being praised and model the kind of behavior you want to see from them in the future. Remember to use the Power of Praise as frequently as possible throughout the day.

“Catch your youth being good” is a helpful phrase to remind yourself to praise your foster youth as often as possible. While it sometimes may be easier to spot maladaptive or troubling behaviors, take time during your interactions with your foster youth to say something direct, specific, and positive about their behavior. This can be something as simple as complimenting how they did a task: “Great job emptying the dishwasher, thank you! I really appreciate it when you help out without being asked.”

Make sure you are genuine in your Praise. Foster youth and teens have the uncanny ability to recognize authenticity in those around them. Be real and genuine in your interactions and praise of the child, as youth know when you mean what you say versus when you don’t. Believe it or not, kids notice everything! (Even if it doesn’t seem like they do!) And a savvy foster teen can smell a fake compliment from a mile away. If your foster teen raised their failing grade to a D, that is positive progress, but perhaps you would not say something like, “See, I knew you were an academic genius!”, but rather you could focus on a genuine praise of the work and effort it took to raise the grade such as “I am so proud that you are now passing your class. I noticed the effort you started putting into your school work recently and you have done an excellent job at doing something that is hard for you. Way to go!”

Praising youth helps them develop self-esteem, reinforcing that they are a capable, loveable, and praise-worthy person. Let’s be real–foster parents, just like any other parent, have the important job of shaping the youth in their home into well-adjusted adults.

Things to remember:

  • Praise as close in time to the behavior occurring as possible.

  • Use “unlabeled praise” when appropriate (Unlabeled praise is a general statement that shows approval or affection. Unlabeled praise can help children feel good but does not necessarily help improve behavior.)

  • Maintain good eye contact when praising your child

  • Be intentional, genuine and specific in your praise

  • For every “bad behavior” try to point out three positive behaviors, we want the scale to always tip towards the positive!

  • Check out this link on 100 ways to Praise a Child for ideas on what to say

Praise can also be a cost-effective reward for the youth since you can use it multiple times per day. A foster child may not be able to sustain their good behavior on praise alone. Sometimes youth need an actual reward they can work towards such as doing a special activity, or buying a special gift if they maintain a good behavior or are working towards a bigger goal. While bigger rewards may sometimes be necessary, praise should be used every day as a free way to let your foster youth know they are doing good.

Power of Incentive

Teenage behavior can be improved through the Power of Incentives. Incentives are rewards that are appealing enough that the youth will want to strive to earn them. Foster parents should use incentives to reward their foster youth’s positive behaviors and achievements. Incentives can range from free to expensive and from taking very little time to earn, to taking lots of time to earn. When a new foster youth is settling into your home, it’s a great idea to brainstorm a list of incentives that are specific to the youth you have in front of you. Instead of coming up with a general list, consult with your foster youth and treatment team to determine what rewards would be highly motivating to your youth. Furthermore, give the youth a clear roadmap (your expectations) to follow on how they can earn the reward.

Daily Check-In and Building Relationships

A key to setting expectations for your foster youth is a consistent effort to follow-up and check in with the youth. In order to build a trusting relationship, foster parents must make the effort to engage their foster youth on a daily basis with meaningful conversation and follow through. Explain to the youth that you want to keep lines of communication open, and creating daily check-ins will allow you to do so. Daily check-ins time will provide youth with a daily opportunity for them to get feedback about how they are doing.

Guidelines for a Daily Check-in:

  • Talk to youth and include them in developing the structure to your check in’s.

    • Do they prefer face-to-face talks or would they rather talk during an activity such as drying dishes, driving the car, etc.)

    • What time would be best?

  • Decide on a specific time of day to check-in.

  • Set aside at least 5-10 minutes to check-in.

  • Listen for small problems that you can catch when they are small.

  • Remember to make a “Praise Sandwich” each time you meet, using the following structure:

  1. One thing that went well.

  2. Explain problems, concerns or suggestions.

  3. Allow the youth to share their ideas or questions.

  4. One thing that went well (end on a positive note!).

  • Be consistent and stick with it even if the foster youth seems disengaged.

Giving Effective Instructions and Directions

When setting expectations for the foster youth in your home, it is important to be prepared to give the youth clear and specific instructions on how to meet the expectation. Effective instructions ensure that foster youth know exactly what to do and are a great way to teach new behaviors and promote compliance. Use the tips below on what to do and what to avoid when giving instructions to your foster youth on how to fulfill an expectation.

Instructions that often DON’T WORK:

  • Question Instructions: “Don’t you think you should start studying now?”

  • Buried Instructions (too much talking): “Take out the trash. Yesterday you forgot and the dog got into it and made a mess on the floor which I have to clean and then I was late for work.”

  • Chain Instructions (too many instructions): “When you are finished eating I want you to go upstairs and clean your room, get the laundry out of the dryer and fold the clothes, dust the den and then come back to do the dishes.”

  • Repeated Instructions: “It’s time to go to bed. I said go to bed. Didn’t you hear me, go to bed now!”

  • Vague Instructions: “Stop that!” “Behave yourself!” “Grow up!” “Be good.” “Act your age!”

  • Let’s Instructions: “Let’s go clean up your room.”

  • Distant Instructions (Instructions yelled from a distance): Foster mom is downstairs doing the laundry and she yells up the stairs for foster youth to bring her dirty clothes down to be washed.

Instructions that DO WORK:

  • Have the youth’s full attentions: eye contact, eliminate distractions such as the TV or phone.

  • Be direct and specific.

  • State the instruction clearly.

  • Only give one or two instructions at a time.

  • Be respectful and polite.

  • Respect the youth’s ongoing activities: “When this show is over…”

  • Follow through.

  • Stay calm.

  • Reinforce the positive and give a consequence for not following the expectation.

  • Avoid instructions that your youth does not have the skill or capacity to complete.

  • Remember that repeating the direction many times reinforces noncompliance.

Home Rules

The most straightforward way to set expectations for the foster youth entering your home is to set up House Rules that all members of the household will follow. House rules help the foster youth learn to do or not to do certain behaviors without having to be told every time. When setting up House Rules, it is important to be clear and specific about each rule and have a clear understanding of what the consequence will be for breaking the rule. Make sure to keep the list short, as more rules are not always better. House rules should be reviewed with foster youth upon their placement in your home, but should also be reviewed frequently to ensure compliance or make changes to rules that are not working. Lastly, foster parents should post the house rules in a visible place, such as the refrigerator, where all household members can view them easily.

When coming up with the house rules, consider the the following four areas when establishing, revising or fine-tuning your house rules:

  • Physical Interaction: Ensure physical safety

  • Privacy: Ensure a level of privacy that is comfortable for everyone

  • Food: Ensure the everyone is clear about what is acceptable

  • Household Chores: Ensure that the household runs smoothly


All parents, especially foster parents, are trying to impart positive change in their children or foster children so that they may grow up to be independent, successful adults. While all children require some rules and expectations, foster children thrive when they know exactly what is expected of them and what is not acceptable.

Things to remember:

  • Remember that house rules should be frequently reviewed and fine-tuned to the problem behaviors of the child in front of you, but also extend to all other household members.

  • Use the tips in this article to improve the effectiveness of your instructions to your foster youth.

  • Daily check-ins with your foster youth will help build a trusting relationship.

  • Use incentives to reward positive behavior and achievements of your foster youth.

  • Praise is so powerful for foster youth; make sure you “catch them being good” FREQUENTLY!

How to Start Today

Every facet of Quality Youth Services Treatment Foster Care model is designed to make Foster Parents feel confident in their ability to provide a safe, secure and nurturing environment for all family members including the foster youth.

Quality Youth Services provides short term foster care through our dedicated foster parents in Cache, Box Elder, Weber, Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties. If you or someone you know is interested in becoming a foster parent, please complete the foster parent application on our website at this link,, and our Program Director will call to schedule an interview within two days.

Or if you would like more information before applying, check out our website page dedicated to Foster Parents at this link,

You may also request more information or get answers to specific questions prior to applying at this link

Quality Youth Services Foster Parents play a vital role in the mental health, well-being and future success of the vulnerable youth they serve in their homes. Please join us in being catalysts of positive change in our community by deciding to foster today!

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