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Reframing Transition Age Foster Youth

A Communications Toolkit


The resources in this toolkit are designed to collectively build the understanding and support we need to change the narrative around transition age foster youth.

Building public support for transition age foster youth—young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are transitioning out of the foster care system—is a critical part of making sure they have what they need to become healthy, happy, thriving adults.

But the American public is unfamiliar with the unique experiences of these young people. This is in large part because they lack an understanding of foster care—a system generally a “black box” to those who haven’t had any direct experience with it.

Once people learn who transition age foster youth are, they are generally sympathetic but still struggle to think about ways to support them. Three important barriers to people’s thinking must be overcome to build public engagement and support for transition age foster youth:

  1. People tend to think of transition age foster youth as permanently damaged by the experiences that led them to foster care and their experiences in the foster care system.
  2. Americans’ individualistic, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” thinking about success limits their understanding of systemic solutions.
  3. People assume that any young person can become involved in the foster care system—which impedes their understanding of how racism and socioeconomic disparities shape foster care involvement and experiences as youths transition out of the system.

As a result, people have a hard time understanding how the right policies, programs, and practices are necessary for transition age foster youths to successfully transition to adulthood. The following tools are designed to help you develop that understanding among your audiences.

Do’s and Don’ts

Metaphor Cards

Talking Points

Frequently Asked Framing Questions

Answers to Communicators’ Most Common Questions about Strategic Framing

Strategic framing research takes the guesswork out of communications, but the findings are often surprising—even to the researchers! —and may sound counterintuitive.

Below are answers to some of the most common questions advocates and experts ask us about our framing recommendations.

Why do I need to use all of these frames to help people understand what seems so obvious—that foster youth deserve our help?

Our research demonstrates a lack of understanding of—and widespread misconceptions around—what it means to be a transition age foster youth, how we can help them, and whose responsibility it is to do so. But simply telling people who they are and what they need isn’t enough to make those things important or obvious. In fact, it may unintentionally reinforce people’s negative assumptions. Instead, we need a communications strategy that creates a better understanding of the challenges that transition age foster youth face and the ways we can support them so people can see why policies and programs that provide that support are so necessary. The frames and narratives recommended here are designed to make that happen.

Will these frames work with different audiences? What about policymakers?

This framing strategy was rigorously tested with members of the public. Our research demonstrates that these are powerful tools to change people’s understanding and attitudes and increase their support for programs and policies that work. We recommend this strategy whenever you are communicating with people who don’t know this issue intimately or don’t have firsthand experience. However, different audiences also have different levels of knowledge and different occupational concerns that influence their thinking about transition age foster youth.

A big advantage of framing is that it’s flexible. You can adapt these frames so they make sense for your audience while still staying true to the underlying values, metaphors, etc. Thinking about your audience may also mean you decide to use some frames but not others. This toolkit provides guidelines and examples for how to flex your frames and make them your own. And remember, framing takes practice.

Won’t it start sounding kind of repetitive, using the same words over and over? How do we differentiate our communications if everyone uses the same frames?

Repetition is a good thing when you are working to change people’s understanding. Using the same frames throughout your communications reinforces ideas for your audience. That said, be creative to avoid repetition. There are many ways to convey the ideas contained in the framing strategies without having to overuse particular words. Look at the talking points for examples of how to thread frames throughout your communications and the metaphor cards for words and terms that you can mix and match.

When everyone in a field uses the same language consistently it moves the conversation further, faster. Strategic framing is more than a catchy slogan or buzzword; it’s about changing how people process information. People need lots of practice with thinking differently, and when everyone in a field frames together they get lots of practice. Select the frames and narratives that make the most sense for your communications, and share notes and ideas with others who are using the same strategy. Then repeat—together.

How do I make this sound more natural? This doesn’t sound like the way I communicate.

Think of the framing strategy as well-researched guidelines and examples rather than a script that you need to adhere to. Framing takes practice, and the first step to good framing is to look at how you are already framing. Start by reviewing your existing messaging to make sure you’re not inadvertently falling into common traps in public thinking about transition age foster youth. Then, try to reframe using the recommendations here. Do this with a few different communications. Next, begin a new communication with framing in mind. For instance, write a social media post using the “Steep Climb” or “Plugged In” metaphors, or start a communication by talking about policies and programs for transition age foster youth as advancing wellbeing or expanding opportunity. As you continue to incorporate the frames, think about which ones make sense for that communication and how you can use them in ways that feel authentic to your communications style. Then practice, practice, practice.

Personal stories resonate with people; how can I tell them?

Highly individualized stories can be counterproductive to social change if they aren’t well framed. Without broader social contexts, audiences tend to zone in on personal attributes, blaming them for their own struggles or applauding their exceptional success without being able to generalize to other people in similar circumstances. People often get so focused on the person that they miss the bigger picture.

If we want people to understand why we should support transition age foster youth and how to do it, we need to widen the lens. Good framing creates more than an emotional response—it changes understanding. That’s why stories about individuals should be a supportive element in a broader framing strategy and not the entire strategy. This doesn’t mean you should never tell individual stories, but contextualize them so people can see how social systems—and not just a person’s actions—create experiences, and use the frames that we know work in ways that feel appropriate and authentic.

How to Do It

Changing the big ideas on social issues takes time. We need a constant drip-feed of well-framed content to move thinking and change the narrative—and our approaches can vary depending on the audiences we are talking to.

Here are a few ways to vary the frames by context and audience.

1. How to talk about transition age foster youth with educators, health care professionals, and other practitioners who work with youth:

  • Highlight the idea that foster youths’ needs are similar to the needs of other adolescents this audience works with.
  • Talk about the role of youth-serving systems (e.g., education, health care, social welfare) in advancing foster youths’ wellbeing.
  • Use the “Steep Climb” and “Plugged In” metaphors to explain how these systems and those working within them can ensure foster youths’ healthy development.

Transition age foster youth are at particularly high risk of poor outcomes because of their complex needs. This leaves them vulnerable to mental and behavioral health problems, lower educational attainment, and involvement in the justice system.

As adolescents become adults, they need to be plugged into systems of support, including connections with [educators, health care providers, other supportive adults]. But foster youth often become unplugged from these networks and end up disconnected from resources. We need better programs in [schools, health care settings, etc.] that connect foster youth into this grid of resources and support so they thrive as they become adults.

2. How to talk about transition age foster youth to policymakers:

  • Link effective programs and supports for transition age foster youth to their healthy biological, psychological, and emotional development.
  • Use the “Community Connections” value to emphasize how supporting foster youth supports communities.
  • Be specific and make it clear that there is a holistic set of supports that foster youth may need more than other young people that includes access to mental health services and stable housing.

Supporting transition age foster youth means providing the things they need to succeed. It also means connecting them to critical resources in our communities.

When we support transition age foster youth we are also supporting communities. Our communities are stronger when we make sure that everyone, including transition age foster youth, is connected to each other.

3. How to talk with and learn from transition age foster youth so we can tell well-framed stories together:

  • Listen to transition age foster youth with lived experience and center those experiences in your communications.
  • Together, talk about which of the various parts of the framing strategy match the story they want to tell.
  • Be creative with the frames and integrate them in ways that feel genuine and reflect their voices and experiences.
  • Use the “Expanding Opportunities” narrative to help youth advocates who want to tell their own stories in ways that highlight the role that racial and social inequalities have played in their experiences.
  • Remember that some people don’t want to tell personal stories. Use this framing strategy to equip young people with ways to talk about their experiences in more generalized terms.

How Do These Frames Work in the Digital World?

Every communication is a framing opportunity. Think strategically about how to incorporate the different frame elements (e.g., values, metaphors, issue frames) into your social media and website content strategies. Harness existing conventions with framed images, stories, strong headers, and well-framed quotes.

Here’s how this might work across channels.

Short Messages

Every young person should have the #opportunity to thrive. #fosteryouth need these opportunities too. Here’s how we do it @[ link]

shot of mixed race three people holding hands together.

Sample website banner

Supporting transition age foster youth means addressing the racial and social inequalities that shape their lives. Together we can make that happen.

Using Pictures and Images

For foster youth transitioning out of care, it’s an even steeper climb. Let’s give them an assist. Learn how via #linkinbio.

So why would we expect transition age foster youth to power up their own supports? Together, we can plug them into the tools and resources they need to thrive. More at [ link].

this lamp didn't plug itself in

Story Series

Share thematic stories that explain program and policy needs on your website and on longer-form social media sites like Facebook—for example, a series of well-framed personal stories tied to Chafee grants illustrating how the grants work and why they are so important.

Foster youth thrive when they have the financial support they need as they become adults. Here is Adam’s story: [ link].