Back to School With Your Adoptive Child: Easing the September Transition

Talking To Teachers

To some extent, when you send your child to school you are expecting the teacher to take over the role of parent. Young children spend most of their time in public with you, but once a child enters school, the parental buffer zone disappears. Can and should teachers fill this gap? How do you approach your child's teacher to guarantee the best outcome? Here, some dos, don'ts, and things to remember when talking to school staff.

  • Be proactive. Attend back-to-school nights and open houses, or make an appointment to talk with your child's teacher before school even begins. Such meetings can head off potential problems and keep the teacher from feeling ambushed when something goes wrong and she is called to intervene. Alternately, you could consider joining with other "special" parents - including step-parents and gay and lesbian parents - to promote a general tolerance toward differences.

  • Be aware that your child's teacher may not know much about adoption. She or he may have received diversity training in college, but it's a large step from knowing about today's varied family structures to being the specialist in adoption that some parents can unconsciously expect of the teacher. About 2 to 4 percent of the population is adopted, so there is a chance she or he may never have had to deal with a family exactly like yours.

  • Be informative and concise. Teachers routinely deal with class sizes of 20-30 students, so the prospect of adapting curriculum to fit the needs of up to 30 families may seem overwhelming.

    • In an article in "Adoptive Families" magazine, Louis Melina encourages parents to ask themselves, "If there's only one thing I want my teacher's child to know, what would it be?" Try to boil your concerns down to a few simple requests such as "I want the teacher and classmates to understand and accept my child's background."

  • Be involved. Don't expect the teacher to do all the legwork behind explaining adoption to a class of grade-schoolers. While some teachers may be enthusiastic and welcoming, others will be reluctant to change their curriculum to accommodate lessons in family differences. Some may simply want information that they can work into their own lessons; others may be open to having parents visit the classroom to talk about adoption.

  • Be aware. From "family tree" projects to "bring a baby picture" assignments, school curriculum offers many chances for things to go wrong - or right. Use such assignments as launching points to discuss adoption and the unique histories of adopted children.

  •  If your teacher invites you to give a presentation on adoption, check out the "Talking to Other Kids" below for what to include.

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Talking to Other Kids


Adoptive Family Magazine suggests tailoring your presentation to the age of the students. Beyond a simple definition of adoption, explaining the process to K-2nd graders may require some creativity. An article in the magazine by Amy Klatzkin offers some pointers on talking to younger children:

  • Intervene early, ideally before age seven, when they tend to become shy about personal issues and having their parents in the classroom.

  • Remember that children this young may never have heard of adoption.

  • Listen to your child. If she doesn't want her own adoption story told, rely on a book like Families Are Different to get the conversation going.

  • Playact. Use a baby doll to talk about a child moving from his or her birth family to his or her adoptive family.

Third grade curriculum may involve a unit on families that is an excellent launching point for a discussion on how different families come together. Grades 4 through 6 are more complicated. By this age, children unfamiliar with adoption may find it easier to hide teasing or rude remarks from the teacher. For this reason, it is especially important to teach them the ins and outs of adoption and to answer their myriad questions. A panel presentation designed to show students that adoption is not a taboo topic was the answer for Beth Roth, another contributor to Adoptive Families. Try to answer some of the following questions:

  • What is adoption?

  • What is the process of adoption?

  • Who can adopt?

  • Why do people adopt?

  • Why do people put their children up for adoption?

  • How are adoptive families different from - and the same as - biological families?

Language matters. The way you speak is a model for children, and they tend to follow your lead in how they talk about adoption. This can avoid unintentionally rude or uninformed comments.

  • Don't use words like "real" or "natural" to refer to the child's biological parents. All families are real. Speak instead of "birth families" or "biological families."

  • Avoid the phrase "adoptive parents" unless it's truly relevant. The child's parents are simply his or her parents.

  • Don't talk about children being "given up" or "given away" for adoption. Roth points out that these words are used to refer to objects - and children are not objects.

If there is time and the teacher is receptive, consider a panel discussion consisting of adult children of adoption, birth parents, and adoptive parents. Allowing students to ask questions to people with firsthand knowledge of every step of the adoption process can be extremely helpful.

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Adjusting to School

Making friends is an integral part of going to school; in fact, developing social relationships is nearly as important as the education itself. Friendship is hard for many children, no matter their backgrounds, but adopted children with a history in the foster care system are at higher risk for social problems. They may never have had the opportunity to observe or engage positive interactions between peers in the way that children with families eager to set up "play dates" may have. What else causes friendship problems?

  • Because children in foster care have not experienced the sense of permanency that other children take for granted, they may have attachment issues and be more anxious and controlling in relationships with peers.

  • Even if foster children have had experiences with peers, these may have been unsupervised, leading to rough or dangerous situations.

  • Children in foster care often act younger than their biological age, which makes it hard to relate to their peers.

  • Foster children have a higher incidence of emotional outbursts, as they may not have been taught to properly regulate their emotions. This can scare away potential friends.

What can you do to help? You can teach your child the social skills that he or she may not have developed in the past.

  • Talk about friendship. What does it mean to be a good friend? This can include listening to others, giving compliments, sharing a conversation, and understanding others' feelings.

  • Model good social skills. How you interact with people is likely how your child will learn to interact as well.

  • Practice, practice, practice. Role-play situations that children may encounter on the playground or on play dates.

  • Don't push. Let your child develop at his or her own pace. Shorter, more structured playdates or social opportunities (team sports can provide crucial social interactions without the pressure of a one-on-one encounter) are often a good place to start.

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