Great job, adoptive parents, you did it! You’ve braved the store’s school supply section and checked everything off the list, loaded up your child’s backpack, and sent them off to school in that perfect “first day” outfit. So, your work is done, right? (Sadly, the answer to that is “Of course not!”) The transition from summer to school isn’t easy for most kids (who really wants to say goodbye to summer?!), but for children who have experienced trauma, this transition can be especially fraught. They may have learned early on that a change in routine is a sign of more changes to come – changes like moving to a new home or losing contact with family members. For these children, change = bad. And a new school year, even with all the excitement of seeing old friends, brings with it a lot of newness: teachers, classmates, classroom rules, what period lunch is, when bus pick-up is.
As a parent, you’ve probably got some similar anxieties about your child’s ability to transition back into a school setting. And maybe this year there’s an added change: your child is now legally adopted. (YAY!) And as exciting as that is, it may bring other questions to mind. If a classmate asks my child about their adoption, how should they respond? Does my child’s new teacher understand how being adopted – while celebratory – can impact their behavior and academic performance? Is there anything my child’s school is doing – or should be doing – to be sensitive to the different dynamics and structure that families like ours may have? You probably don’t have answers to these questions yet. But if they’re weighing heavily on you, we’d like to offer some tools to navigate this transition and advocate for adoption sensitivity.
Before you make a call to your school about their plan to create an “adoption-friendly” classroom for your child, it’s important to begin the discussion at home. Depending on your child’s age and experiences, they may already be painfully aware of the stigmas surrounding adoption. They may have already heard hurtful or negative comments from peers at school, or had assignments that reminded them that “one of these things is not like the others.” No matter what they’ve already heard outside the home, it’s important for parents to ensure the narrative at home is positive and uplifting. But keep in mind, as your child begins to deepen their understanding of their history, you may notice some different behaviors. They may become sad, angry, insecure or start to feel ambivalent toward their identity. These are all aspects of…you guessed it…grief. It’s normal and developmentally appropriate, and can help them shape their story. Your job as a parent is to help your child determine which details of that story they’d like to share with their peers (and how). Here are a few tips to get you started:
Prepare your child for questions: Kids are curious by nature, so it’s understandable that they will ask your child questions about their adoption story and past. To help your child feel more comfortable addressing these questions, help them prepare answers to use in their classrooms.
Dispel common myths about adoption: There are many misconceptions surrounding adoption, and it’s likely that your child (and their peers) have heard some of them. Myths like: birth parents are irresponsible and don’t care about their children; adoptive parents love their birth children more than their adopted children; or children who are adopted from foster care are “broken.” It goes without saying that these misconceptions can be harmful, and leave a lasting impact on your child. When conversations with these inaccurate elements come up at home or at school, the best way to address them is immediately. By doing this, you’ll redirect the narrative, provide accurate information, and demonstrate to your child how to advocate for themselves.
Normalize adoption discussion: Questions about adoption are going to come up, so it’s best if your child feels comfortable discussing the topic. Adoption is just one of many ways to build a family, and there’s nothing abnormal or unusual about it. Treat it that way! There are lots of ways to incorporate positive discussions of adoption into your family’s everyday routine. Reading is a great way to start some conversations (and even if you’re reading a book with your child, you might find you learn a thing or two about how to become comfortable talking about adoption). Some recommendations, depending on your child’s age:
- Ages 2-6: The Family Book, by Todd Parr
- Ages 3-8: The Color of Us, by Karen Katz
- Ages 4-8: Families Are Different, by Nina Pellegrini
- Ages 8-11: If The World Were a Village, by David J. Smith
Adoptive Families magazine also has a great resource that can help your child talk about their past and their adoption with peers.
So what about school, though? That’s where your child spends the bulk of their day, so it’s important that they feel the same positivity about adoption there too. Some ideas to propose to your child’s teachers, or the educational staff, that could benefit not only your child, but all the children in the classroom:
Educators need to be educated about trauma: It’s not your job to create a trauma-informed curriculum for each of your child’s teachers. However, you can communicate with school personnel ahead of time about your child’s past and needs. Encourage them to use positive adoption language and include adoption in lessons about family. Find out if the school has trauma-informed resources at the district level, and if the teachers have taken advantage of this training. If they haven’t, or they don’t have those resources, this may be a great opportunity to make recommendations that could impact not just your child’s school but many others. Some places to start:
- Adoption at School, from the Center for Adoption Support and Education & Creating Trauma-Informed Classrooms, from National Council for Adoption
- Safe & Sound: A Guide for Educators, from the American Academy of Pediatrics
- Trauma-Sensitive Schools, an initiative of the Trauma & Learning Policy Initiative
Request that family-themed assignments be inclusive: This seems like a little thing, but it can make a real difference to a child. Find out if your child’s teacher is open to reframing assignments about family history. For example, instead of asking students to bring in a baby photo, students could bring in or draw a photo of themselves when they were younger. For a “family tree” assignment, children could be encouraged to include their birth family as the root system or draw a figure (multiple trees, a forest, etc.) that better reflects their family structure. If your child’s teacher is open to doing their homework on this, some great starting points are:
- Adoption Awareness in School Assignments, from Tapestry Books
- Adoption at School: Homework Triggers, from Coalition for Children, Youth and Families
We all know that parenting a school-aged child is tough, but when you add in a layer of trauma, it can feel down right intimidating. By creating a positive adoption narrative at home and in the classroom, you can ensure a more adoption-friendly environment for your child. We can’t promise that your family won’t run into tough-to-answer questions along the way – especially as your child gets older, and their internal and external narrative shifts as they enter middle and high school. However, the more you work to make your child feel loved and accepted, the more they will follow your cues.
Interested in more resources about parenting school-aged children? We’ve got you covered! (And there’s even an entire section for educators!) Just visit our resource library.