Adoption Advocate No. 27: BACK TO SCHOOL: A Guide to Making Schools and School Assignments More Adoption-Friendly
Published in September 2010 by Christine Mitchell
It is September, which means back to school. For many children, it means the end of lazy summer days, as well as the fun of seeing old friends and making new ones. For some children, it can also mean the stress of school assignments that are difficult and/or burdensome for them to complete. Adoption can include both happiness and loss. Children in foster care as well as those who have been adopted often face intrusive questions and false assumptions, particularly if they are a part of multiracial families. Because children spend a great deal of time at school, the messages they receive in the classroom about families, adoption, and diversity all play a role in shaping their self-worth and feelings about their families.
Schools can support adopted children and children in foster care by providing a sensitive and tolerant environment in which adoption, multiracial and diverse families, and various family configurations are positively reflected in the classroom. Parents can help to educate teachers, administrators, and school staff about respectful adoption language, and about modifying family-related assignments to accommodate adoptive families, as well as about strategies for helping children cope with insensitive questions and comments from their peers.
Some parents are reluctant to tell teachers that their child was adopted (if the adoption is not obvious), fearing that he will face negative stereotypes or teasing from classmates. However, teachers who have not been informed will not be prepared to be flexible with potentially problematic assignments or help support the student as he deals with adoption-related issues.1 It is important to remember that a child’s adoption story is exactly that: his story. Teachers may need to be reminded that personal details should be kept strictly confidential unless the child volunteers them. Parents need only disclose that information which may help the school meet their child’s needs. To respect the child’s privacy, it is best to avoid sharing details about the birth family’s situation that are not relevant to her current issues.
This guide will help foster and adoptive parents advocate for their children, and will also help educators be more aware of and sensitive to the needs and issues of children in foster care as well as those who have been adopted. We encourage adoptive families to share it with educators and administrators at their children’s schools.
* This article is adapted from Christine Mitchell’s Adoption Awareness in School Assignments: A Guide for Parents and Educators, the full text of which can be found at www.christine-mitchell.com.
The Family Tree…and Other Dreaded School Assignments
Some Typical Experiences
One day ten-year-old Maria brought home a writing assignment from school that asked some fairly personal questions about her birth, including:
Maria was extremely upset by this project; she and her mother, Barbara, could answer only five of the 17 questions. Furthermore, they could not provide a baby picture of Maria, as requested, because Barbara and her husband adopted Maria when she was three years old. The information they have about their daughter’s birth family and history is very limited, and it is not information they would choose to share with her entire class. Additionally, they have no photos of her before age three. Maria’s teacher was aware that she had been adopted as a preschooler, but it didn’t occur to him that this assignment would distress her.
When eight-year-old Damien was in first grade, his foster mother knew there was a project coming up that he could not possibly complete. The students would be asked to gather pictures of themselves as newborns and at ages one, two, three, four, five, and six. The photos would be mounted on posters and displayed in the classroom on Back-to-School Night and for several weeks after. Damien, however, had no pictures of himself before age five. While he might have chosen to draw pictures of himself at different ages, it would still have been quite painful to have classmates ask why he didn’t have photographs. Instead, his foster mother spoke with the teacher, who agreed to modify the assignment. She allowed the children to choose between presenting pictures of themselves at different ages or photos that showed them enjoying different activities.
The Need for More Inclusive Assignments
There are over 1.8 million adopted children in the United States.2 According to the most recent reports, there are 423,773 children currently in foster care.3 Several common school assignments can make children in foster care or children who have been adopted feel left out, uncomfortable, sad, or hurt. Projects like the “Family Tree”, “Bring-a-Baby Picture” and “Trace Your Genetic Traits’ can be particularly difficult for students adopted at older ages; however, children adopted as infants and those living in foster care may also lack the information for some family-based assignments.
Adopted children have, at the very least, experienced the loss of their birthparents. Some have also endured abuse and neglect, and have spent years in foster homes or orphanages. Basing lessons on a traditional family configuration not only excludes these students, but may also trigger feelings of grief.4
Many teachers are not aware of the negative impact of these projects on adopted children or those in foster care until the subject is brought to their attention. Of course a teacher can’t always anticipate that a family history assignment is problematic for a particular child. Fortunately, these assignments can be easily modified to work for children in all different types of family configurations without sacrificing the educational goals. The solution generally involves broadening the scope of the assignment by offering students more choices. It is helpful to keep in mind the goals of the assignment and different ways to reach those goals, rather than emphasizing that all students’ end products be the same.5
Addressing a Reluctance to Change
Some teachers and administrators are reluctant to “fix” something they don’t see as “broken.” Below are several common objections to altering school assignments, followed by an alternative viewpoint.
Schools today encompass increasingly diverse populations of students. In addition to a wide variety of ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds, students come from many types of family situations, including adoptive and foster families. Educators, understanding that family-based assignments can be challenging and painful for these students, should be encouraged to assign alternatives that are appropriate for all students.
Here are some common school assignments and the corresponding challenges or problems they present for adopted children and children in foster care, followed by suggestions to make these assignments more accessible for all students, regardless of their family structure:
Specific Assignments and How They Can Be Changed6
“Bring a Baby Picture” or “Bring Photos of Yourself at Every Age from Birth”
Family Tree Assignments
Autobiographies and Family History Assignments
Create a Timeline of the Student’s Life
Positive Adoption Language
As a general rule, it is important for teachers to use positive adoption language. Here are some guidelines:
For more information on positive adoption language, see:
Creating an Adoption-Inclusive School and Classroom Environment
There are several things teachers and administrators can do to help create schools and classrooms that promote positive attitudes towards adoption. These include:
Adopting.org page on family trees: http://www.adopting.org/adoptions/creative-family-trees-for-adoptive-foster-blended-families-page-1-4.html
Adoption Together’s training curriculum, Adoption, Foster and Kinship Care: Increasing Awareness in Your School, available at: http://www.adoptionstogether.org/TrainingforEducators.asp
Adoptive Families Magazine’s resource page on adoption and school: http://www.adoptivefamilies.com/school/index.php
Center for Adoption Support and Education’s S.A.F.E. at School: Support for Adoptive Families by Educators, available at: http://yhst-28828629093147.stores.yahoo.net/book.html
Family Helper’s Teacher’s Guide to Adoption, available at: http://www.familyhelper.net/ad/adteach.html
Institute for Adoption Information’s An Educator's Guide to Adoption, available at:http://www.adoptioninformationinstitute.org/education.html
†About the author: Christine Mitchell is the mother of two children, one through birth and one through adoption. She is the author of Welcome Home, Forever Child: A Celebration of Children Adopted as Toddlers, Preschoolers, and Beyond; Family Day: Celebrating Ethan’s Adoption Anniversary; and A Foster-Adoption Story: Angela and Michael’s Journey, a Therapeutic Workbook. For more information, please visit www.christine-mitchell.com.
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