You are most likely reading this post because you are either a parent of an older-adopted child, a teacher or administrator in the school system, someone who supports an adoptive family and wants to understand, or someone who got lost trying to find my awesome recipes. If you are the latter, I’m sorry (check the links on the side). :) But, no matter how you got here…THANK YOU. THANK YOU for stepping up and out and being WILLING to learn more about these beautiful children.
As July slowly slips away, I know for many of us (parents of older-adopted children), anxiety sets in. Depending on the school system and the individual teachers, our year is about to be a breeze…or, hell. And, we’re sitting here wondering which it will be. I pray that this post will be an encouragement to both school officials and parents. I pray that it will be both informative and empowering.
School can be HARD when you bring home an older child from a foreign country.
Everything you THOUGHT you knew, can (and should) be thrown out the window.
When we brought Z home, I knew I was in over my head (even though we were a homeschooling family). Where do you start with a kiddo who you lost out on so many years? And, then there were the speech and language and other therapies I didn’t know if he needed. And, honestly? I was overwhelmed. I was afraid to FAIL. But, for almost 2 years, I did it anyhow because I felt it was what he needed in that period of time (we still stand by that). We have a list of reasons why we think public school would be better suited for Z at this particular time, but it’s probably not what you might think. When we’ve told others, they automatically assumed it was because 1) he wasn’t learning at home (we have psychological evaluations to prove otherwise) and 2) for socialization. Some days I think folks forget that we don’t have ONE child and live on a secluded homestead. What we DO think will help are VERY structured schedules, someone other than mom teaching him, ability to easily integrate any needed therapies as needed, and the ability to ONLY focus on bonding with my son. He has worked his tail off (and so have I) in the past 18 months. He jumped through 4 grade levels in less than 18 months…which is HUGE. So, now, I’m passing the baton. And, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious at all.
When our older adopted children first come, they often do not know the English language. Sometimes, they’ve never even had a school experience at all… so what do you do?
This was one of our first questions. And, even as veteran homeschoolers, we felt overwhelmed and ill-equipped. Search as I might, I couldn’t find ANYONE who had really forged a path for us to just follow behind. The little research we found suggested two main things: Have your child FULLY tested (full psycho-educational testing) and/or homeschool for 6 months or more before transitioning them to mainstream school. While part of the reason for homeschooling is to help acclimate your child to their new home, family, language, and culture, I also believe the other huge reason was quite simply…schools often don’t know what to do with our children (keep reading, I’ll explain).
Once we arrived home, we had floods of physical tests and specialists to go see, as well as appointments to make sure all of our paperwork was good to go. –Not to mention, the first month of craziness as we all figured out what this new family dynamic would look like. When we finally poked our heads up for air 3 weeks later, our son was already beginning to lose his language…meaning, even if we could FIND an Amharic translator…he was entering a period where he would be “without a language” for a bit, making testing IMPOSSIBLE. Also, the language he spoke wasn’t Amharic, but bits and pieces of Amharic and other tribal languages that he had picked up. Think, slang.
I sincerely wish we had better systems in place within our schools (not everyone can stay home and homeschool!), where we had relevant and updated research that guided how we transition older adopted children into our academics.
Boris Gindis, Ph.D states (source):
“…Early, well-planned, systematic and intensive cognitive and language remediation is a necessity for the majority of international adoptees who will start formal schooling immediately after the adoption. An overall functional model of such remediation should include four steps:
- Accurate initial evaluation of educational needs.
- Proper placement according to actual readiness.
- Supportive and remedial services at school.
- Remediation via specialized methodologies, if needed.
Unfortunately, this proven model typically encounters major roadblocks at schools due to persistent misconceptions among school personnel and administration regarding international adoptees, such as:
- Internationally adopted children are similar to children from recently immigrated families and therefore should be educated the same way: placed academically according to their chronological age and taught English as Second Language the same way. The parents would be generally advised to “wait and see” how their children adjust to the new social/cultural environment.
- No testing should be done before the children learn English.
- Difficulties, both academic and behavioral, are solely due to the children’s institutional background; thus, loving families, good nutrition, and consistent schooling are all these children need for recovery.
- International adoptees may not be eligible for special education services because of the language and cultural issues involved.
All these assumptions are damaging for internationally adopted post-institutionalized children, depriving them of needed help and support in education.”
I don’t think a person can be adequately prepared for this journey. It’s one of those where you get thrown out of the cart and are scrambling, trying to move your feet as quickly as possible to minimize impact upon hitting the ground at break-neck speed while simultaneously, trying to keep your gait and not get even more behind when you’ve missed out on so much (and, the world slows down for NO ONE).
However, we need to research and educate ourselves as much as possible. Parents are often more educated on education when it comes to their older adopted child simply because they have spent months (years) anticipating, researching, and being trained. However, with the willingness and research of our school systems (or some really amazing individual teachers), this could all change…
What You Need To Know:
First, older adopted children are NOT the same as a child in an immigrant family. And thus, teaching and handling behaviors in the same manner will NOT be effective. Older adopted children are NOT in their original families, speaking a common language. Second, older adopted children likely have encountered much trauma which impacts the brain in significant ways. Comparing an older-adopted child to a child who had been through major neglect/abuse in foster care would be getting a little warmer, but still incorrect, as older adoptees have not had the “base” of American culture and education built since they were infants.
Second. Parents and teachers, alike, must understand the effects of such things such as Post -Traumatic Stress Disorder and Post- Institutionalized Behavior in children AND understand and be able to successfully implement coping strategies both at home and in the classroom. Parents and teachers will need to forge a relationship built on teamwork. Teachers must also understand that what LOOKS like “normal behavior” in an non-adoptive child does NOT necessarily mean normal or healthy for an older adoptee.
Some common behaviors seen with Post-Institutionalized behavior are (source):
- Poor self-regulation – difficulties with sustaining goal-directed behavior, emotional volatility, reluctance/unwillingness, difficulty with delaying gratification.
- Mixed maturity-a child may seem advanced for their age in some areas and delayed in others.
- Self-parenting – taking “justice” into their own hands, bossing around siblings/parents, constantly attempting tasks beyond their age level and ability.
- Learned helplessness – this seems to be the opposite of self-parenting, but both can be found in the same child. A child may act helpless in order to get attention (for example, with schoolwork because they want someone to sit with them)
- Controlling and/or avoiding behavior
- Self-soothing and self-stimulated behavior
- Hyper vigilance and “pro-active” aggressiveness
- Feeling of entitlement
- Extreme attention seeking
- Indiscriminate friendliness with strangers – I know we all love hugs, but many adopted children will show indiscriminate friendliness with ANYONE and EVERYONE. This is NOT healthy for our children and should NOT be encouraged. It has nothing to do with feelings of love or affection.
While the above behaviors may SEEM like “normal kid stuff” – let me tell you that the behavior itself may seem benign, but what is underneath it is NOT. Please understand that if you encounter this in the classroom…we (parents) NEED to know. It means there are things going on in our kiddos that we need to make sure we pay very close attention to (in many areas). Please understand that when we try to explain that our child has some special struggles that we are not MEAN nor do we HATE our children. We are wanting you to WATCH for these things so that you know how to handle them in a way that will prove beneficial for our child and their emotional well-being (which often does not look like conventional ways of dealing with things.)
Third. Please use positive adoption references. Here’s a list to help (as many of these never occurred to me before we began this journey.) (source):
Instead of…. Try this…
Real parents… birth (or biological) parents
Give up… terminate parental rights
Give away… make an adoption plan
to keep… to parent
Also, our children ARE American (or whatever country they are a current citizen of).
* For a complete list, check out the source above, as well as here and here.
Fourth. Please use alternatives to the following assignments. –They cause much stress in families like ours.
- bring a “baby” picture assignments
- family tree assignments
- family history assignments
- genetic history assignments
- cultural or ethnic heritage assignments
- create a timeline of student’s life
Instead, here is a link with some alternatives. Also, books and learning about great people who were also adopted can help adoptees feel more accepted and develop a positive self-awareness.
Fifth. Please seek to understand our children. Books like The Connected Child by Karyn Purvis will give you great insight into our children’s minds and some great tools to handle things. Also, please understand that while most of us own Karyn Purvis’ books, sometimes even her methods don’t work for us. Please just talk with us to see what we’ve found works with our kids. And, please NEVER try to tell us how to raise our children better by one article you read online or something from a book (even if we gave you said book). The truth is, we have tried most of it. We know our kids extremely well, better than anyone else. We see the hardest parts, because they feel free to be themselves with us. Which is both good…and hard.
Sixth. Sometimes we see a different side of our child than you do. Actually…this is pretty true most of the time. My child will act golden for most people. This is also post-institutionalized behavior. (See the links above.) Please don’t accuse us of making things up. Please understand this is part of it. Sometimes we get tired. Sometimes we may seem like we are rough, tough, and jaded. Maybe we are, sometimes. But, we love our kids. And, we need others who listen, believe us, work hard with us, and love our children WITH us and are willing to FIGHT for our children. (And if you are a parent and have these types of educators in your life, VALUE them more than gold. Bring them lots of chocolate and CHERISH THEM.)
Preparing For Back To School
I asked Chris Troutt, LMFT, Executive Director and Therapist at the Papillion Center for FASD (Gallatin, TN) for her top 5 recommendations for parents of older adoptees beginning school.
1. Begin getting into “school” routine 1-2 weeks prior to school starting. Go to bed like you would for school instead of summer, get up the same.
2. Block off 2-3 hours during the day where “school related” activities such as worksheets (easily found on the internet), reading books, etc, become a part of their daily routine again. This helps to get their minds back into “learning” mode, instead of vacation mode.
3. Pay attention to sensory overload when they come home from starting school. Most of our kids do their very best to “hold it together” during the school day, but fall apart when they get home. Make sure that they receive nutrition/hydration when they arrive home and allow them to “rest” for a short period before expecting anything else of them.
4. If at all possible, request “no homework”. Again, our children struggle with overload much of the time. Homework is counterproductive for them.
5. Lastly, encourage your child to begin some mindfulness exercises as a preventative method to becoming overwhelmed (most parents need to do this as well). Simply stopping every two hours, taking time to take deep breaths, feeling where their feet are planted and calming their brain can help ward off meltdowns. I also encourage nutrition and hydration every two hours to keep their brain in the most optimal place possible.
Some More Resources
Cognitive, Language, and Educational Issues of Children Adopted from Overseas Orphanages (a peer-reviewed publication)
Adoption In The Schools: A Lot To Learn
Supporting Adopted Children In School
Children of Trauma: What Educators Need To Know
In The Classroom…helping foster or late-adopted children succeed
Adoption Basics For Educators: How Adoption Impacts Children And How Educators Can Help
Papillion Center for FASD in Gallatin, TN - “Bringing Hope & Healing to Children and Families in Hard Places” and specializing in Attachment Disorders, Trauma and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.