Back to School with Confidence

Originally printed in the summer 2007 issue of in C.A.S.E., the newsletter of the Center for Adoption Support and Education. With so many of our children back at school or ready to go back, I thought some of you might find it useful, too.

Although the calendar and thermometer say it’s summer, the back-to-school ads on TV prove that summer’s days are numbered. Our thoughts are turning to school, and we parents are undoubtedly starting to wonder what this new school year has in store for our children.

Like all parents, we adoptive parents want our children to have the best possible school experience. We work to find good schools, we ensure that their teachers are giving them a quality education, and we monitor their friendships to ensure that they’re healthy. We do all we can to make sure our children’s educational, social and emotional needs are met. But making sure that schools meet their adoption needs is a different challenge altogether.

Our children’s educators may have had no formal training in adoption, and may themselves not understand adoption process, relationships, and emotional impacts correctly. Worse still, teachers and classmates alike may have formed their impressions of adoption from what they see in the media or in TV sitcoms. And although we like to believe that TV is catching up, I assure you it’s not. Just the other day, sitting in the kitchen watching a sitcom with my 16-year-old daughter, we heard one character insult another this way: “You’re adopted and Mom and Dad don’t love you!” I immediately turned to Mara, who feigned indifference. But her body language told me otherwise. It hurt.

We’ll never be able to control everything the world dishes out to our kids. But we can look ahead to the possible experiences they may encounter to smooth their paths. School gives us an excellent opportunity to do that. Our children will spend in the neighborhood of 17,000 hours of their young lives in school. The time we spend educating our children’s educators will be well worth the effort.

There’s no single right way to do this, but I can share some ideas taken from my family’s experience.

Know your child’s school Before our children ever set foot in their schools, we should visit to get to know the environment. Are the administrators and teachers welcoming? Do they show you around with pride? Are they willing to share test scores and demographic information, the latter of particular importance to transracial adoptive families? Will they be open to understanding the importance of adoption in our children’s lives? In short, do you get good vibes?

Know your child’s teachers Make an appointment to visit your child’s new teachers before the school year begins, even if it’s only for a few minutes to introduce yourself. Having been a teacher myself back in the day, I know the power of a visit from parents, and the great help it was to talk directly to them, one-on-one, about their children’s specific needs. The time for that discussion isn’t back-to-school night, it’s before the school year even begins, or as close to it as possible.

Be an educator Because we can’t presume to know a teacher’s perspective on adoption, it’s best for us to assume the role of adoption educator. My approach was to put a packet of adoption information together at the beginning of each school year for each of my children’s base teachers. I labeled it with the names of all of the teachers and counselors on that year’s team, and included a note asking them to read the material, pass it on, and to call me if they had any questions. This packet always came back to me with thank-yous, which told me that the information was helping raise awareness among the teachers. C.A.S.E.’s S.A.F.E. at School would be a great resource to include in such a packet.

Be vigilant Almost every adopted adult I know has told me that they never told their adoptive parents about instances of teasing or uncomfortable assignments for fear of hurting them – and that’s all the more reason for us to ask. Knowing about difficult projects well before they’re due will allow us to help our kids and their teachers adjust the projects or to find alternatives. Recognizing that teasing has occurred, even when our children want to handle the situations themselves, keeps the lines of communication open, and this alone may be enough to help our children through the inevitable rough patches.

Be creative Teachers work hard. A full day of teaching followed by an evening of grading papers and planning lessons can be exhausting. When we come to our children’s teachers looking for alternatives to emotionally-challenging assignments (like family trees or histories) we should bring along a few ideas. They’ll help our children and those who follow, too. If you can’t think of any idea to bring, take the time to meet with your child’s teacher to discuss your concerns and brainstorm alternatives together.

All of these really speak to being committed and involved. There’s really no way to predict exactly what adoption issues might or might not arise at school. Being ready to actively address them is the best support we can give our children.

I’m approaching this year’s return to school with a little more nostalgia than usual. Our son leaves for college in two weeks. Just as his thoughts are all in the future, mine are much in the past. I remember that first day of kindergarten so clearly – walking down the street to school with Paul in his new sneakers and backpack. Without question, the teachers and counselors who appreciated the educational importance of understanding adoption have helped him develop the confidence that will take him through college and into adult life.


abebech said…
This is great, thanks.

"Almost every adopted adult I know has told me that they never told their adoptive parents about instances of teasing or uncomfortable assignments for fear of hurting them." I know this is true, and it makes me sad.

A teacher friend did some research and found that there still isn't a lot in education curriculum about adoption and classroom practice -- it's a good idea for parents to help generate alternatives to triggering assignments.
Yeah So said…
Although I have a few years before this becomes required, I was wondering if you would share some of the things that were in your packet. This sounds like a really great idea.

Great post.
Jay said…
Thanks for visiting my blog today. I very much enjoyed reading yours and will check back often. I too, like starfish, would love to know what types of things were in your packets for teachers. I'm so glad that there are mentors like you to help us adoption newbies ;)
LaMar said…
My son just left for college a few days ago. As I was holding my 10 month old and hugging him goodbye at the same time, his entire childhood flashed through my mind and... I just lost it. Where does the time go? As always, thanks for your insightful and thought provoking blog.
Poor_Statue said…
I'm currently working toward a Master's in education and not once has adoption been addressed. We've had a class on adolecent issues, adolescent psychology, and multicultural education but none of the texts or the professors ever talked about adoption. The program I'm in is outstanding and well-respected so it seems the gap must be everywhere.

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