When my husband and I first began our adoption journey we did so with a bit of a learning curve. No one in either of our families or our friend groups had been touched by adoption. In fact the more we thought about it, the more we realized we knew almost nothing about adoption.
We stumbled into an adoption fair and caught our first glimpse of what adoption could look like. It was both promising and daunting and a journey we knew we would be navigating for the rest of our lives. I remember sitting in our pre-adoption parent training class and being struck by the fact that adoption was not just going to touch our immediate triad, but that it would touch the members of our extended family, our neighbors, and members of our community. As a transracial, transethnic family we would be inherently different. And that difference is an important one to note.
Every August as I prepare to meet my kids’ teachers for the first time, I think about adoption. Even though our friends and family like to proclaim that my son is “just Jack,” such a sentiment denies the history, culture, and trauma my son carried into our family. It’s like practicing colorblindness as opposed to color awareness. You can’t deny that my son, who joined our family at 22 months from China, is the same as a biological child. Imagine a two-year-old child you know, or a four-year-old, or even a teenager. Now imagine that you move that child away from the smells, the textures, the sights and sounds of their homeland. Next, imagine that you plunk them down in a different neighborhood with a different family and different culture. Imagine that there are different customs and a different language they have to learn. How could you expect them to be the same as a child who has only known the same family and same corner of the world their whole life?
When my son started preschool, we decided to send him to a local school where we knew many of the staff members. It was a loving environment and we discussed the attachment issues of adoption. The staff was prepared but a few weeks into school his teachers sent us a note saying they worried my son had a learning disability (he actually does not). He was not recognizing his shapes or colors and his language seemed to be lagging. All the other children could point to the green square and say “green square” but our son just grunted. I realized that sometimes approaching your child’s educator about adoption is a must. I reminded his teachers that for the first 22 months of his life, my son had not even heard the English language. Such delays were to be expected and in fact, for most children adopted internationally, they finally catch up (physically and developmentally) at double the age they were at placement. So for my son, adopted at 22 months, he should catch up at 44 months. This delay maybe even longer depending on the trauma the child experienced prior to placement, whether proper nutrition was available, if the child was in institutional care if they heard a different first language, and if there was inaccessibility to proper medical care.
Each year, roughly 135,000 children are adopted. Though not all adoptive families may be as readily identified as my transracial, transethnic family, according to the U.S. Census, one out of every 25 families in the U.S. have an adopted child. That is not a small number. Though your child’s teacher may be new to the world of adoption, chances are that many educators will have an adoptive child in their classroom at some point during their careers. Teachers have a unique role in children’s lives. They spend hours upon hours with them during the week, they observe them interacting with their peers, they educate them, they watch them develop and grow. And many times they can be the first to spot a child who is struggling. This means that approaching your child’s educator about adoption can really make a difference.
As a parent of an adoptive child, you have a responsibility to educate your child’s educators about adoption. It can feel daunting and like another hoop to jump through, but it can also be the key to help your child’s educator better support and understand your child in the classroom. When thinking about approaching your child’s educator about adoption, consider what you want to share about your child and why it is important to their success at school. Here are a few things to potentially discuss with your child’s educator:
The Impact of Adoption Trauma
Though as a family you may celebrate adoption, it is important to remember that no adoption occurs without a loss. Though the adoption may have taken place in the most loving way possible, even infants will feel the loss of their birth parents. Adoption experts agree that this loss is traumatic for the infant and for those children adopted at an older age, from foster care, or internationally, the trauma goes beyond that initial event and may extend months, if not years, into the child’s life. When the body experiences trauma or high levels of stress, it shuts down what it perceives to be certain extraneous exertions– such as emotional and physiological developments. This is why developmental delays are common in adoptive children.
Trauma may have come in the form of malnourishment, abuse, or institutional care. Even for those adopted at a young age, trauma is so impactful that the body remembers the feeling even if the child’s cognitive mind does not. Trauma triggers a fight-or-flight response, so for some children, lashing out or having difficulty expressing themselves may present itself. If your child’s educator understands this, then how that educator may change how they respond to the child. The educator may need to respond with more time-ins than time-outs since isolating punishments can trigger further negative responses in the child. Or educators may need to employ calming or redirection tactics.
Likewise, many adopted children have a need for predictability. In the mind of the adoptive child, their world can flip upside down at any time. Providing written schedules or other age-appropriate calendar techniques can help the child understand what the day ahead is like and ensures there are no surprises. Sharing that your child is adopted and has experienced trauma also opens the door for continued conversations between you and your child’s educator. Check-in to see what is working and what might need to be changed. For school-age children, it may be useful to put a 504 or an IEP plan in place to support your child across disciplines.
When approaching your child’s educator about adoption, remember that attachment and trauma go hand-in-hand. For all adoptees, attachment can be a challenge. Depending on the circumstances in which your child joined your family and the time at which they enter school, your child may struggle with attachment. For us, it was important to identify that my daughter’s hysterical screaming at preschool drop-off was more than just an anxious two-year-old. In her short life, she had had numerous caregivers and she was terrified that once my husband and I left her at school we would not come back. We shared that our daughter had joined our family at 18 months from India and her amazing teachers worked with us to help my daughter’s transition into the classroom. They also helped us get creative with ways to keep us there with her in the classroom by bringing in family photographs and items from home.
Positive Adoption Language
As adoptive parents, part of our role is to educate. As hard as it might be sometimes our children look to us to watch how we react and what language we use. The same is true of our child’s educators. It is important to share with them how your family talks about adoption. We never say our children’s birth parents “gave them up,” rather they “made a hard, loving choice and placed them with another family.” We don’t use the terms “real parents” but the words “parents and biological parents.” This is what is meant by positive adoption language. Sharing the vocabulary we use at home also allows the educator to use this language in the classroom and to teach this language to others. If your child’s educator overhears your child’s classmates using inappropriate language like “where are your real parents?” or “why were you given up?” the educator should feel empowered to intervene.
If English was not your child’s first language for the first months or years of their life, it is important to identify and flag this for teachers. As I learned early on with my son, if your child’s educators are armed with this information they can be better prepared to support your child. Speech delays and communication challenges are very common in international adoptive families and in some foster care adoptions as well.
The Transethnic and Transracial Family
The other day I went to sign my son up for guitar lessons at a local music center. We were there for about an hour, my seven-year-old son was trying different instruments. My daughter four-year-old daughter proudly proclaimed her favorite band to be Guns N’ Roses and asked if they had any drum sets. The clerk laughed and said we should start a family band. Then he paused awkwardly and said, “I mean if they live in the same house.” I responded saying that they did. My daughter proudly proclaimed, “This my brother!” To which the clerk replied, “That’s cool. Different fathers though right?” and winked at me. Yikes!
Families come in all shapes and sizes. We live in an area that is blessedly blended and at our local playground, it can be tough to figure out who goes with whom. But we are two white parents with a Chinese son and an Indian daughter. In the past, it was thought that adoptees fared better when totally assimilated into the adoptive family. The prevailing school of adoptive thought was that if you loved your children enough no one would see color lines and the child would feel a part of their adoptive family’s cultural fabric. But my family is the proverbial elephant in the room.
Experts now believe that practicing colorblindness and assimilating the adopted child can lead to an identity crisis, so in our family learning about and celebrating our children’s biological heritage is a big part of who we are. We like to say we are a Southern-German-Chinese-Indian family and the best part is we celebrate all the holidays. It is important to share your philosophy with your child’s educator so that they may continue and support that philosophy in the classroom. We love to send in books about our children’s culture and on holidays we welcome the chance to do school projects centered around Chinese New Year or Diwali. We work with the classroom and the school library to ensure there are books about families of all different make-ups and families that are transracially blended like ours. And if the books aren’t there, we donate them. If one in every 25 families in the U.S. has an adopted child, we know they will go to good use.
As anyone touched by adoption knows, adoption is a lifelong journey. When it comes to your child’s educator, keep the conversation going. If you are approaching your child’s educator about adoption, don’t be afraid. Be open, be willing, and be supportive of questions they may have and suggestions they may make to further support your child. But one word of caution: Though you may choose to share relevant elements of your child’s story (for example if something leads to a language impediment) your child’s adoption story is no one’s but their own. With whom, when, and where they choose to share their full story is up to them– and should be in their own voiced words.
Jennifer S. Jones is a writer, performer, storyteller, and arts educator. She holds an MFA (Playwriting) from NYU Tisch. She has written numerous plays including the internationally renowned, award-winning Appearance of Life. Her amazing transracial transcultural family was created through adoption from China and India. She is passionate about the adoption community and talks about the ins and outs, ups and downs, joys and “is this really us?!” whenever she can. She writes about her experiences at www.letterstojack.com.