In the first half of the school year, my son was on an online schedule. Because online schooling was a new concept for him, I would support him while sitting online. At the beginning of the school year, it is customary to discuss different families to help the children learn about the world around them and connect with others. My son’s teachers followed the same format for the first month of school. One particular day, his teacher read a book called The Family Book.
Inside the book, the author Todd Parr writes in child-appropriate language about diverse families. While many people believe that my son’s first instruction to diversity was looking at skin color, for me, it was his teacher reading this book during the family unit. As she rattled off the different types of family, she used the word adoption. I watched as my son’s eyes perked up because that is a word that we often use as a family to describe him. “Mommy, the kid in the book, is adopted, just like me.” While it was not a long-drawn-out lesson, it was subtle enough for him to feel seen.
Children can come from different types of backgrounds. To be aware and accepting of differences, it is essential to have exposure to families of different kinds in the classroom. Adoption must be highlighted in the classroom as another type of family background. The exposure is helpful for the adoptee and for the children who are not adopted. For the adoptee already facing their trauma, there is the lessening of trauma in the classroom to allow them to learn and grow emotionally, socially, and academically.
Diversity Leads to Inclusion
I’ve taught in classrooms where there is a richness of diversity. It is incredible to learn from each of the families and to honor their differences. We’ve had parents come in and speak about different holidays and even bring in various foods. Also, during the special days celebrating mothers, grandparents, and fathers, we’ve watched children have other people come in to support them. According to Ferris State University, diversity is a variety of differences, including but not limited to “race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, physical ability or attributes, religious or ethical values system, national origin, and political beliefs.” The teacher hopes that they are educating the student to learn about people and scenarios of different backgrounds. Inclusion is how all of the children in the classroom can be seen, heard, and their worth is understood.
Once the child is heard, they can feel that they are a part of the community and feel less anxious about belonging. I’ve had students that came from various backgrounds in one classroom. It is challenging as their teacher to honor all of their differences, but it is one challenge I am willing to take because I see how it allows others to learn from them.
Diversity in Family
During the family unit in the classroom, the children from pre-K to elementary school learn that families are different. In middle and high school, the differences in the family unit typically come during a science unit in genetics. Additionally, it can be in any class required to write a paper on your family. Regardless there are many discussions on the family in school. While the family can live in different houses and come from different backgrounds (socioeconomic, racial, and location), their family makeup can differ. The book that my son’s teacher read to the class showed the different family makeup. The Family Book includes adopted families (kinship care included), step-families, one-parent families, families with two parents of the same sex, and the traditional nuclear family. Discussion of this gives validation to children whose background may fit in one of the categories, so they do not feel as though they are the only ones. I notice, as a teacher, that if the child feels no validation, they can become anxious in the classroom. This is far from what we want the child to handle.
Not only is there just diversity in families, but there is diversity in adoptive families. Some adoptive families are out of kinship care; others are transracial or transcultural. Some adoptive families are created out of foster care, and some are out of private adoption. Diversity will help students because it will give them sensitivity walking through various situations.
Grief and Trauma
While The Family Book does shed a beautiful light on differences within families, they share the similarities—grief being one of them. “Losing someone is something that happens within all families,” the book reads. With the loss comes grief that is possible for us all. Many adoptees come from a background of childhood trauma. Chrissy Gochnauer explains in her article “Childhood Trauma Part 1” that you will never know “the full extent of what happened to them to cause the pain they feel inside.” It is essential to realize that adoption is first a loss. Whether the child is adopted as a newborn, they’ve lost a lot: their home, culture, language, food, customs, and family.
Grief is such a harsh feeling that adoptees feel, becoming more complex as they get older. The different stages of grief are Shock/Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. An adopted child has endured immense grief and loss that will take them through a wave of emotions. They need their adoptive parents emotionally present and aware to help them navigate through this grief. Gochnauer continues in her article that grief is something the adoptee or the adoptive parent can understand. Not only them, but it is also challenging for the community surrounding the adoptee and adoptive parent.
Children do not need to be adopted to experience grief and adoption. Due to diversity, children come from different backgrounds and have different life experiences. I remember that I had a student in foster care and taken away from his parents. That same year, I had a student whose dad passed away towards the end of the school year. They both experienced the trauma behind having their parents taken away.
Additionally, they both felt extreme grief. I remember that year when I started to have conversations about “big feelings” and “little feelings.” This is a foundation for them in managing their emotions when walking through their feelings.
Exposure of Appropriate Language
The Family Book does a fantastic job at giving children the language of different families and the similarities in families. There are differences in size and distances from each other. My son is starting to notice that it takes him almost an hour to see his family, while for his cousin, it takes her minutes because she lives closer. This is something that children can learn from to use when speaking to other children from different families, especially adopted children.
Language can be the first method to tackle as a teacher due to conversations about adoption. Many adoptees complain that there are adoption jokes, language, and behaviors that are insensitive and inappropriate. This type of education in the classroom will help adoptees and non-adoptees understand each other better. Education of the positive language used in the adoption community is helpful as well. These words must be integrated into the non-adoption world as well.
Different Stages of Teaching About Adoption
- Occasionally mention the words “adoption” or “adopted” as you tell stories or speak to others.
- I would casually use the word “adoption” around the classroom to give the children exposure to the concept.
- Use Pictures in centers and around the classroom during the family unit about diversity in families.
- Small children love to ask questions about pictures. The students would walk around and would mention the images in the classroom during our group discussions. These conversations cleared up any misunderstandings in the classroom.
- Choose stories to read which mention adoption.
- There were times that I was very open to using a book with a character that was adopted.
- Read stories that use adopted characters or that speak about adoption.
- Research different adopted characters and additional information about them. This is information that is shared in the classroom.
- Highlight the character in a movie shown in the classroom.
- Some different movies or cartoons discuss adoption. When you see these movies, you can highlight the adoption theme in the film to bring awareness.
- Include different types of families in the diversity unit.
- Same as Early Childhood children. Share pictures of different types of families and not limit diversity to just race.
- Share different themes under adoption: Animal Adoption, etc.
- People are not the only things that can be adopted. It is important to mention that adoption is a broad term that can mean different things.
- Present the Family Tree exercise with several alternatives for the whole class, describing how adopted children have chosen to make their trees in the past.
- I’ve had to use alternatives for various reasons, but I always make sure that it is a comfortable topic to discuss.
- When reporting on famous people, suggest someone adopted like Nelson Mandela, Faith Hill, or Tiffany Haddish.
- Giving adoption suggestions does normalize adoption for the researchers and listeners when they discuss the person.
Middle & High School
- Adoption can be a theme for an essay or journal writing. It can be used as an opinion piece on paper.
- Adoption is a very controversial topic, and a great deal of research is done on adoptees. It would be a great topic to discuss in a classroom among peers.
- Mention adoption in science class in connection with genetic studies, noting those traits, skills, and characteristics inherited and acquired.
- Typically adoption and science are not discussed, but I find an essential part in science-primarily environmental traits vs. genetic traits.
- In family life and sex education classes explain adoption as a choice for people who face an unplanned pregnancy.
Adoption Literature Helpful in the Classroom
Fictional Literature Characters for All Ages: The Cradle gives a list of characters that are in fictional literature. These are typical stories read in various curriculums in different school districts.
- Anne of Green Gables
- Great Expectations
- Harry Potter
- Huckleberry Finn
- Jane Eyre
- Paddington Bear
- Peter Pan
- Sherlock Holmes
- Snow White
- Stella Luna
- Tom Sawyer
- Velveteen Rabbit
- Wuthering Heights
Children Fiction Books: Megan Rivard gave a great list of adoption-related picture books for teachers to add to their classroom library or add to their curriculum. I added some of my favorites to my classroom library.
- Pugnose Has Two Special Families by Karis Kruzel
- Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born by Jamie Lee Curtis
- Families Are Different by Nina Pellegrini
- A Mother for Choco by Keoko Kasza
- A Mama for Owen by Marion Bauer
- We Belong Together: A Book about Adoption and Families by Todd Parr
School as a Foundation
After my son’s teacher read The Family Book, he was interested in checking it out from the library. He loved reading the adoption part of the book, and we were able to have meaningful conversations from it. For him, it was a valuable part of his development. It is essential to understand that schools play a massive role in childhood development because children spend much time in school settings. Exposure to diverse backgrounds empowers the students to be themselves and to advocate for others. All of these things are so important to educating children for the future.Are you considering adoption and want to give your child the best life possible? Let us help you find an adoptive family that you love. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98.
Deirdre Parker is an early childhood educator in Washington DC. She proudly hails from Baltimore, MD where she received her BA in liberal studies from Notre Dame of Maryland University. She continued afterward to receive her BS in Music Therapy from Texas Woman’s University and MS in Early Childhood Education from Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development. She entered the adoption community with the adoption of her son from South Africa. When she is not at school teaching her “babies” and mentoring new early childhood educators; she is traveling, reading, writing, playing music, following politics, hiking, attending church, and cheering on the Ravens with her intelligent husband and her extremely bright 4-year-old little boy.