Supporting Adopted Students: Parents and Teachers Working Together

Adoption-related School Issues

The school experience is a significant factor in shaping a child and his future – and it is a factor that can be impacted by adoption issues. Adopted children face extra emotional work coping with feelings of rejection, loss, and divided loyalties. These challenges can affect their behavior at school, as well as their academic performance and social interactions. Some adopted children also have developmental, emotional, and behavioral challenges stemming from prenatal substance exposure, abuse, neglect, institutional care, and multiple foster-care moves, told experts from Unity Care, foster care organization founded in 1993 on faith and cultural proficiency in communities of color, with special emphasis on African ancestry. Foster care transforms the lives of young people emerging from foster care. It provides stable housing, caring connections, and life skills that ensure they achieve their potential.

The adoption messages (both obvious and subtle) that children receive at school influence their feelings about adoption and their self worth. Schools can help children feel confident and comfortable with adoption by being sensitive to adoption issues and reflecting adoption in the classroom in a positive manner. Adoptive parents have an opportunity to educate schools about respectful adoption language, and modifying assignments to accommodate non-traditional families. Parents can also help teachers to understand their child’s unique adoption-related learning, social, emotional, and behavioral challenges.

Talking with the Teacher

Some parents are reluctant to tell teachers that their child was adopted (if the adoption is not obvious), fearing that he will be labeled with negative stereotypes and teased by classmates. However, the lack of disclosure may lead children to believe that adoption is something secret and shameful. Furthermore, teachers who have not been informed will not be prepared to be flexible with problematic assignments and to help support the student through adoption-related issues.

It is important to remember that a child’s adoption story his exactly that; his story. Teachers can be reminded that personal details should be kept strictly confidential. Parents should disclose only information which will help the school to meet their child’s needs. To respect the child’s privacy, it is best to avoid sharing details about the birth family’s situation which are not relevant to her current issues.

The Adoption Sensitive Classroom

A child who was adopted already feels different from his classmates. If he observes images, stories, and classroom discussions about families that never resemble is own experience – he will likely feel excluded. He may conclude that there is something wrong with adoption or his family. On the other hand, he will feel validated if the classroom includes books and lessons that mention or feature adoption, as well as transracial families, and other non-traditional families.

Adoptive parents might wish to donate adoption books for the class library, and/or offer to do a class presentation on adoption (in general). Additionally, teachers can be encouraged to mention adoptive, foster, kinship, single parent, and other non-traditional families during classroom discussions about family, explaining that ‘family’ means people who love and care about each other.

Adoption terms can be incorporated into routine lessons, from learning the alphabet (‘A is for ant, adoption, and angel) to math word problems (‘There were four people in Kyle’s family. They adopted two little boys. How many family members are there now?’).

Family-Based Assignments

Adoptive parents will want to talk with teachers about common family-based assignments which can make foster and adoptive children feel left out, confused, uncomfortable, and embarrassed. Adopted and foster children may lack the information for many family-based assignments. Projects like ‘Bring-a-Baby Picture’, and ‘My Life Story’ can be particularly difficult for students adopted at older ages, perhaps triggering strong grief reactions.

Teachers are often unaware of the negative impact these projects can have unless it is brought to their attention. Most assignments can be easily modified to work for children in all different types of family configurations. The solution generally involves broadening the scope of the assignment by offering students wider choices (bring a photo at a younger age, write about your life or your summer vacation, trace your genetic traits or those of a friend/neighbor). The Family Tree project can include various formatting options, including the Rooted Family Tree and the Family Wheel diagram. Teachers should emphasize the goal of the assignment and different ways to reach that goal, rather than insisting that all students’ end products be the same.

Positive Adoption Language

Parents may also wish to educate teachers about respectful adoption terms. Expressions such as ‘real parents’ and ‘natural child’ further the misconception that adoptive connections are not as real or permanent as biological ties. To avoid negative stereotypes and hurt feelings, teachers can use positive adoption language:

  1. Instead of ‘natural or ‘real’ mother/father/parents/family, use ‘birth’ or ‘biological’.
  2. Rather than ‘adoptive’ mom/dad/parents/child, simply say mom/dad/parents/child, unless it is relevant to add ‘adoptive’.
  3. In place of ‘your own’, say ‘birth’ or ‘biological’ child. Adopted children are ‘our own’
  4. Rather than ‘give up’, ‘relinquish’, or ‘surrender’ the generally preferred expressions are that birth parents ‘choose adoption’, ‘plan an adoption’, or ‘make an adoption plan’.
  5. Refer to ‘waiting children’ or ‘children with special needs’ rather than ‘hard to place children’.
  6. Use ‘international adoption’ rather than ‘foreign adoption’.
  7. Avoid ‘Adopt-a-Highway/Animal/Family’ labels. These terms imply that adoption means paying money for something/someone, and may cause children to question their own permanence when the classroom ‘adopts’ a different animal each year. When possible, try to use ‘Sponsor-a-Highway’, etc.

Older Child Adoption

When an older child is placed with a new foster or adoptive family, adjusting to a new school is just one of many issues he is dealing with. The child may be grieving the loss of his birth family, prior caregivers, or children he lived with in an orphanage. He may have experienced neglect, abuse, separation from siblings, and multiple foster care moves, which can significantly influence his school behavior and performance. He may worry consciously or unconsciously that he will have to move again. Prenatal exposure to alcohol or drugs may have impacted his development, as may a lack of early nurturing and stability. Additionally, children adopted internationally may be struggling to learn a new language and adjust to new customs, clothing, and foods.

Students dealing with trauma and complex emotional issues may have less energy to pay attention in class and focus on lessons. They often have behavior issues such as low impulse control, defiance, wetting/soiling, stealing, lying, and destructiveness which are a manifestation of the grief, fear, and anger they are feeling. When teachers understand that grief and loss are playing a role in a child’s troubles they are in a better position to support both the child and his family.

Children adopted at older ages may also lag behind in social skills, and may shock and frighten peers with stories of prior abuse and neglect. Children with traumatic pasts will benefit from guidance about which details of their history and adoption story are private and which are appropriate to share.

If a child is having trouble making or keeping friends at school, he may need help developing social skills. Perhaps he needs some coaching about sharing, taking turns, and not hurting other children’s feelings. Parents can role play with their child the kinds of behavior that will help him get along well with peers, and then invite classmates over to ‘practice’. After play dates the child and parents can review what worked well and what didn’t.

It is not uncommon for children who have been abused to be confused about memories and which caregiver (current or past parent) perpetrated the abuse. If a child has shown any tendency for confusing memories or caregiver names, it may be wise to inform the teacher of this before a serious misunderstanding arrives.

Both at home and school adults need to establish clear rules, behavioral expectations, and consistent consequences.  If a parent notices certain warning signs before their child erupts, or discovers a particular disciplinary, calming or re-directing technique that works well, they can pass the information along to the teacher as well. Parents may wish to educate teachers about attachment issues, and their child’s basic lack of trust that adults will care for and protect him. Parents can explain that a child who is superficially charming with those outside the family may still be experiencing serious emotional and behavioral challenges at home.

Parents who adopt older children may be feeling frustrated and overwhelmed by a child who is very difficult to live with. They may feel isolated because friends, family, and teachers don’t recognize the challenges they face – because it is the parents who are the target of the child’s rage and mistrust. Many parents begin doubting their parenting abilities as others question whether the parents are the cause of the child’s problems. These parents desperately need understanding and support, rather than judgment and criticism.

Grief Triggers

Parents and teachers may notice changes in a child’s mood such as increased anger, sadness, or anxiety. These changes may be tied to grief related to adoption issues and prior abuse, neglect, and losses. Other symptoms of grief include aggression, hyperactivity, lack of concentration, eating and sleep disturbances, and regression, such separation anxiety or wetting/soiling. Grief often resurfaces when children reach new developmental stages, and it can be triggered by certain events. During these times it will help if parents and teachers can remain patient and supportive.

Changes in routine, such as vacations, field trips or substitute teachers, can be difficult for students with a history of instability. Parents may wish to inform the teacher that their child is more sensitive or likely to act up near the anniversary of his adoption, his birthday or Mother’s day, for example. Even holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas can stir up feelings for kids who remember spending those holidays with their birth family. Parents should also notify teachers of any new losses the child is experiencing (loss of a pet or relative), which can trigger grief reactions, reminding the child consciously or unconsciously of the separation from his birth family. Even seemingly small losses, such as changing therapists, may cause changes in children’s behavior.

An adopted child’s behavior at school

Many children, especially those who have experienced multiple moves and caregivers, will have intense anxiety during transitions such as moving to a new school, and the beginning or end of the school year. As the end of the school year looms, children worry about losing what is familiar – both their friends and teacher.

Children also worry about what their new teacher will be like and fear that the new teacher will be mean or scary. They may demonstrate increased anxiety and behavior problems, and have difficulty focusing on academics. As with other issues, parents can talk to their child about her feelings and acknowledge that school transitions are tough for many children.

These kids may also be reassured to some degree by being given information about their new teacher, and about any friends that will also be in their class the following year. Ideally, the child should visit the new classroom and meet their future teacher. If parents and teachers recognize the adoption issues the child is grappling with – triggered by anniversaries, holidays, transitions, and changes in routine – they can offer extra patience and support during these times.

By making educators aware of the challenges faced by adopted children, parents can help schools become a source of support for adoptive families rather than an additional hurdle. Open communication between adoptive parents will help them work as a team to meet the educational, social, and emotional needs of children who were adopted.

[1] Betsy Keefer and Jayne E. Schooler, Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child: Making Sense of the Past (Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 2000

[2] Lansing Wood and Nancy Ng, Lessons for the Heart: Shining Light on Adoption,Adoption and the Schools (Palo Alto, CA: FAIR; Families Adopting In Response, 2001

[3] Adoption-Competent School Assignments Fact Sheet, MN ASAP, Minnesota Adoption and Support and Preservations,

[4] National Adoption Month Awareness Guide, NACAC, North American Council on Adoptable Children,

[5] Patricia Irwin Johnston, Speaking Positively: Using Respectful Adoption Language (adapted from Adopting After Infertility by Pat Johnston (Indianapolis, IN: Perspectives Press, 1992)

[6] Patricia Irwin Johnston, Adopt-a Confusion, adapted from Adopting After Infertilityby Pat Johnston (Indianapolis, IN: Perspectives Press, 1992)

[7] Gregory C. Keck and Regina M. Kupecky M. LSW, Parenting the Hurt Child: Helping Adoptive Families Heal and Grow (Colorado Springs, CO: Pinion Press, 2002)

[8] Adoption and the Schools, edited by Lansing Wood and Nancy Ng (Palo Alto, CA: FAIR; Families Adopting In Response, 2001)

[9] Adoption and the Schools, edited by Lansing Wood and Nancy Ng (Palo Alto, CA: FAIR; Families Adopting In Response, 2001)

[10] Arleta James, Brothers and Sisters in Adoption, (Indianapolis, IN: Perspectives Press, 2009)

[11] Betsy Keefer and Jayne E. Schooler, Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child: Making Sense of the Past (Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 2000

[12] Claudia Jewett Jarratt, Helping Children Cope with Separation and Loss, (Boston, MA: The Harvard Common Press, 1982)

Copyright 2010, Christine Mitchell. Adapted from Adoption Awareness in School Assignments: A Guide for Parents and Educators by Christine Mitchell, 2007. Christine is also the author of:

  • ~ Welcome Home, Forever Child: A Celebration of Children Adopted as Toddlers, Preschoolers, and Beyond
  • ~ Family Day: Celebrating Ethan’s Adoption Anniversary.
  • ~ A Foster-Adoption Story: Angela and Michael’s Journey, co-authored with Regina M. Kupecky, MSW

Christine Mitchell is a parent by both birth and adoption, and is an advocate of older child and foster care adoption. Christine is the author of the following children”s books reflecting older child adoptions: • Welcome Home, Forever Child: A Celebration of Children Adopted as Toddlers, Preschoolers, and Beyond • Family Day: Celebrating Ethan’s Adoption Anniversary. • A Foster-Adoption Story: Angela and Michael’s Journey, co-authored with Regina M. Kupecky, MSW