With back to school dates on the horizon, it’s time to anticipate a new group of kids, and new challenges with helping little ones grow and learn. For parents who built their family through adoption, this also means deciding whether or not they will discuss an adoption story with their child’s teacher. While this decision is unique to each family, there are many ways that an adoption, and trauma informed teacher can make a significant difference in the lives of the children that join their classroom. Here are a few tips that will help children who were adopted thrive in any classroom setting.
Don’t let an adoption story create expectations about behavior- As an adoptive mother, I have worked with teachers who were knowledgeable (and empathetic) about trauma backgrounds, and those who had preconceived ideas about what it meant to have a “foster child” in their classroom. My children have responded very differently in those two environments. We had a teacher that spent time understanding our children’s history, and was passionate about helping them thrive in a classroom setting. While they were not in a situation that warranted an IEP, she came up with clever ideas to help them grow in confidence in her classroom, and because of that they thrived beautifully. She set the bar high, and gave us tools and terminology to communicate to future teachers so that they would continue to thrive in the future. She will never be forgotten. Heck, I plan to send her a yearly Christmas card and cookies or something. She was a huge blessing to us.
On the flip side we have worked with teachers that automatically assumed our children would be trouble-makers just because they heard the word ‘foster’. One thing you may learn about kids who have experience trauma, they are very observant about what is going on around them. It’s a safety mechanism to be very aware of their surroundings. It’s not so easy to hide your feelings as you may think, and if they know you expect them to misbehave, you might create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Honestly, it can be nerve wracking for parents to approach a new teacher about a trauma history or adoption story. Will you care? Will you help them and come alongside them in their journey to help their child thrive? Will this information create a stigma that will become a problem for them all year? Each child is unique; their adoption should not define them.
Be intentional about projects that may be geared towards traditional families Family tree projects are common in schools. It’s fun to discuss genetic roots as a teaching lesson for kids, but often children from non-traditional families feel uncomfortable with the spotlight being put on their story. Their peers may ask some honest, but tactless questions. Some of these projects may be impossible for them, and whether they participate or not, it will highlight that their story is different. Some children love being different, others don’t.
When creating projects, try to be mindful about how different families can be. Create expectations from the start that differences should be celebrated. We always buy The Family Book by Todd Parr each year for new teachers (they are still young so this works well). This is helpful for story time, and benefits both our kids, and other kids that may feel that their family doesn’t fit the traditional model. Each project can be created with room for differences, and not be so strongly based on genetics.
Their story is their own One of the first things I learned as a foster parent was that as soon as I mention the word adoption, a few questions will come up; “What’s their story?”, “Do they have issues?” “What happened to their real family?” Don’t even get me started on the word real...
All of these questions are varying degrees of inappropriate, but they come almost automatically. People are wired to be curious, and since they can read someone’s adoption story online, why shouldn’t they be able to ask about this child’s story too? The problem is that people are constantly asking for a very significant, and painful story about a child right out of the gate. Often with the child right there, LISTENING. That child may want to keep that story private in the future, and adults should allow room for that decision to be made when possible.
Many adoptive parents are well trained to only share necessary information to certain people. They might also get annoyed by blunt questions that show how little you may know about the adoptive world. Remember, they are likely hearing questions like that more often than you realize. It gets old.
Here’s what you should know; Don’t use the term real family, ever. Everyone in adoption is real, the biological and adoptive people. Members from the birth family are spoken about with great kindness and care, at a minimum to prevent a child from feeling shame about where they came from. Often families have relationships with their child’s birth family, and consider them part of the family too. Also, not all types of adoption are the same. Children that were adopted internationally will have very different needs than children adopted domestically, or from the foster system. Try to learn a little bit about each type of adoption if you can.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions I know I may have implied that you shouldn’t ask questions, but really just be mindful of the questions you are asking. Good honest questions can set parents at ease. If they let you know their child was adopted, ask them if there is any terminology that they would prefer for you to use in your classroom, or anything they would like you to know to help their child thrive. Ask if they would be willing to share any necessary information about their child’s story, if it would become relevant in your classroom. If they see that you already are thoughtful with your questions, they will open up and talk to you.
Most importantly, know that you are an important part of this child’s story. You can make a huge difference in a child’s year, and sometimes life, simply by taking the time to learn a little about adoption, asking good questions, and creating an environment that is friendly to non-traditional families. The school system can feel complicated to navigate for parents sometimes, and intentional teachers truly leave a lasting mark in the hearts of the kids and families they are helping.
written by Deb Uber