Children who are adopted often come with an early history of trauma. Children with such a background can find the school setting difficult, which then affects their academic performance. Often this background of trauma can lead to such problems as sensory issues and being over or under stimulated; difficulty with controlling emotional responses (e.g., outbursts, anger); difficulty in forming and maintaining relationships with friends at school; little sense of boundaries; and a lack of appropriate trust and “felt” safety. Your child may be bright but at times uncooperative, easily distracted, and “hyper.” Do these symptoms sound like ADHD? Yes, they do. Often a child with such symptoms may be labeled as having ADHD, but the child may be reacting to triggers in the environment due to the child’s past experiences of abuse or neglect. Medication most likely will do little to alleviate the symptoms. Instead, other measures will be needed to help your child feel safe at school instead of out-of-control and afraid.
First, public school may not be the best option, especially if your child is newly arrived from another country. School can be a battleground for children who have limited English language skills. Your child will need to be nurtured in a safe environment before learning can begin. Children who have experienced trauma can be in a “flight or fight” mode, and they are operating in the lower brain where their emotions are working overtime. Without proper nurture and attachment, your child may have difficulty using the frontal cortex—the thinking part of the brain. If the child cannot move to the upper brain to perform school-work, your child will most likely underperform academically.
Some private schools may be appropriate. Often because of lack of funding, they do not have the resources for giving children the individualized attention and special services needed. However, if the atmosphere is calm and nurturing, the private school may be a good option, especially if your child is brighter, has a command of the English language, and does not struggle with serious learning disabilities.
If possible, home-school your child. While home-schooling is not an option for many parents, if at all possible, have your child home with you. Even a limited period of time can help your child do catch-up work while adjusting to being in a family.
If your child is in public school, the type of classroom your child is in can be critical for your child’s long-term well-being. If your newly adopted child is school-age, you will need to consider the child’s academic skills as well as your child’s emotional and social age. Of course, in a regular public school system, you cannot place your 11-year-old child whose English is wobbly into a first grade class. Your child should be placed in a grade close to the child’s age, and, as needed, provide the child with extra supports.
Children from the foster care system, who are not legally adopted, usually cannot be home-schooled. Therefore, how the child is treated in the public school system is even more critical. Your foster child may appear bright, certainly speaks and understand English, but the early trauma can still greatly affect school work. Special provisions may still need to be made even if your child appears “normal.”
Whether your child has newly arrived from the foster care system or was adopted years ago, you will most likely need to be an advocate for your child. Often children can become overwhelmed with the noise, expectations, and school schedule. If you feel your child is struggling—even if academically doing well—you need someone who can help you speak the language of school personnel to get the special services your child may need. Janie Dickens, an adoptive mother who understands the special considerations of adopted children ( Janie@passadvocacy.com), provides consulting services with Nightlight through our Post Adoption Connection Center. You do not have to be in the post-adoption phase to reach out to her, as you may want to prepare yourself and your child’s school environment before your child arrives home. The first consultation is offered at no charge to Nightlight families.
Janie Dickens of Pass Advocacy can help you determine if your child may need academic and psychological testing, including an evaluation for any sensory issues or learning disabilities, such as dyslexia. These tests can be expensive if taken outside of the school but are offered at no cost to students in public schools. Again, you most likely will need to advocate for your child to receive such testing, and it may take several months before the assessments are administered.
For children without special educational needs but who have a history of trauma and need certain accommodations, a 504 Plan may be more appropriate. If your child has special educational needs, then your child may qualify for what is called an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). This article regarding children affected by trauma provides info about the 504 Plan and IEP as well as tips for helping your child during the school day.
Furthermore, be sure your child is well-fed and well-hydrated. Children need to eat regularly and take frequent water breaks. Many children eat very early in the morning, before the bus arrives, and then may wait four or more hours before having lunch. Other kids have lunch in the late morning and then must wait until school is out and the bus arrives home to eat again. That is entirely too much time for most children to go without food or a drink. For children who have a history of food-depravation, which includes most children adopted internationally and many from the foster-care system, such a time span can cause a calm child to be out-of-control. It is essential these children have a substantial snack every two to three hours. In addition, they should have some water or diluted juices just as frequently. Without regular snacks, children are more likely to be frustrated, “hangry,” and behave more impulsively. Without sufficient hydration, our brains—and your child’s—can have a decreased cognitive function of up to ten percent.
Children need to have regular breaks to stretch and move throughout the day. One recess a day is probably not enough.
Many foster and adopted children struggle with anxiety due to not feeling safe or being overwhelmed by the teacher’s expectations. Teaching your children how to use the 4-7-8 breathing can help alleviate some of this anxiety. In addition, this type of breathing can help children—and adults—fall asleep more easily and reduce angry outbursts.
Another area in which parents have difficulty with their children is after school. Some kids come home exhausted and may need some downtime. This is not a time for videogames, unless your child can play for only 15 minutes. Your child will need a snack and perhaps play board games or engage in other quieter activities. Some may need a short nap. On the other hand, some kids come home wired to run around and play outside. This is fine. Homework can wait. Trying to get tired or boundless energy kids to do their homework is fruitless. Let them play for an hour or so and then approach homework if they must do it. There are matters more important than homework—creating family bonds.
Laura Jean Beauvais, M.P.H., M.A., L.P.C. | Director of Counseling
Attachment Specialist I | Trust-Based Relational Intervention Practitioner| Counselor/Coach