4 Ways to Help Kids from Hard Places Succeed in School

Despite what you may have read, there are things you can do to help your child succeed.

Shannon Hicks November 07, 2015
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There’s been a lot of buzz in the adoption community lately over this article. We adoptive parents go a little crazy when you start telling us that our kids will have attention and behavior problems because they were adopted. And so we start examining your sample size, your methodology, your personal bias. We write articles discounting your article.

These are all legitimate concerns. But, as a mama, a teacher, and a sociology graduate, here’s what I want to know: How can I help my kid do well in school? How can I set her up for happiness and success in her academic career? Maybe this is your biggest concern, too. If so, here are a few ideas for helping kids from hard places succeed in school:

1. Make home a safe place.

For kids from hard places, emotional security should trump academic achievement every time. Do everything you can to help make your home a safe place. If schoolwork conflicts with the attachment work that is happening at home, always choose attachment. I am a teacher, so this is a hard one for me to swallow, but I refuse to fight about homework.

I believe it is absolutely acceptable for a teacher to ask a parent to help a child with a particular academic skill at home. And I believe that “No, sorry” is an absolutely acceptable response (one that I have used many times myself). Likewise, unless a teacher contacts me about inappropriate behavior at school (in which case, I try to have a reasonable conversation), I try very hard to let school behavior (even if it is not perfect) stay at school.

Teachers are professionals. They can handle things during the school day or access the resources needed to help students be academically and behaviorally successful at school. Let them.

2. Help the teachers help your child.

This does not necessarily mean telling all of the details of your child’s story. In fact, I think it’s usually best to err on the side of privacy unless your child gives you permission to share (or chooses to share herself). This doesn’t mean that a conversation about early trauma is off-limits with teachers.

There are potential triggers (perceived emergencies, stories with themes of loss or abandonment, family tree projects) that can be successfully worked through (or around) if a teacher is using trauma-informed practices. Some studies suggest that up to 25% of students have experienced some type of early trauma, so pointing your child’s teacher in the right direction will likely benefit more than just your child.

3. Advocate for the services your child needs.

If your child needs accommodations to be academically or behaviorally successful, a public school must provide these things. If your child has an IEP or 504 plan, get to know her case manager. Get to know the guidance counselor, school support teacher, and administrators as well as your child’s teacher. Make your presence known as supportively as possible. And make sure that your child is getting all of the services she needs. If this is not happening, be proactive and polite, but firm and persistent. Do your homework and ask for what your child needs. Then keep asking until he or she gets it.

4. Embrace the power of yet.

Every child is unique. This includes kids from hard places. If you are parenting one (or more) of these challenging, resilient little people, your story will probably look a lot different from the one you may have imagined. That’s okay. Attachment may come easily. Or it may be a fight. Expectations may be exceeded, or they may need to be adjusted.

Though it may be part of their story, trauma does not define your child. Hope is real. Healing can happen. Progress may be slower or harder than you imagined, but it will come. Often, it is helpful to reframe your child’s struggles with the word “yet.” No, she is not securely attached yet. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. No, she is not completing her classwork independently yet.  Let’s try another strategy. Model perseverance and embrace the belief that greatness is possible—even if you don’t see it yet. Your child will likely follow your lead.

Read the articles. Read the vehement responses. Then take a deep breath, focus your eyes on your child, and help her become the best student (and person) that she can be.

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Shannon Hicks

Shannon is mom to two amazing kids who joined her family through foster care adoption. She is passionate about advocating for children through her writing and her job as a kindergarten teacher. You can read more from her at Adoption, Grace and Life.


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