Back to School for Adoptees

In rural, northeastern British Columbia, Canada, the leaves were starting to turn yellow two weeks ago. Not all of them, just select trees that always turn first letting us know that our short summer season is drawing to an end. This morning, a friend up the highway quickly harvested her tomatoes as it was zero degrees Celsius when she woke up. We took the horses out for a ride at 9:30 a.m. and felt cold enough to wear toques and light mitts. The geese are flying south, and it’s almost time to go back to school.

This will be my ninth year of home schooling. Often, people cannot believe that I homeschool with six kids in the house: kids in all different grades with all different abilities and some special needs as well. The truth is, no matter how you school, it is tricky. If you homeschool, finding time for the parent to teach the kids is almost always a crunch;  if you do public or private school, it’s likely still a time crunch to get kids to school on time, get homework done, and still have a moment to breathe and just be a family at night. Some parents dread the back-to-school seaason and some look forward to it. For families of adoption, there are some special considerations to make.

Just like each parent views back-to-school-time differently, so does each adoptee. Some kids are eager and keen; others dread the bookwork or may be worried about a past bully or other problems in the classroom. One of the biggest challenges after a glorious summer of freedom (which is incredibly healthy for a developing a child’s brain, by the way. Exploration, the ability to become bored and do something about it, and the creativity that flows out of unstructured time are invaluable) is getting back to a schedule. 

Encouraging Routine 

It is likely that bedtimes stretched later and mornings meant sleeping in a little longer than would normally happen in the school year. Starting even a few weeks before the start of school, it might be helpful to incrementally bring bedtime back to school-time norms, as well as wake the kids up a bit earlier until you are back to the time they will need to wake up for the school year. Every child is different, and some kids will need more time to adjust. You are the expert on your child. With the older kids in our home, we have a conversation: “Back to school is in 2 weeks. So, we are going to try to have you guys in your room at 8 p.m. instead of 9 p.m. If you aren’t tired yet, you can read a book or do a puzzle quietly.” For younger kids, I’d set a time to “count down” to bedtime. You can do 15 minutes earlier for a few days or a half hou, depending on the age of your child and their sensitivity and their awareness of time. This combined with starting to wake them up a little early, or ending the sleeping-in habits will help their schedules to readjust. Doing this over a period of time rather than one or two days—or, the day school starts—will create a gentler transition into having to be up earlier and out the door at a particular time. 

Parents might want to do the same thing, as well. I am quite used to getting up and puttering around the yard, slowly feeding livestock before the kids get up this time of year. Once we start school, I need to be more focused: I need to be up, horses let out, animals fed, myself showered and fed before my kids wake up. This allows me to get medication ready for the ones that need it, help dress and feed those that still need help, and be ready to start our homeschool on time. If this doesn’t happen some days, it isn’t the end of the world; if this consistently doesn’t happen, things get chaotic and the school work doesn’t get done. It is the same for public school—things get left at home (possibly meaning more trips to the school for you, depending on the situation), kids are rushed, and patience might run thin.

Addressing Stress

Adoptees might have had a lot happen over the summer. Perhaps they are newly placed in your home. Maybe they visited with their birth family or lost someone who was close to them. For one of our children is has a birth parent who is missing. By the time school starts, the parent will have been missing for over five months. There is an active RCMP investigation, and she is processing the fact that we do not have answers and that the outcome is beyond our control. She has seen the case on the news, and she has a lot of hard moments. 

Adoptees often carry the weight of emotions that other kids do not—trauma, primary caregiver attachment disconnection, severed bonds, the scars (both physically and mentally) of abuse and neglect, the weight of their story, and how they feel about their adoption. For other children, it could be something like a missing or deceased birth parent, an incarcerated parent, being separated from a sibling group, or new adoption placement. For children in foster care, multiple placements become a harsh reality. There may be uncertainty about the length of the current foster home placement. These extra concerns are seldom things that others understand. You may have school staff who are experienced in these areas (although it is rare). Be aware that back-to-school time might seem overwhelming for a child that is carrying these stories—that has walked these journeys. e cannot always expect accommodations for our kids, but we can ask. 

Accommodations and Advocating

I can think of a few times I have volunteered for or been in charge of a children’s program where a parent had a long list of things they felt their child required to be successful there. Each time, I wanted to accommodate this list, and, most times, it was almost impossible. In a perfect world, each classroom and each school board would have the resources, time, and skill to provide your child exactly what they need to thrive at school. In reality, resources are often subject to cutbacks and need to be shared more widely than we can believe, there isn’t enough time for transitions, and many, many people with big hearts do not have training in attachment disorder, conduct disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome, or any other disorder our adoptees might be dealing with. 

I say this gently, but we need to stop expecting the world to move out of the way for our child and start figuring out how to balance advocating with helping our child walk through what is. I suggest that any time we expect a large group of people to absolutely refrain from saying or doing something that upsets our child, or any time we seek to impose a new schedule or way of doing things on an entire establishment or classroom, we realign our expectations and do what we can to promote progress. The teacher and staff are responsible for all of the students in their class and school, not just ours. This does not mean that we don’t ask for concessions and that we don’t advocate—far from it. It does mean that we respect the time and care the teachers are putting into all students. 

We do what we can with what we have. This means we walk in our role as parents and do our due diligence. We prepare as much as we can at home. We talk to our child and seek therapy for them and us. We make ourselves available to help out in the classroom, and we are open to suggestions and changes. We are flexible, and we are approachable. If something isn’t working for our child, we aren’t quick to point fingers and blame— we are open to thinking about ways we ourselves can do something different. Sometimes, we have to be open to the thought that some activities just will not work for our kids. This is extremely hard, I know. I have had to walk through this, and it did make me incredibly sad at the time. I have learned, though, that just because our world might be on fire, it doesn’t mean we can burn everyone down with us. We need to be able to be happy to let other children participate to their ability, even when that means ours might not be able to at all. This also means getting creative, thinking outside the box, digging deep, and making our own alternative, if need be. 

When one of our kids was dealing with severe vertigo and was unable to ride her horse for a period of time, she was extremely sad that she couldn’t ride and her siblings could. It would be wrong to stop the whole family from enjoying their experience, so we had to get creative. While she couldn’t take lessons at this time, we were able to lead her around the yard on her pony. After her surgery, she couldn’t even do this. In the early days of recovery, when she was sad, we just said, “I know….I know….and we love you.” As time went on, she could ride in a special, deep seat saddle, wearing goggles, and only at a walk. Did she sit on the sidelines sometimes? Yes. Did we make it fun and pack extra treats and snacks? Yes! Did we teach her to encourage and cheer on her siblings and group from the sidelines? Absolutely! What we didn’t do is tell her group that they couldn’t progress because she couldn’t progress. 

This is a huge hurt for many parents of special needs children, but to be a healthy family, and parent, this should be addressed. The key is to know when to advocate and how. I tend to say to err on the side of grace—for your child, for yourself, for your teacher. Are you behaving in a way that you would want to be treated? Is your child embarrassed by how you are treating their teacher or other school staff? Kindness is key. Firmness is fine. Rudeness is not acceptable. 

Setting Healthy Expectations

Grades. Are they important? Yes. But your child is more important. If your child cannot keep up to grade level, let it go. Work from where they are at. This does not mean that you don’t expect hard work and quality assignments, but it means that you celebrate success on their own level, not on your expectations or dreams. The best grades your child will have are the ones that are built on love in the home, confidence in the child, and hard work no matter what other students are doing, or what that looks like for other families. 

Lastly, check in with your adoptee. What is on their heart? What is on their mind? Are there looming fears? Concerns? Questions? Sometimes feelings can be soothed quite easily. Perhaps a tour of their new school, a meet-and-greet with the year’s teacher, or just a heart-to-heart can be helpful. Let your child know that you are there for them, no matter what. Let them know that no matter what the year holds, you are standing with them. Bullies can arise, stressful situations with friends come up, clashes with teachers occur, or problems learning a subject will all probably happen at some point. Some time ago, we started viewing things through the lens of “Does this affect eternity?” meaning, is this really a big deal? If it won’t matter to you this time next year, then let it go. If it will or your child is in danger, then take action now. Otherwise, let things roll along and remember that in six months’ time, everything will feel different again. Work on getting through each day, one day at a time, and not things too far ahead. Enjoy the ride, because it doesn’t last forever. Make memories. You’ve got this! Happy back-to-school!