How Do I Help My Adoptee Feel More Comfortable at School?

School helps your child learn new things, make new friends, and develop emotionally and socially. As a parent, you want your adoptive child to excel both academically and socially. However, school can present unique challenges for adopted children both academically and socially. From family tree assignments to discussions on immigration to probing questions from their peers, school can be an uncomfortable place for an adopted child. 

You won’t be able to protect your child from his or her peers’ reactions to being adopted nor will you be able to prevent all of your child’s academic struggles. However, there are many ways in which you can help your adopted child feel more comfortable and confident at school

The Early Years

Children in daycare, preschool, and kindergarten are typically pretty friendly and accepting to one another. Some kids might have questions about why your child doesn’t look like you if you adopted transracially or transnationally, but young children are often satisfied with simple answers. 

It’s important to talk to your child about adoption from an early age. However, young kids won’t be able to comprehend the topics of reproduction or adoption very well. You might want to leave out or simplify the more complicated parts of your child’s adoption story. You can add in more details as your child grows up. Your child may tell his or her adoption story to others freely at this age. 

It is always up to you whether you tell your child’s teacher, daycare workers, and school personnel that your child was adopted, of course. Telling your child’s daycare workers or preschool or kindergarten teacher that your child was adopted may help prepare you to discuss adoption issues with your child’s teachers in elementary school and beyond. 

Elementary School and Beyond

Adopted children will face some challenges in school.

Once a child reaches the first grade, he or she can begin to understand reproduction. While they may not be able to understand the mechanics of it, they will be able to understand that babies grow inside a mother’s belly and that biological children look like their birth parents. 

Kids at this age are also able to grasp adoption more fully. Your child may struggle with feelings of grief, insecurity, and abandonment as he or she grasps the concept of adoption. These feelings may make concentrating in school difficult. 

Keeping the lines of communication between you and your child open is essential. If you notice that your child is struggling in school, ask him or her what is going on. Realize that your child may be reluctant to tell you if he or she is grieving his or her birth family or feels insecure. 

Your child may worry that a birth parent placed him or her for adoption because the child wasn’t good enough. Adopted children may also worry that if they aren’t good or smart enough, that their parents will abandon them as well. Children who have recently been adopted may be especially prone to their feelings interfering with their ability to concentrate in school as they process all the changes that recently occurred in their lives. 

If you suspect your child’s emotions are interfering with his or her ability to concentrate in school, there are several things you can do. 

First, check in with your children regularly to see how they’re feeling. Let your children know that they can express any emotions they have: that you are a safe person to talk to, even about painful emotions. Do not discount, dismiss, or invalidate any of your child’s feelings. Let your child know that it is okay to grieve and to be sad about adoption.

Second, don’t take offense to your child’s grief. Your child’s feelings of sadness over being placed for adoption in no way takes anything away from the love he or she feels for you. Your child needs time to process the past.

Third, seek help for your child from a counselor experienced in adoption issues. Having someone impartial and nonjudgmental to talk to regularly can significantly help your child process his or her emotions. Know that counseling is not a “quick fix.” It may take several weeks or months before you see improvements in your child’s ability to concentrate. However, when your child is able to work with a professional on processing his or her feelings, concentration in school can improve.

Should You Tell School Personnel Your Child Was Adopted?

It may be beneficial to tell your child’s elementary school teacher that you child was adopted. Knowing this information could help your child’s teacher understand your child’s behavior and learning challenges better. Additionally, kids begin learning about genetics and reproduction in elementary school. Most kids have to complete a family tree assignment at least once during elementary school. Knowing about your child’s adoption gives your child’s teacher an opportunity to modify such assignments so that your child can include information about his or her adoptive and birth families in the family tree. 

While teachers should always be sensitive when discussing families in school, knowing that your child was adopted can help your child’s teacher prepare to be even more conscious and sensitive about the way he or she talks about families in the classroom. 

If you decide to tell your child’s teacher that he or she was adopted, ask that your child’s teacher only tell other school personnel who need to know the information. Before you talk to the teacher, ask your child about how he or she feels about a teacher knowing the family’s connection to adoption. After you talk to the teacher, tell your child what you and the teacher discussed. It may bring your child some comfort knowing that there will be an adult at school that knows that he or she was adopted. This may help your child be more comfortable expressing any concerns or struggles had in the classroom. 

Learning Disabilities

Adopted children are approximately twice as likely to have learning disabilities than nonadopted children. There are no concrete answers as to why adopted children are more likely to have learning disabilities. There are likely several factors that put adopted children at higher risk of learning disabilities. 

These factors may include: 

If you or your child’s teacher suspect that your child has a learning disability, you can have your child tested. Once you know what learning difficulties or learning disabilities your child has, you and your child’s teacher will be better able to help him or her. 

Your child’s teacher can make modifications to classwork and assignments as appropriate. Talk with your child’s teacher about any accommodations your child needs in the classroom. Encourage your child’s teacher to make these accommodations in a way that doesn’t draw a lot of attention to your child. It’s likely that your child will already feel insecure and anxious about having a learning disability. Having a teacher constantly point it out in front of everyone can make your child feel even more anxious at school. 

Adoption Presentation for the Classroom

Another thing you can do to help your adopted child feel more comfortable at school is to give a presentation about adoption to your child’s class. Oftentimes, others make insensitive comments or tease people when they simply aren’t educated about the subject. 

Before you talk to your child’s teacher about giving a presentation to the class, talk with your child about it. If he or she doesn’t want you to give a presentation, respect your child’s wishes. If he or she is agreeable, however, it’s important that you discuss what you will share with the class. Decide ahead of time with your child what parts of the family’s adoption story you will share and what parts you won’t. 

If you adopted your child from another country, the presentation is also a wonderful opportunity to teach your child’s classmates about a different country and its culture. You could even make a dish (or share a recipe) from your child’s country to share. 

Prepare Your Child for Difficult Questions from Peers

As your children grow up, they will undoubtedly be asked some insensitive or uncomfortable questions. Even well-meaning people might ask questions in a way that’s insensitive. Teaching your child how to respond to these questions may give him or her more confidence among his or her peers at school. 

Tell your child that it is always okay to tell someone that the information they are asking for is private. Your child needs to know that it is okay to walk away if the person continues to press him or her for information. 

Encourage your child to go to a trusted adult if he or she experiences something at school that makes him or her feel bad or uncomfortable. Emphasize that you are always there to listen to and help your child as well. 

Help your children learn to evaluate who they want to share information with and how much information they want to share. For instance, you can teach your child that sharing an adoption story with a friend or acquaintance can be a good way to bond or communicate in a healthy, vulnerable way. Remind your children that they never have to answer any question they do not want to, no matter who is asking it. 

You can help your child prepare for difficult questions by practicing at home. Practice the answers to such questions as, “Where are your real parents?” “Why did your parents give you up?” and What is it like being adopted?” Teach your child that insensitive questions provide a good opportunity to educate others about adoption. For instance, when your child is asked something about his or her “real parents,” you can teach your child to respond with something like, “My real parents are the ones I live with. Are you asking about my birth parents?” 

Using, “what if…” scenarios are perfect for role-playing at home. For example, ask your child, “What if another kid comes up to you and asks why you don’t look like your parents?” Listen to your child’s response. Don’t judge or criticize your child’s response. 

If you think your child could handle the situation better, brainstorm ideas with him or her on other ways to respond. You could switch roles and play the part of your child to show him or her different ways to respond to situations. Remember that role-playing may be something you need to do regularly to help your child learn effective ways of interacting with others and handling difficult situations. 

Model good ways of interacting with others for your child. Children learn a lot from watching their parents. If someone asks you a question about adoption that you don’t want to answer, indicating that information is private will help your child know that he or she can do the same thing when he or she would rather not answer personal questions. Politely correcting people when they ask about your child’s “real parents” helps your child learn how to educate others about adoption. 

School undoubtedly presents new challenges for children. Adopted children may face additional academic and social challenges as they enter the school system. Fortunately, there are many ways in which you can help your adopted child feel more comfortable at school. 

Educating your child’s classmates about adoption, addressing learning disabilities, role-playing exercises at home, and giving your child the opportunity to process his or her feelings with a therapist can all help your child build confidence and feel more comfortable and safe at school. Remember to check in with your child often and encourage him or her to tell you about any problems he or she is having.