Social Worker: Adoption and the Elementary School Years

First grade is when “real school” begins. 6-year-olds have reached the age when they are required to sit still, pay attention, and learn to read and write. During the years that follow, they will gain a new sense of independence. They will ride to school on the bus alone and negotiate with others in the cafeteria. You will need special consideration when addressing adoption with your elementary-aged child. Remember, children at this age are still concrete thinkers.

1. Disclosing Adoption Information at School

Your experience with preschool teachers may help you and your child decide whether to share adoption information. Usually it’s appropriate to share certain pieces of information with elementary school personnel. However, bear in mind that children in elementary school often feel they are old enough to decide for themselves whether to tell their classmates about their adoption. However, there are two schools of thought on whether “to tell or not to tell”.

“Not to Tell”

Some professionals and adoptive parents think it is unwise to share adoption information with school staff. This is in case teachers blame all problems on the adoption. Another risk is teachers inadvertently causing a child to be the subject of teasing or bullying.

“To Tell”

Others say that parents cannot expect teachers to be more sensitive to adoption issues if parents don’t share their own positive feelings about adoption. Most people don’t know appropriate adoption language without someone teaching them about it. With that said, children must be taught that, once they do tell, they will not be able to “take it back”.

Role of an Elementary Student’s Parents

When parents adopt a school-aged child from foster care, they usually have to notify their child’s teachers. The same goes for international adoption situations. That way, the teacher will have a better understanding of the child. Teachers and parents will then be able to plan useful interventions together.

The teacher needs to know just enough relevant background history. As long as he or she understands how the child functions in the classroom, that’s enough. For example, the child may experience attachment, separation, or socialization issues in addition to educational delays.

2. Difficulties Paying Attention in Class

At this age, children who were adopted begin to grasp the meaning of adoption. This may include beginning to grapple with loss and abandonment issues or wondering about their birth parents. They will also begin to recognize that people have different reactions to adoption.

Consequently, some children may find it difficult to pay attention in class. This may because they are preoccupied with adoption issues. Or, there could possibly be a learning issue. An older child who was internationally adopted will most likely need English Second Language (ESL)/Limited English Proficiency (LEP) services.

If it is established that language is not the issue, you and school personnel must work together. Together, you can determine if there is a learning disability or emotional issue that is preventing the child from learning. If you think your child will need services not normally provided in the regular classroom, you will need to advocate for him or her.

3. Tricky School Assignments

By fifth grade, in many elementary schools, there may be school assignments that need your special attention. Students are often asked to complete the “family tree” assignment or to “adopt” a whale, a rain forest, or something else.

These are natural opportunities to talk about adoption with your child. You may ease possible uncomfortable feelings for your child by informing the teacher the adoption before these assignments.

For a family tree assignment, you may choose to include birth family members as the roots of the family tree or not include them at all. The choice is yours.

What a teacher may think is an innocent-sounding project to “adopt a…” may have negative effects on children who were adopted at a young age. They are still concrete thinkers. An elementary school-age child may conclude that all you have to do to adopt someone is pay a fee every year to maintain the adoption. This, of course, is not the case. Thus, the phrase “adopt a…” can be problematic. Consider asking the teacher to change it to “sponsor a…” to help alleviate any confusion.

Remember

There are many varieties of families. Children nowadays can live with adoptive parents, parents who are divorced, parents who are single, grandparents, or two parents of the same gender. Most teachers in this day and age are aware of these differences. You might suggest the teacher emphasize in class that families may look different on the outside, but inside they are all the same. Each is made of people who love and care for each other. Hopefully, if handled in this way, these assignments are a self-esteem building activity for your child and all the other students as well.