Most children probably spend more time in school than in any other formal institution. It is no wonder that schools play a key part in a child’s development. The school years include many facets of life, including but not limited to, peer relationships, academics, social interactions, cognitive progress, emotional and behavioral expectations, and physical and moral development. Collectively, all of these are affected by mental health. In addition, some students with mental and behavioral difficulties can have poor home conditions which only add to their challenges in school. Some of these students could even be adopted. But how do we best serve these children in school?  Do they need extra attention? Do they need an Individualized Education Program? Do they need special accommodations?

I think, first and foremost, we must educate our schools about behavioral and mental difficulties adopted children may have before we can answer how schools can be better equipped to serve these children. Most adopted children have a sense of fear inside of them. When their “inner-alarm system” goes off they react with fear. This fear usually leads to a blowup, then they are usually left with separation, and then hopefully reconciliation with whoever has instilled the fear.

The hard part in schools is they usually have limited knowledge and resources to handle such situations. Maybe one of the answers is to better train the resources that schools already have. There is a debate in the adoption world of how much information you should share with your child’s teacher about being adopted and/or their life before enrolling in their current school. I am a firm believer that every child is going to be different. For us, we told our son’s teacher about his adoption and the openness we share with his birth family. Not every child and not every adoption is going to have that same relationship. Do what you feel is right for your child and right for your situation. If you feel less is better, then don’t tell them any more than you feel comfortable telling.

With that being said, how do we educate our teachers on handling the situations that are going to be thrown at them with adopted children? Again, we are fortunate enough to live in a small community where we are able to share our information with our teachers and administration. I follow several blogs and websites that share great information about certain topics that relate to adoption and/or foster care. When I see something that could possibly be used to help the teachers at school, I share it with them. Whether they are able to use it or if it helps them at all will remain a mystery, but I keep doing it! Isn’t there some saying out there that goes, “If you want to see the change in the world, be the change in the world”? That is how I see it. If I want my child’s school to be better equipped to handle his life because he is adopted and may have adoption-related trauma, I am going to be educating them just as much as they are educating our son!

We need to walk alongside our teachers and help educate them on what to watch for and how to specifically help adopted children who may have mental and/or behavioral difficulties. I was recently researching an article about the effects of trauma on adopted children. I found it relates so much to this article. We can’t possibly know how our child is going to handle situations at school until we fully understand the effects of their previous life and/or the trauma they have been through. As such, adopted children have been known to struggle with transitions, making friends, or accepting directions, especially at school. This is crucial information for our children’s school to know.

Let’s first look at what trauma does to our children. Trauma, even at a very young age (starting in utero), impacts a child in many ways, mostly socially and emotionally. Again, as mentioned, the trauma a child has been faced with usually has them reacting to things with what is called fight, flight, or freeze. This response happens automatically in the limbic system, which is a lower, deeper part of the brain. When the limbic system is active, the prefrontal cortex is not, which means your child is not able to use higher-level thinking skills.  The prefrontal cortex is also responsible for language. Thus, when a child experiences trauma, the brain has trouble processing the experience in the context of language. This is why a child is not able to put into words to what’s happening when he or she is acting out or exhibiting “fight, flight, or freeze” reactions.

Again, so many think that even if children were adopted at birth, they will not have any trauma-related issues and that is where I would disagree. Trauma can even occur in utero. Anything that causes the growing fetus extreme stress creates trauma. An expectant mother taking drugs or alcohol is obviously going to cause stress on the baby. However, even an expectant mother who is stressed, perhaps because she didn’t want to be pregnant, affects the development of the unborn baby. An unborn baby has the same chemicals flowing to it through the placenta.  As such, over time, stress hormones affect a child’s development. Again, this results in these children having a difficult time with relationships because they are constantly feeling like they are in a hyper state of arousal, fear, and reaction.

With all of that being said, some schools are having a more difficult time finding a balance in how to relate to these children. Mostly because they are the students who do not fit in a cookie-cutter class. They are the students who may need more attention or have breakdowns in class. However, more and more schools are recognizing that they must create an environment where every child feels safe physically, emotionally, socially, and academically. Schools should take into consideration implementing the following:

–           A school-wide understanding of trauma and its effects on children. This would include everyone from the teaching assistants to the custodial staff who need to understand the impacts of trauma on children and their behaviors. Most children will find a “person” they find most easy to talk to. Children need to talk to adults; it is so crucial that all staff understand the effects of trauma on children.

–           All schools need a safe, quiet space where a child can take a break from the situation they are in (for whatever reason) and be able to self-regulate his/her emotions.

–           All schools need to have a zero-tolerance bullying policy.

–           All schools should also have a school-wide program where all are taught and practice mindfulness skills such as deep breathing and/or meditation. It has been found that schools that start and end their days with deep breathing or meditation have seen a significant decrease in behavior problems and an increase in academic success.

In addition to the above and going a step further, we should be having mental health services in all of our schools, starting at the elementary level. Having mental health services within our schools can help adopted children and other children to improve both their mental health and educational success. While most will probably agree that mental health services should be included within our school systems to serve children, often there are very few schools with these services. This is mostly due to funding. I again suggest we start better training with the current resources the school has rather than bringing in additional resources. I only say that because education has so many cuts every single year that it can be hard to add to existing staff.

According to The Atlantic, “With a lack of mental-health professionals placed in schools, the responsibility to identify and address the needs of children with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges often falls on classroom teachers. …Only 34 percent of teachers believe that they have the necessary skills to meet their students’ mental-health needs, according to a 2011 School Psychology Quarterly study.” Many classroom teachers do not feel appropriately equipped to provide mental health services for children. This type of added stress can lead to teacher burnout. Teachers often already feel overworked with lesson planning, teaching, grading, meetings, professional development, parent conferences, and so much more.

We know that many children are hurting and need mental health services in school, so where do we go from here? Do we continue to expect our teachers to play the role of mental health providers for our children, or do we demand more from our educational systems and policy-makers?  It only takes one. Start the conversations with your local politicians. You never know what might be changed unless you start speaking up.

Why should this matter to everyone and not just those directly affected while students are in school? When students don’t graduate, it affects the workforce. Even if students graduate high school, if their mental health isn’t cared for, these difficulties can affect their workplace as well. Let’s take the first step in getting our children the help they need starting at a young age.

Before we can answer the question, “How can schools be better equipped to serve adopted children with mental and behavioral difficulties?” what can we, as parents, do to help the schools? As I mentioned above there is a little debate about how much you should tell your child’s school about their adoption. I again urge you to tell them whatever you feel comfortable telling them. However, if we want our school to be better equipped, we may want to start with equipping them with the information they need about our son/daughter in order to best serve him/her.

I know there are several negative stigmas about having “special” plans for your children in school. But I am a firm believer that we are meant to equip our children with the best tools that we have and if that means getting together with your child’s school to come up with a plan that will best suit their needs, you better believe I am going to do it. So, if you have to call up your child’s school and educate them on his/her adoption or previous experiences, I urge you to do so. Not only will you be helping your child but you might be helping your child’s entire school come up with a plan to better help other children with similar needs. I urge you also to get rid of the negative stigma or worry that comes along with your child needing “extra” help or special accommodations; it’s not because there is something wrong with your child, it is because you care enough about your child to get them the help he/she needs.

I also urge you to find the school that is best suited for your child. I knew our child was not meant for a traditional classroom. It would have been detrimental to his education if we would have put him in a traditional classroom. He needed space. He needed one-on-one learning. He needed to learn at his own pace. He needed hands-on learning. Not only did we recognize what our child needed out of a school, but we also recognized that certain schools would have been a bad fit for him and would have created a harder situation for his peers and his teachers. Do your research. Take your child to the schools to see if he/she likes it. Most schools will allow you to sit in and watch a regular day in their classroom. I suggest you do it. I will also say, you know your child better than anyone else at this point, do what you feel is right and if, later down the road, you need to make an adjustment to it, so be it. Until then, know you are doing what is best for your child and that is all that matter.

If I were to ask you, how you would answer the question, “How can schools be better equipped to serve adopted children with mental and behavioral difficulties?” What would your answer be? Do you have a personal experience you could share with us? Any pointers on how to better equip our schools?


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