How to Talk to Your Child’s Teacher About Adoption

Did you know that today is World Teacher's Day?

Susan Kuligowski October 05, 2015
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When my oldest daughter was in Kindergarten, she made a split-decision one morning to tell her class that she was adopted and from another country as part of her special show-and-tell day. Just five minutes earlier, I’d thought she’d settled on bringing in her favorite stuffed animal.

So, at 7:35 in the morning just before the bus was to pick her up, while rushing to get ready for work, half-dressed and pre-coffee, I’ll admit that I freaked out (quietly in my head), while quickly processing the information and trying my best to figure out how to guide a five-year-old with what words to say both to her teacher and to her class.

She decided to bring a prop—her birth country flag. In fact, she asked me to tie the flag around her cape-style. She looked so darned cute. I can still see her big proud smile. We could do this. She’d be OK. Right?

I spent the day at work freaking out (quietly in my head) hoping everything was going all right at school and of course, couldn’t wait to get home to find out about her day. It turned out, her teacher had mistaken the flag for a superhero cape and had her remove it. Somewhere along the line, the message had been lost in translation and her show-and-tell became a no-show.

I was determined to make things right and that night carefully packed the flag into a clear plastic gallon Ziplock baggie along with a note to her teacher explaining that she wanted to share with her class about her birth country and some basic adoption facts about herself. I kept it simple and added information I thought might make it easier for her teacher to introduce the topic. This effort did the trick and she came home with the happy news that her message had been delivered successfully.

A week or two later at our teachers conference, we discussed the show-and-tell fail. My daughter’s teacher was embarrassed and apologetic. I told her I was also embarrassed and apologized for not having had the opportunity to give her a heads-up. After all, the colorful flag my daughter had worn into school easily could’ve been mistaken for a cape, and I honestly wasn’t sure the teachers read their students’ private records regarding things like adoption, much less knew what to do when a young student decided to make it the topic in class.

I’ve talked to other adoptive parents who have shared that they don’t like to bring up their child’s adoption at all for fear it will influence or unfairly stereotype their child in the classroom, especially if they are struggling at school. I get that. Nobody wants their child to be singled out for any reason, much less for something so personal. Nobody wants their child to be labeled or for certain behaviors to be brushed off as being the result of being “that foster child” or “that adopted kid.”

I don’t want the world’s view of my daughters to be painted with a broad brush, but at the same time, I feel that adoption is part of what makes them who they are, and wholly what makes them part of our family, and I’ll defend the normalcy of our situation and of their behavior—the good, the bad, and the ugly—to anyone who cares to listen.

I agree and disagree. I agree that it’s nobody’s business unless we decide it’s worthwhile to make it their business. I don’t want the world’s view of my daughters to be painted with a broad brush, but at the same time, I feel that adoption is part of what makes them who they are, and wholly what makes them part of our family, and I’ll defend the normalcy of our situation and of their behavior—the good, the bad, and the ugly—to anyone who cares to listen.

While adoption may not have any noticeable impact on a child, sometimes it does, as was the case with my younger daughter, who required speech therapy heading into school. There was no denying that her delay was the result of time spent in an orphanage and then the transition into our family. Working with her teacher and the school was in her best interest, and with a team behind her, she felt supported and confident entering what can be a pretty scary place for any child. Despite my fears for her, she quickly flourished and is a confident and successful student to this day.

And so, my feeling is this: Should you decide to speak to your child’s teacher about adoption, consider bringing it up only if you’re willing to back it up with relevant and constructive content for all parties involved. Your child’s teacher may be an adoptive parent or aunt or uncle or they may not know anyone ever who has adopted or been adopted (however unlikely that is). Either way, breaking the ice in a quiet meeting may be a great opportunity to educate them on adoption itself, as well as introduce your child in an intimate way that may help to force a strong teacher/student bond.

Go in with a goal in mind. If you are aware of any issues that may be bothering your child that may show up in some way in the classroom and need to be addressed, lay them out so far as you’re comfortable sharing on behalf of your child in order to help his teacher to best deal with them. You may also want to give your child a heads-up that you’re doing so.

While you don’t have to be an advocate for adoption itself at a teacher’s conference, you should be an advocate for your child. And should your child potentially have learning or behavior-related issues that are a result of his past either in foster care, an orphanage, or other situation, choose your words carefully and work with your child’s teacher to make a plan to help him to be the best student he can be. The focus should be on your child’s future, however, not his past. However, sometimes in order to take a step forward, we do need to recognize where we’ve come from. The fear you may have in touching on this subject may not be the reality that you experience from a teacher whose main goal is to help your child to succeed in the classroom.

At the same time, there is no rule that says you must share your child’s adoption story. If you don’t feel that adoption is an issue, that your child is struggling with his adoption, or that it’s having any impact on his education or social life, there probably is no need to inject it into conversation unless you feel so inclined.

I do not enter my daughters’ classrooms at the beginning of each year ready to share our story, or with the intention of bringing up intimate details of our lives. I honestly probably wouldn’t have brought it up the first time with our oldest daughter’s kindergarten teacher had it not been for the show-and-tell mishap. I guess the point is, if you don’t want to bring it up, don’t. But if you do, you should go into the conversation and be frank with your concerns as well as your expectations.

The truth is, even at five years old, one or two of my daughter’s classmates had had a sneakin’ suspicion that something was amiss when they noticed that our skin tones didn’t match. Like it or not, classmates may ask the uncomfortable questions that you’re not ready to answer (causing you to to freak out quietly in your head)—it doesn’t mean your child isn’t ready to respond and move on. You may be able to make things a little easier for your child by sharing some basic information with her teacher to serve as a partner and support system if needed—even if it’s just a matter of knowing the difference between a flag and a cape.

Bottom line: It’s your choice to share as little or as much as you feel is necessary for your child to thrive and stay focused on what’s important in the classroom.

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Susan Kuligowski

Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she's not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.


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