At kindergarten orientation, there were bright lights and a crowd of parents and teachers talking in excited voices. There were lists and books and practice assignments piled into the parents’ hands and so many forms to fill out. As a parent, this was exciting, but also overstimulating and overwhelming. My daughter was excited but wanted to be held or hide behind her dad’s leg for this back-to-school ritual.
Children who are adopted sometimes have a hard time with transitions and change because their early lives may have been uncertain. Even a child adopted at birth has experienced the trauma of losing a family and that can make the change of a new school year difficult. School starting each year can be a big change that is difficult for any child, but it can be especially hard for children who were adopted.
That is why we have a plan for starting school and helping our adopted children be successful with this transition that is both exciting and overstimulating at the same time. Here are some ideas and tips to help you are your adopted children take on the challenge of school.
1. Have honest and open conversations with teachers and assistants.
My daughter is starting kindergarten and she is so ready for it. She was in preschool and thrived. Every day of summer she has asked me for school! She loved her preschool teachers and has been so excited to ride the big yellow school bus. She was adopted from India when she was two years old but she still has trouble relating to other children.
We had conversations with her teachers explaining that she lived in an orphanage and is behind intellectually because of that. We also were able to express how and why our daughter relates easier with adults than children (because she was close to her caregivers but had no children her age in her home orphanage). We also explain that the typical rewards and disciplines do not work for children from trauma and that these systems can actually shame children who were adopted.
When I would drop my daughter off at pre-school, I made a big deal about how I was always coming back. Some adoptive parents even have songs to help their children transition into the care of another adult. “Mommy Always Comes Back” is a sweet little song my friend does with her daughter every time she drops her off at daycare. When she picks her up, she has a similar song about how mommy came back just like she promised she would.
It is important that the teacher understands that this ritual takes a few minutes and is vitally important. If a child feels abandoned or scared, they cannot be successful at school. If the teachers and assistants didn’t know about attachment in adoption, they may misunderstand your child and his or her needs. However, once they are educated on adoption, it all makes sense.
2. Start bedtime and wake-up routines.
During the summer, we had become lax with bedtimes. June becomes a blur of fun summer days: going to bed late and sleeping in; before you know it, July is ending and back-to-school sales are starting. What happened to my scheduled summer?
For any child, but especially children who were adopted, it is so important that they feel safe and secure when returning to school; a great way to do this is to get them back into a routine and predictable schedule.
In August, we start going to bed earlier and waking up earlier. We do not change our bedtime in one night. We take several nights or even a couple of weeks to re-train the children to wake up earlier. We also work on waking up and doing our morning routine in order. Sometimes in the summer, we sit around all morning watching TV or playing in our PJs instead of getting up and getting dressed and actually starting our day.
We started waking up to an alarm again and I had to get my daughter out of bed. We made the bed and picked up the room before any breakfast. I model it in my own room as well. This trains my daughter to get up and not be tempted to lay around in bed after breakfast. Once the bed is made, the day can start and we can be ready for the busy school mornings to come.
3. Start daily routines that follow a school schedule before school starts.
Our daughter loved preschool because there was a consistent daily schedule and she always knew what to expect. Now that kindergarten is around the corner, we need to rethink our summer schedule. This point piggybacks the last about bedtime schedules and is in many ways equally important. When children go back to school, it is overwhelming with all the new information. During the first couple of days and weeks of school, the children learn the rules and expectations of their new teacher. They also have to learn the schedules, routines, and procedures of their new classroom as well. If they already have a set schedule that is easy to follow and predictable at home, it can make their transition back to school much easier.
The schedule doesn’t have to be minute to minute, but you could do morning, afternoon, and night routines to keep it simple. We also might throw in park play or backyard play or a small activity into spots already allotted for the child’s free time. The closer we get to school, the more strictly we adhere to the schedule. I also plan all therapies and doctor appointments in the mornings to keep it consistent even though we do not do those activities every single day.
4. Read books and watch shows about school.
There are so many age-appropriate shows and books to help kids get ready for school. It is even more important that children who were adopted have the opportunity to think about and imagine what school will be like before the first day. It can cause anxiety hearing about places and learning new worlds that mean nothing to a child. Seeing, reading, and even singing about the school can give the child words to ask questions so they can voice their concerns and fears before the busyness of the school year starts. My daughter loved the wheels on the bus song and it made her excited to ride the bus on her first day of school.
5. Visit the school and meet teachers before the first day.
If a child can visualize and know what their school day will look like and feel like, they can have less anxiety about it. Meeting the teachers and seeing the school ahead of time is so helpful. If the back-to-school night is too stressful with the crowds and excitement, arrange to have your child meet the teacher in a more controlled environment at a different time.
6. Thin out your family schedule when school starts.
Lastly, the first weeks of school will come and go faster than you can blink, and then there are so many opportunities to do so many things. American families have no trouble staying busy; but you may plan to thin out the child’s schedule during the first weeks of school as the child adjusts to the new schedule. Make adjustments to your church schedule if necessary. If you have many weekly therapies or appointments, consider rescheduling them until your child has a chance to get their feet underneath them—so to speak. The first weekend after school starts is especially boring and we love it. We just spend extra time as a family.
With parenting children who were adopted, it is so important to be loving, consistent, and intentional—and that is true as the kids go back to school!