It’s that time of year again: shiny pencils, yellow buses, endless paperwork, and new shoes. It’s time to head back to school! For many foster and adoptive families, this means educating our children’s teachers about the impact of trauma. Here are a few tips to make those conversations productive and positive:
DO be proactive.
Of course, you want to let teachers know ahead of time if you anticipate that your child’s trauma will affect them in the classroom. The beginning of the school year is a very busy time, so consider briefly mentioning this when you meet a teacher and then following up with an email. You could say something like, “My child had a difficult start in life and may react differently to certain situations than you would expect. Would it be okay if I shoot you an e-mail with some resources that I think might be helpful?” Follow up with links to some resources to support trauma-informed teaching. I like this list by the Trauma Informed Care Project and this Child Trauma Toolkit (<–If these links don’t work for you, try deleting the http or https at the beginning of the URL and reload.)
DO be positive.
After repeated negative experiences in the classroom, it can be easy to assume that your child will struggle. As a teacher, I truly believe that the number one factor in whether or not a child feels successful in school is the quality of their relationship with their teacher(s). A great teacher can make a huge difference in helping students feel safe to take risks and reach their potential. And there are lots of great teachers out there. Try to face the new year and the new teacher positively even if your child has had negative experiences with teachers in the past.
DO involve your child as appropriate.
When they’re young, we have little choice but to be our children’s voice to their teachers. In most cases, as they approach upper elementary school and beyond, it’s important to gradually hand off this responsibility. This doesn’t mean that you never speak to teachers on your child’s behalf. It does mean that you talk to your children about this. Consider asking for their input on what and how you share with their teachers. I always tell my daughter that as long as she is polite, she never has to share any part of her adoption story with anyone unless she feels comfortable doing this. I even tell her that she can blame me (“My mom said I don’t have to answer that question.”)
Lots of children who have experienced trauma display challenging behaviors at some point during the school year. Often there are school staff members (maybe your child’s classroom teacher, maybe someone else) who go out of their way to try to understand these behaviors and connect with our children. A positive relationship with one of these people can mean the difference between a child feeling angry and feeling heard, feeling misunderstood and feeling accepted. These folks are the heroes of the educational system (and they are out there—I know some of them personally). Go out of your way to appreciate them.
Teachers are professionals. Many have advanced degrees and do extensive research to meet the unique educational needs of their students. They may also feel underpaid and underappreciated. Be a good advocate for your child, but don’t be a know-it-all. Open the lines of communication between home and school. And assume that teachers will go out of their way to do their job
There is a difference between sharing information and resources about the impact of trauma on children and sharing your child’s story. Before you contact your child’s teacher, spend some time thinking about this difference. There may be some situations where it is appropriate (even necessary) to share parts of your child’s story. I think those situations are few and far between. I know different parents have different ideas about this, but I always want to err on the side of protecting my kids’ privacy. It is their story, and unless it is truly necessary, it’s not my job to share it with other people (this is another time when communication with your child can be really helpful . . . not sure what they would want you to share? Ask them.) .
DON’T stress too much.
This is probably the hardest tip to follow. But it’s important too. Our children feed off of our emotional energy and if we are overly anxious about them starting school, it signals to them that they should be anxious too. Educate. Communicate. Advocate. And then sit back and take a deep breath. It will be okay.