As I prepared for the first “Adoption for Teachers” seminar the other morning, I had a wonderful conversation on twitter with some adults adoptees about what assignments were difficult for them in school. It was a great discussion, but maybe the most important point that came out of it is to remember that every child has a different experience with different concerns and triggers. During my seminar with the awesome teachers who took an hour to learn more about adoption in the classroom, I encouraged the teachers to stay connected to the parents to be aware of what would impact each child specifically. Teachers, I understand that adoptive parents may be a bit different than other parents, but adoptive parenting may make more sense once you understand our kiddos a little bit more. While every child is different and may or may not be impacted by these classroom activities, below are a few school assignments that have caused distress for children that were adopted and adoptive families (and probably the teacher that made the assignment).
- In my discussion with adoptees, the question we could not answer was the educational purpose behind Family Tree assignments. Any teachers care to weigh in? Knowing the purpose behind it is most helpful in creating a curriculum substitution. Even adults whose parents were adopted have told me that such assignments can cause distress because they do not have the information and cannot get the information. Even children in foster care who may know biological family, may not be able to ask them the questions they need answered to be able to complete this assignment. Distress around such assignments can be a reminder of the separation, feeling different from peers because they do not know what others know, feelings of isolation, or feeling that their family is considered abnormal or second best.
Alternatives to the family tree assignment:
- A Family Forrest can work for children with many non-traditional family structures. How does a child with divorced parents draw a family tree? It seems easier to me to have each child create at least one tree for mom and one tree for dad. For my child it would be one tree for me, one for his Samoan mom, and one for his Samoan dad. Or maybe he would want a separate tree for my mom’s family since we have a lot of branches.
- Another alternative I like specifically for adoptive families is a single family tree with Roots and Branches. The child is the trunk of the tree, and both families are represented. However this might be more difficult if there is divorce or separation in either family.
- A more simplified, less artistic option I have seen is a Family Wheel. The wheel allows children to draw as many slices of the pie as fits for them and to draw it as large as they need.
- One of the adult adoptees I spoke with suggested that if there is a need for a genealogy assignment, an actual Genogram might be in order. While a genogram can get quite in depth, highlighting relational and psychological patterns in a family, it does not have to include that level of detail. The benefit of the genogram is that it is designed with specific symbols for adoption, foster care, and more, making family relationships clear and allowing the child to connect his or her two families.
- Similarly to the family tree, history lessons on Immigration may cause distress surrounding missing information, feelings of isolation, a crisis surrounding identity, and more. While children who were born in other countries and joined their families through international adoption are immigrants, they may not want that highlighted. Some may remember their parents being interviewed by immigration officers or embassy officials. Depending on how long they have been in the United States and the type of visa that allowed entrance into the United States, they may not have received their certificate of citizenship yet. When history lessons include discrimination against immigrants, this could be a sensitive moment for children feeling different or vulnerable. Children who were adopted domestically or through foster care may not know their genetic history to know from what country their ancestors emigrated, leaving them feeling helpless, different from their peers, and reminded of important information and cultural connections they do not have. Your ancestry may not matter to you, but when you do not have the information it cannot take on greater significance. It is also helpful for teachers to remember that children that are adopted have more than one family. While my son may be the first of his biological relatives to immigrate to the United States, he can also claim my family, and my dad made sure that he knows that he has an ancestor through my family tree that was on the Mayflower. I hope his teachers allow him to claim both one of the earliest immigration stories and one of the most recent.
- Even if a child is a recent immigrant, it can be insensitive to ask him or her to give a Presentation on the Country where he or she was born. Most children who are new to their families and the United States are desperately working to integrate and fit in. They may not appreciate being identified as different. Such assignments can also highlight what they do not know about their country of origin causing feelings of disconnection and questions about identity. Some children may be excited to present on the country where they were born even without first hand knowledge of the culture, but in general I suggest teachers allow children to volunteer or choose which country they would like to present on.
- Such presentations, personal presentations, or Student Interviews can all open a child up to difficult questions from peers. It has to always be ok for a child to not answer a question that he or she feels is too personal. Even the idea of being asked questions by peers may create major anxiety for some children. Teachers also have to be prepared for the information that a child shares which can include stories of a painful past. Children who have been abused or exposed to violence are not as innocent as peers. Even if the child that was adopted is comfortable sharing stories, the information may be uncomfortable for other students.
- World History and/or discussions of Recent Events may cause distress for children when it highlights negative moments in their country of origin or makes them question how safe biological relatives may be. The recent Asiana plane crash gave me brief panic knowing my cousin would soon be flying from Asia to the United States; imagine how frightening any catastrophe could be not knowing where birth parents reside. Some children may even feel guilty knowing they are in a safer place than biological relatives or have more financial resources. How can you speak respectfully of years of wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo without causing distress for children impacted by those wars? Even lessons on the history of prejudice and discrimination in the United States may be difficult for children born in Bulgaria where discrimination against people of Roma ethnicity still occurs and may have contributed to the reasons that child was separated from his or her birth family.
- Genetics lessons can be confusing, frustrating, or even sad for children who are adopted and do not look like their parents. It may be more helpful for teachers to use non-human examples when teaching these science lessons.
- Asking a child to create a personal Timeline could stir up many distressing memories and feelings. Some children may not know their own history for periods of several years and there may be no one who does know where they were, who they were with, or what they were doing. Other children may have all of the information, but the truth is painful and not something they wish to share with peers. A timeline can identify adoption for peers, forcing the child to be faced with difficult questions. Even if the child is comfortable with adoption, they may not want peers to know that they have only been with their family for a short period or that they have been with their family for years but the adoption was only recently finalized.
- Sharing photos is another fun assignment for most students that can be distressing for children that have been adopted. Many adopted children do not have access to Baby Photos, so can experience much distress if they are the only child in the class who cannot meet the assignment. Bringing in a toddler or preschool photo may cause a child to feel painfully in the spotlight and different from peers. Children who are adopted at later ages may not have any photos of themselves prior to their adoption at ten, 12, or even 15. Family Photos can be just as distressing as it highlights that they do not look like other members of their family. Children who have a relationship with or a history with birth family may want to bring in photos of both families.
- Communicate with adoptive parents and ask for their help and resources. Parents know their children better than anyone else and can help steer you away from topics that may be difficult for everyone. If parents do not reach out to you, reach out to them.
- Do not make children that have been adopted an exception; change the entire curriculum instead. They already feel different from their peers and most are desperately trying to find where they fit.
- Create a safe place where they do not have to answer questions if the question is uncomfortable.
- Pronounce names correctly. Some children adopted internationally will want to use their birth name in the classroom, but a teacher stumbling over pronunciation may be another thing that highlights that the child is different from peers.