Today, we’ll talk about advocating for your child at school. When your child starts school, it will fall on you, the parent, to take the lead and raise awareness of the educational needs of adopted children. You may feel this to be unfair and that people should know better. But our schools are not yet prepared for all the different needs our children may present. We must acknowledge that our teachers work hard, whatever else we may feel. In the absence of strict legal requirements that schools must fulfill, parents depend on the goodwill of the administrators and staff.
So what should you do?
Educate your child’s teachers about the following:
Most people are used to seeing adoption as a virtuous act. As your child’s advocate, you must guide teachers to get beyond that notion.
- Encourage your child’s teacher to address adoption matter-of-factly. It should not be an awkward moment for your child in the presence of their peers, making them an object of pity. The teacher should set the tone for how the class talks about adoption-IF- the topic comes up in peer interactions or teaching. Children may exclude your child because their parents told them to. The teacher should be prepared to handle this. One kid told my daughter that his mother told him not to play with her because her diet differed from his. Another child said her parents wanted to know if my daughter was from a good family. Kids imitate the adults around them. Your child’s teachers must be prepared to handle such moments.
- Adopted children have limited or interrupted schooling because of the many transitions in their living arrangements—from home to institute to the adopted home. Every time children move, they change their schools as well. That affects the continuity of their learning, and their skills are scattered. Chances are the children will be at least a couple of years behind their same-age peers, if not more.
- Teachers should measure children’s progress against their performance. Adopted children, due to their prior history, have limited background knowledge. As a result, your child will have varying level of skills in reading, math, and content areas. Our older girls have a strong visual memory but cannot wrap their heads around the phonics principles. They learn new words as sight words rather than using phonics to sound them out. Social Studies was the most challenging subject. It took them at least two years to understand the concept that the world is more than what they see and experience; and that in the past, the world was very different. Learning about anything that happened before their lifetime was too abstract for them. Government, laws, elections…these were challenging topics. Arranging for tutoring may help with some classwork and homework, but building the content knowledge will take time. Definitely get the school on board so that any test results do not affect the child’s self-esteem.
- Discuss trauma-informed practices with the teachers and administration. Research has shown that children exposed to abuse and trauma show changes in brain development and activity. To survive in that environment, kids either learn to stand up to the adults or withdraw emotionally. In the typical school atmosphere, their behaviour may seem like they challenge the teacher’s authority. This can be problematic, especially in our Indian school system, where obedience is prized. Besides this, certain sounds, smells, or behaviours can remind children of incidents from their past and trigger their protective responses. These stimuli may seem inoffensive and harmless to the rest of the class. You will hear comments like, “Oh, but if the kid is that sensitive, how can one manage the classroom?” The fact is, yes, they are ‘that’ sensitive, and it is not on purpose. The good news is that children can learn to trust caring adults and learn coping skills. Work with your teachers to teach them strategies to do so. When my kids first came to live with us, I was taken aback by how fluently they swore at each other, even in public. Once at the airport, somebody bumped into one of the kids, and out came a stream of colourful words! Thankfully the other person didn’t understand their language. We worked on ‘say it in your head’ until she learned new ways of handling conflicts with peers.
- Identify a safe person in school—someone your child can turn to in times of stress and will respect your child’s confidentiality. You don’t have to share every detail with the staff, but it is good to keep them informed about triggers that could upset your child for your child’s safety.
A lot of these may sound intimidating, as if you are asking a lot of the school. But if you’ve identified a school for your child, there must be something about the institution that makes you feel that they will be flexible enough to accommodate your child’s needs. Give it a try and see where it takes you.
Next week, we’ll talk about what to do if you believe your child has a learning need.