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A Lot to Learn: As the School Year Begins, Adoption Needs to be in the Curriculum

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Adam Pertman and Susan Livingston Smith

Even as adoption becomes increasingly normalized in the U.S., adoptive families continue to confront roadblocks for their children in a place they expected only smooth roads: the classroom.

Interactions with administrators, teachers, peers and other parents can be complex and can impact adopted kids negatively on many levels. These issues range from the language used by both children and adults; to when and what to tell school personnel about the children and their pasts; and, as the children grow older, how to deal with questions related to ethnicity, birth/ first parents, nationality, genealogical background and traditional lesson plans such as drawing "family trees."

Teachers have a major influence on children's understanding of the world around them -- and of themselves. That's a major reason why the routine professional training of educators in recent years has come to include issues relating to race and ethnicity, disability, gender, blended families and a range of other subjects aimed at understanding diversity and promoting fair and equal treatment for all the children they teach. The intent of the preparation is not just to increase teachers' sensitivity, but also to equip them with knowledge that will shape their own behavior and attitudes, as well as the behavior and attitudes of their students.

What goes on at school has pivotal importance for children for a variety of reasons. School takes up a huge portion of their lives, and their experiences there help to shape their self-images, their peer relationships and others' views of their competence. It is also where they learn many of their values, accumulate most of their knowledge, and develop the skills to equip them to succeed as adults.

A research-based report titled "Adoption in the Schools: A Lot to Learn" -- jointly researched and written by the Donaldson Adoption Institute and the Center for Adoption Support and Education -- outlines the reasons educators need to learn more about adoption issues (including aspects of foster care), explains the negative consequences of a lack of knowledge, and proposes steps that teachers, schools, curriculum developers and institutions of higher education can take to change the status quo and, as a result, make vital progress toward placing all children and families on a level playing field in the classroom and beyond.

Learning is the "work" of childhood. For very young children, it comes primarily through play and, as they enter school, classroom learning takes up the better part of their days. It is the primary arena in which children's performance is judged in relation to peers, and they experience pressure to perform.

Likewise, there is pressure on parents to facilitate children's adjustment at school. When girls and boys have difficulty fitting in at school or measuring up to expectations, it affects many areas. Even when children perform well, their school experiences play a big role in shaping key aspects of adjustment, including self-concept, peer group experience, ability to have educational needs met in order to learn successfully, and the parent-child relationship (including parents' views of their children, the stress they experience in parenting, and their feelings of competence as parents).

In addition to these general influences experienced by all students, adopted children's interactions at school -- with both teachers and classmates -- provide important messages regarding adoption that help to shape their identity as adopted persons.

While "Adoption in the Schools" focuses primarily on adoption, the same (or sometimes comparable) issues apply to children in foster care who are not living with their families of origin. Most children who are adopted or in foster care confront situations at school that highlight their perceived "different" status from classmates who are being raised by their biological parents.

Teachers need to be prepared with both sensitivity and knowledge about adoption in order to assist all children and their families in successfully dealing with issues on an ongoing basis. These questions and challenges may arise in class discussions, during interactions among students, and in completing assignments. Their explicit and implicit messages about adoption and/or foster care, or their lack thereof, have an impact on adopted and foster children - and help to shape other children's attitudes and beliefs.

Educators clearly want to do well for all the children whose lives they shape -- it is the principal reason they choose teaching as their professional careers. But they receive no systematic training in two important aspects of many students' lives: adoption and foster care. As a result, they may inadvertently use language, teach lesson plans, and/or display attitudes that can hurt children's feelings, perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes, and transmit the message that some families (i.e. those formed through biology) are more normal and acceptable than others.

The best way to provide all children with the education and support they deserve is to make systemic changes that will have broad, permanent effects. Research and experience indicate these changes would benefit adopted and foster children:

• Education about adoption and foster care should be included in courses (such as on diversity) that are required for students in teacher education programs -- as well as in professional development trainings for current teachers, psychologists, guidance counselors, social workers and other relevant school personnel.

• Studies should be conducted focusing on the outcomes of adoption-related educational programs for teachers (as well as other relevant school personnel), and the findings should be utilized to improve trainings, lesson plans, etc.

• Trainings should be developed for adoptive and foster parents on ways to advocate for their children in the schools; expert educational advocates should also be available to parents - as should access to support networks and resources such as occupational therapists, psychologists and other local, out-of-school professionals knowledgeable about adoption issues.

• Child welfare and educational organizations should collaborate to remove systemic barriers that impede the education of foster children, for example, to create policies that promote educational continuity for foster children so they do not have to change schools in the middle of a school year.

Educating educators about the realities of adoption is important as a diversity issue, because children should not be less understood or more stigmatized simply because of the type of family they happen to be in. It is a fairness issue, because adopted and foster children are sometimes derided in ways we would never accept if the taunting or stereotyping referred to other aspects of their being -- such as race, gender, ethnicity, religion or disability. And it is an inclusion issue, because the knowledge gained in learning about adoptive and foster families also applies to families headed by single parents, divorced parents, step parents, gay or lesbian parents, parents of different races or ethnicities, and on and on.

In other words, doing the right thing for one group of children means doing the right thing for the majority of children.