Jenny’s adoptive mother, Susan could barely get through an IEP meeting at her 9-year-old daughter’s school without tears burning her eyes. Meeting with teachers, the school counselor, the school psychologist, and the principal, she did not feel heard regarding her concerns and thoughts about her daughter. Expressing her suggestions for how the school might intervene to address her daughter’s needs more effectively was met with defensiveness and criticism of her parenting.
Unfortunately, at C.A.S.E., this is not an uncommon scenario. While many parents report excellent collaborative working relationships with their children’s teachers and school counselors, others share their extreme frustration, especially regarding their efforts to educate school personnel about the impact of adoption on school performance. Because this knowledge is so important for ensuring an adopted child’s educational success, here are some tips for effective communication with school personnel.
To Tell or Not to Tell
Parents often tell us that they do not even want the school to know their child was adopted, much less anything about their child’s history. They already assume the worst – that school personnel will use this knowledge in a way that will be hurtful to their child. They fear that educators have a negative view of adopted students, and either will “blame” any school difficulties or will have lower expectations for academic success because of “adoption.”
Aside from the reality that for transracially adopted families, hiding the fact of adoption is impossible, we believe that educators need accurate knowledge and information about their adopted students and adoptive families to create a school environment that is supportive and positive around adoption and adoptive families.
Educators tell us that adoption is not something covered in their studies. It has also been our experience that educators may be more sensitive to meeting their student’s needs if they have some understanding of their student’s life experiences.
From sensitivity regarding lessons (Ex. the infamous Family Tree assignment) to understanding how early life experiences can impact a student’s learning/emotional/social/behavioral performance in school – educators can be ill-equipped to meet their adopted students’ needs without knowledge of adoption. We, therefore, encourage parents to accept their role as “adoption educators” and be prepared to think about what information they need to share with the school regarding their child.
Information shared may include the history of pre-adoption experiences such as trauma, breaks in attachment, abuse, neglect, orphanage care. However, we do support parents’ desire to protect their child’s and family’s privacy by not oversharing the details of their child’s story. It is also extremely important to remember that while school-age children need their parents to determine what should be shared, as children enter middle school, they will take increasing ownership of what they want others, including school personnel, to know about them, including even the fact of adoption in same-race families. Parents will want to consult with their pre-teen or teen about what the school needs to know. Teens increasingly participate in some way at meetings concerning them. Other information to be shared will include previous academic performance as well as current academic, social, and emotional functioning, and professional evaluations if available.
Establishing Rapport with Teachers
Good communication and a good working relationship with school personnel begin with what parents CAN control, and that is their own attitudes, feelings, and behavior.
If you are a teacher or know anyone who is a teacher – you know that most teachers are dedicated, hard-working professionals who care deeply about their students. The demands on their time and the expectations for their performance are great. It is best for parents to assume that their child’s teacher wants to do their best possible job in the context of possibly feeling overwhelmed and unappreciated.
When approaching teachers, try to step into the teacher’s shoes:
“Mrs. Jones, I know how incredibly busy you are and that your day doesn’t likely end when the school day is over. I want you to know how much I appreciate all that you do. I’d like to talk to you about any upcoming assignments that might be challenging for my daughter because she was adopted.” or “I have some information to share that I think would be very helpful for you to know about my son.”
If it is the teacher who initiates the conversation because of a concern they have about your child, listen carefully and respectfully to what they have to say. After listening, see if you can find common ground:
“Mrs. Jones, I appreciate your efforts to help John talk less in class. I wanted you to know that at home, we see that he struggles with anxiety. He lived in several foster homes before we adopted him, and he’s still not quite sure that we are his permanent family and that this is his permanent school. I think his chattiness may be related to his anxiety as we sit this at home as well. Here’s how we help John at home that might be helpful to you.”
If your efforts are not well-received, try to remain respectful, appreciative, and patient. Your perseverance may be able to influence the teacher’s reception over time.
Support from Other Educators
While it is important to establish a good rapport with your child’s teacher(s), it may be the school counselor that can pave the way for important communication with teachers. Begin the conversation by finding out the counselor’s opinion of your child. If they are not familiar with your child, you can ask them to observe or get to know your child first before you arrange a meeting. Respectfully find out what they know (or don’t know) about the developmental impact of adoption as well as early life experiences on school performance.
You may also want to have individual conversations with other professionals involved with your child: learning specialists, the principal, the school psychologist who did testing, etc. Talking with the individual parties likely to be present at official school meetings and enlisting their support may be especially helpful for ensuring that your voice is heard at school meetings.
Outside Professional Support
It may be helpful to enlist the support of outside adoption-competent professionals who can serve as consultants to school personnel. Your child/family’s therapist, or some other expert who has knowledge of your child (especially a psychologist if testing was done outside of the school), or a tutor, OT, speech/language pathologist etc. The presence of adoption-competent professionals at school meetings may be able to assist you in plans that meet your child’s needs.
Parents sometimes find that they need to enlist the help of educational consultants, attorneys to advocate for their child’s needs, sometimes to ensure appropriate school placement. If it is a feasible option, parents may want to consider transferring their child to a private school that has the reputation of good home/school collaboration and support for adoptive families, and of meeting students’ individual needs at school. If finances are a concern, many private schools do offer assistance.
In sum, while working with educators to enhance your child’s success at school can be intimidating and challenging – your own patience, persistence, knowledge, and self-confidence may just be the ingredients you bring to ensure positive home/school collaboration.
If like Susan in the story above, you find that you are overwhelmed by your relationship with school personnel, don’t hesitate to seek professional support to help you achieve your goals.
Written by Ellen Singer, LCSW-C, Former C.A.S.E. Therapist trained in Adoption Competency