As the school year approaches yet again, teachers are preparing to welcome an ever-increasing diversity of students and families into their classrooms. The makeup of the American family continues to change and, while teachers may already consider non-traditional blended families like those made from divorce, remarriage and same-sex parents, they may not automatically think about children brought to a family through adoption — whether internationally or through private domestic infant or foster care adoption.
So, how can a teacher support adoptive families in their classroom? How can they work to provide a safe and welcoming environment for an adoptee?
Whether you are a teacher yourself, or you’re an adoptive parent whose child is headed off to school, it’s important to recognize the different ways teachers can support adoptive families and their children. These methods will not only celebrate any adopted students but also promote tolerance and understanding — which is a key part of education itself.
1. Address a Child’s Adoption as Early as Possible.
Teachers often tailor their education methods to the children that they teach. Therefore, it’s important that they are aware of any key identifying traits of their students.
Being an adoptee is an important part of a child’s identity, but people don’t often make the assumption that a child is adopted unless they are a different race from their parents (and, even then, people are often wary of making that assumption for fear of offending). If a teacher doesn’t know a child’s parents, they may never know a child is adopted unless the child explains it themselves.
Therefore, it’s important that adoptive parents inform teachers of their child’s adoption story, to help make their classroom as adoption-friendly as possible. Teachers may consider sending home “get to know me” sheets to students’ parents to learn more about the children than what is offered in their school file.
When a teacher recognizes that one of their students is adopted, that will often inspire them to research ways teachers of young children can support adoptive families — to provide as welcoming an educational environment as possible.
2. Think About Adoption-Inclusive Activities.
Regardless of whether you as a teacher have an adoptee in your class, you should always take steps to make your classroom activities as inclusive as possible. Activities that lean on traditional family-building are not as widely applicable as they once were, because what works for one child may not work for another.
For example, consider the traditional family tree activity that many children complete. While this can be an easy activity for a child living with their genetic parents, it can be incredibly difficult for adoptees who have no connection to their birth family (as well as children born into estranged families). However, there’s a simple fix: Instead of focusing on genetic relationships with family trees, focus on familial relationships. Emphasizing love as the building block of family (not DNA) is one of the best ways teachers can support adoptive families and their children.
Similarly, any discussion about genetics can be confusing for adoptees who don’t know what their birth parents look like. While children in their classroom can easily compare genetic traits, an adoptee sometimes can’t. Teachers should consider moving the focus of these lessons from a child’s genetics to perhaps a more universal subject — like a classroom plant’s or a theoretical person’s genes.
If you are wondering how a teacher can support adoptive families (because you’re a teacher or a parent), consider alternatives to traditional assignments that emphasize the nuclear American family. Doing this will not only help students who are adopted, but those who are members of other non-traditional families.
3. Be Sensitive and Don’t Make Assumptions.
Finally, recognize that no two children’s adoption stories are the same. Adoption is a very unique experience, as children are adopted from all kinds of situations.
Do not hold an adoptee in your classroom as the “poster child” for adoption. Don’t assume that they are willing to answer any questions about their adoption, and don’t make their adoption story the focus of who they are.
On the same note, be sensitive of a child’s adoption background. For example, children adopted internationally may be unduly affected by lessons on immigration and on their home country. If a child is the only one of their race in the classroom, don’t use them as an example. Remember, like any other student, an adoptee always has a right to their privacy. It’s not necessary to call a student out for being adopted; their adoption story always belongs to them, and it should be up to them when (and if) they decide to share it with their peers. On the same note, don’t force a student to participate in an activity they don’t want to; change the curriculum to make it more inclusive for them.
To best identify ways that classroom teachers can supportive adoptive families and infants (as well as older adopted children), check out the “Adoption Basics for Educators” booklet from the Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association.
Remember: Whether you are an educator yourself, or a parent of an adoptee heading back to school, you should know all of the ways teachers can support adoptive families. Celebrating and understanding adoption is a responsibility that all of us share, and this is only one of the key ways to do so.
What do you think: How else can teachers support adoptive families? Give us your suggestions in the comments.