As the first weeks of school approach, students and teachers will take this time to get to know each other through ice-breaker activities, personal show-and-tells and other “about me” lessons. While this can be exciting for most students, it can present difficulties for students who have been adopted and can’t answer all of the “about me” questions they’re asked.
That’s why it’s important that teachers, students (adopted or not) and their parents take steps to recognize adoption in the classroom and help make adoptees feel more included. Being adopted is enough to make an adoptee feel different, but when it’s not properly and positively addressed in the classroom, a child can feel even more isolated from their peers.
Whether your child is headed off to school or you’re a teacher preparing for your new class, here are some tips for keeping adoption in mind throughout the school year:
Address a Child’s Adoption Early On
It’s important that teachers know if a student’s family structure differs from what they may expect as the “traditional” family — whether that’s through adoption, a divorce, a single-parent or same-sex household or something else. The more a teacher knows about their students’ backgrounds, the easier it will be to include them in relevant discussions without inadvertently addressing sensitive subjects. Teachers should take the extra effort to learn about these differences from the students’ parents or, if appropriate, the student themselves as early as possible.
Parents should also take initiative to explain their child’s adoption to their teacher early on, as well as any educational topics that may make the child uncomfortable.
Make Activities Adoption-Inclusive
We’ve all completed the traditional “family tree” project in elementary school. But what’s an easy process for a biological child can be near impossible for an adoptee that doesn’t have extensive information on their biological family. They may be able to make a family tree for their adoptive family, but because many of these activities heavily emphasize genetic relationships, it can be a distressing assignment.
Family trees aren’t the only problematic activity for adopted children; personal timelines of their life, collections of baby photos and family photos and even history lessons on immigration (for internationally adopted children) can cause confusion and feelings of being different. While these activities don’t necessarily have to be scrapped from the lesson plan, teachers can take steps to make them more inclusive of different family structures:
- Instead of a family “tree,” create family “forests” that allow for multiple family structures to be used. This allows adoptees to create family trees for birth and adoptive parents, or place themselves as the root of a tree with multiple branches and trunks. This can also be a useful tool for children whose parents are divorced.
- In immigration and history lessons, teachers should be sensitive of an adopted child’s background, especially if they are the only person of their race in the classroom. Teachers should also take extra effort to make sure these lessons aren’t discriminatory towards immigrants. Never force adopted children to participate in immigration discussions about their country, and remember that adoptees have multiple families who may have immigrated to the United States at various times in history.
- Genetics lessons can be confusing for children who don’t know what their birth parents look like. It can also bring up questions from their peers who want to know why the adoptee doesn’t look like their parents. Any discussion of genetics should be accompanied by a conversation that not all families are created genetically — and that’s perfectly normal and beautiful.
- Allow students their privacy. If a student does not wish to participate in an activity, don’t exclude them from it; try to change the curriculum around them so they don’t feel isolated. Emphasize that no child has to answer questions for a certain activity that they don’t know the answer to or don’t feel comfortable discussing.
For more tips for educators on how to make adoption a normal part of your classroom, check out the “Adoption Basics for Educators” booklet from the Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association and the Children’s Bureau list of resources for teachers. Remember: These tips should not just be for teachers with adoptees in their class but for all educators in general.
Adoption is a common part of American families’ lives today, so it only makes sense that it should be a common part of everyday curriculum in children’s schools. Adoptive parents should always address these topics with their child’s teacher early on and research other tips to make their child’s educational experience as inclusive and as positive as possible.