Social Worker: Adoption: The Elementary School Years

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First grade is when "real school" begins. Six-year-olds now have reached the age when they are required to sit still, pay attention and learn to read and write. During these years, they will gain a new sense of independence as they ride to school on the bus alone and negotiate the cafeteria. Special consideration will be needed when it comes to certain class assignments, because children at this age are still concrete thinkers. Your experience with preschool teachers may help you and your child decide whether to share adoption information with appropriate elementary school personnel. Even though, children in elementary school often feel they are old enough to decide for themselves whether to tell their classmates about their adoption. However, there are two schools of thought on whether ‘to tell or not to tell’. Some professionals and adoptive parents think it is unwise to share adoption information with school staff for fear that teachers will blame all problems on the adoption, or cause their child to be made fun of. Others say that parents cannot expect teachers to become more sensitive to adoption issues or use positive adoption language if parents are not willing to share openly their own positive feelings about adoption. With that said, children must be taught that once they do tell, they will not be able to "take it back."

The parent of a newly adopted school age child, either from the foster care system or internationally, almost has to share the child's adoption with school personnel. This way, the teacher will have a better understanding of the child and will be able to plan useful interventions together with the parent. The teacher needs to know just enough relevant background history so that he or she can understand some of the reasons for the child's current functioning in the classroom. For example, the child may be experiencing attachment, separation or socialization issues, in addition to educational delays.

At this age, adopted children begin to be able to grasp the meaning of adoption. This may include loss and abandonment issues, fantasizing about birthparents, in addition to recognizing that people will have different reactions to adoption. Children may find it difficult to pay attention in class because there is a preoccupation with this or there may possibly be a learning issue. An older internationally adopted child will most likely need ESL/ LEP (limited English proficiency) services. Once it is established that language is not the issue, you and school personnel must work together to determine if there is a learning disability or emotional issues that are preventing the child from learning. If you think your child will need services not normally provided in the regular classroom, you will need to advocate for them.

By fifth grade, in many elementary schools, there may be school assignments that need your special attention. Students are often asked to complete the ‘family tree’ assignment or to ‘adopt- a’-whale/ rainforest. This is a natural opportunity to talk about adoption with your child. You can help ease any possible uncomfortable feelings that your child may have about these assignments by talking with the teacher about the child's adoption ahead of time. You may choose to include birth family members as the roots of the family tree or not include them at all. The choice is yours. What a teacher may think is an innocent sounding project to ‘adopt-a …’, may have negative effects on adopted children of this age, who are still concrete thinkers. An elementary school age child may conclude that all you have to do to adopt is pay money and that it is renewable every year to keep them. This of course is not the case. The phrase ‘adopt-a’ is problematic and maybe can be changed to ‘sponsor- a …’ to help alleviate any confusion.

There are many varieties of families. Children nowadays can live with adoptive parents, divorced, single, grandparents, or two parents of the same gender. Most teachers in this day and age are aware of these differences. You might suggest to the teacher to emphasize to the class that while families may look different on the outside, on the inside they are all the same. Each has people who care for them and all love one another. Hopefully, if handled in this way, these assignments should be a self-esteem building activity for your child and all the other students as well.

Remember that adoption is forever.

by Leslie Zindulka, LCSW-R

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The information and advice provided is intended to be general information, NOT as advice on how to deal with a particular child's situation and or problem. If your child has a specific problem you need to ask your pediatrician about it - only after a careful history and physical exam can a medical diagnosis and/or treatment plan be made. This Web site does not constitute a physician-patient relationship.

This material has been provided by, an innovative adoption medicine private practice and educational service, dedicated to helping parents and adoption agencies with the complex pre-adoption medical issues of internationally adopted children. All medical interactions are performed via, e-mail, express mail, telephone, and fax. There is no need to make a live appointment or travel outside of your hometown. For more information, visit or call 631-499-4114.

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