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A Teachers Guide to Adoption

Biased class assignments - and how to fix them
Try this test. Put yourself in grade 2 ... how would you "draw your family tree" or "write down your family origins" or "relate shared memories of times spent with grandparents", if you were:
* A child of divorced parents, living with a parent and a step parent.
* A foster child, with biological parents and a series of foster parents.
* A child adopted from an orphanage in China.
Some children will find it tough to do class assignments because their families are a lot more complicated than mom-dad-and-two-kids. That's not the kids' fault -- it's the teaching system which is biased toward traditional views and insensitive to the complexity of family life (see Module 1, Many Ways to Make a Family).
Teachers who base assignments on the traditional family are harming students who don't fit the traditional mould -- those kids are going to feel out of place, even excluded.
Does your ministry of education trumpet the importance of an "inclusive curriculum"? Then the curriculum must include the experience of all children, not just those from traditional families.
You can make lessons inclusive without sacrificing the educational goal. The general solution is to broaden lesson plans to include everyone. But exactly how do you do that? Here are specific examples of how to fix the bias in class assignments.
"Draw your family tree"
The bias: The usual printed family tree has blanks for one mother and one father and their ancestors, but no space for foster, adoptive or step parents and their ancestors. How can a child leave out part of the family? This can be a real source of inner turmoil.
The fix: Since some children have grown on two or more trees, redraw the standard family tree diagram to accommodate the diversity in family structure. Try the Rooted Tree: birth ancestors are roots growing downward; branches show foster, adoptive or step parents and their ancestors. Other improvements are the Family Bush, Orchard, or Forest, with family members growing side by side. The Loving Tree has the child in the trunk and heart-shaped fruit representing all the family members the child knows of, without regard to time or place.
Or abandon the tree metaphor and try the Self Wheel (child at the centre, relatives surround in nested circles), or My Home (house frame with people inside), or a genealogical chart with symbols for people and lines showing relationships. Children could brainstorm a list of different family types. Offer them a variety of "trees", or let them invent their own diagram.
In a creative art project, students could portray their family and what it means to them, in drawing, painting, colouring or sculpture, then use the finished art to discuss the different ways families are formed. Point out that, worldwide, few children grow up in nuclear families. Cover extended, foster, adoptive, step and single-parent families.
You don't need to avoid the family tree assignment -- it's an opportunity for a lesson in the varieties of family structure (see Module 1, Many Ways to Make a Family).
"Bring in your baby picture"
The bias: Asking for baby photos excludes those who may not have any -- for example, some foster, adopted or immigrant children. They are going to feel left out. If the object is to match the photo with the child today, children who are a visible minority are eliminated early from the fun.
The fix: Reach the same educational goal, for everyone in the class, by broadening the assignment. To illustrate growth and change, bring a picture when the child was younger or smaller, or follow the growth of a baby chick after hatching. To describe a child, bring in something else which tells us more about her -- a book, a trophy, a pet. To test reasoning ability (guess who this is?), bring a picture of someone we all know; or, describe someone with three clues, adding one at a time until someone guesses correctly.
"Write the story of your life"
The bias: Writing a life story or family history is possible only for children who know their family roots. Children adopted from abroad may know nothing of their previous life. A child of a bitter divorce, or a child abused in a series of foster homes, faces a conflict: screen out painful memories, or be honest?
The fix: Exercise those writing skills with less painful alternatives: write a biography of a historical figure in the first person; write about an event in your life; recount a favourite experience in school.
"Tell the story of your family"
The bias: The goal may be to build self-esteem. This could backfire for a foster or adopted child who feels more and more different from the others as she hears her classmates' family stories.
The fix: Let students tell their story by bringing in pets, sports uniforms, hobbies.
"Celebrate your mother or father"
The bias: A Mother's Day or Father's Day project could be difficult for children with single, divorced or widowed parents, or two sets of parents.
The fix: Broaden the project to honour any woman or man the child knows. Celebrate Family Day to honour people who take care of you. Celebrate Caring Day with themes like "thanking someone who cares for us" or "expressing concern for others". Make gifts or cards for someone the child cares about.
"Trace the genetic origins of your eye colour"
The bias: This assumes children are genetically related to their parents or know the genetic facts of their birth parents. Children who don't have this information can't do an assignment on inherited traits, and are made to feel different. It stresses biological connections, when some children might not have any connections with their birth parents.
The fix: Teach genetics with less personal examples.
With input from Adoption and the Schools: Resources for Parents and Teachers, by FAIR, Families Adopting in Response, Box 51436, Palo Alto CA 94303, 650-856-3513, info@fairfamilies.org, www.fairfamilies.org.
As a teacher, you need to get comfortable with the language of adoption. You have to be ready for children (and adults) who use inappropriate language ... the ones who ask questions like "Why did her mother give her away?" or "Who is her real mother?"
The joyful side of adoption is tempered by the fact that adoption involves loss. Adoptees live with the painful fact that their birthparents could not (or would not) care for them. It is hard to speak of these things to very young children. Yet, as significant adults in a child's life, teachers must at times enter the child's world to help her cope with difficult feelings and to feel positive about who she is.
The language we use is important, since the way we speak of sensitive topics models confidence and courage on the one hand, or shame and fear on the other ...
It's not a disability
You can join a family by way of birth or by adoption. The fact of adoption says nothing about an adopted child herself ... adoption is a way of arriving in a family, not a medical condition or a disability. It's a one-time event, so you would say "Maria was adopted", not "Maria is adopted."
Birth or adoption: either way of joining a family is perfectly acceptable. Adoption builds healthy, happy families -- parent and child are linked by law and by love.
Sometimes it's not relevant
In the world at large it's usually not relevant to refer to a child as an "adopted child". A news report, for example, should use "adopted" ("Sean's adopted child ... ") only to distinguish from a child by birth, if that is relevant to the story. Mentioning the fact of a child's adoption when it is irrelevant implies there is something wrong with the lack of a blood connection.
In the school setting -- talking about family, for example -- the topic of adoption naturally arises, and fits right into classroom discussion.
It's no secret
Terms with a negative connotation often stem from the secrecy that used to surround adoption, but no longer does. When people use the emotion-laden and negative words of the past ("give away" a child, "unwed mother") they create conflict and diminish self-esteem in adopted children.
Avoid terms like "real" or "natural" mother, which imply the existence of an "unreal" or "unnatural" mother. Similarly, prefer "birth father", not "natural father". However, usage does vary; some advocates promote the terms "natural mother" (Canadian Council of Natural Mothers) and "first mother".
Here are some terms people will unthinkingly use, and the preferred term.

Watch your language
Avoid this
Prefer this
Real parent
Birthparent, biological parent (birthfather, birthmother, birthdad, birthmum)
Are there "imaginary" parents? Adoptive parents are just as real as biological parents.
Natural parent
Birthparent; biological mother; woman who gave birth
Lack of a blood link does not make an adoptive parent less of a parent.
Natural child
Birth child, biological child
Ditto. And are there "artificial" children?
Your own child (vs. an adopted child)
Birth child, biological child
All your children are your own, adopted or not. Genetic relationships are not stronger than adoptive ones.
Born to unmarried parents
Circumstances of birth should not stigmatize a child.
Unwed mother
Birthmother, birthmum
"Unwed" or "unmarried" is a moral judgment.
Give up, give away, surrender, relinquish, adopt out, put up for adoption
Place for adoption, or (better) choose adoption, make an adoption plan
Birthmothers love their children but can't raise them. They choose what is best for their child and stay in touch with them after the adoption ("open adoption").
Keep the baby
Parent the baby
"She decided to parent the baby rather than choose adoption."
Foreign adoption
International, intercountry adoption
Some say "foreign" has negative connotations.
Hard-to-place child
Special needs child
Less damaging to the child's self-esteem.
Adopt-a-road, adopt-a-park, etc.
Sponsor-a-park, befriend-a-park
"Adopt-a-" programs misuse "adopt" as a marketing ploy to raise money. They deform the meaning of adoption and diminish its worth.
Speaking Positively: An Information Sheet about Adoption Language and Adopt-a-Confusion, by Pat Johnston, Perspectives Press, Box 90318, Indianapolis IN 46290-0318, 317-872-3055, www.perspectivespress.com

How to introduce adoption in elementary school
As an elementary school teacher, you nurture your students' growth. Bringing adoption into the classroom and treating it as one of many possible life experiences will benefit both adopted children and their classmates.
It would be wise to assume you do have adopted children in your class and to prepare for adoption questions when they arise.
Here are some ways to include adoption in everyday teaching situations.
When you talk about babies and families, use the words adoption or adopted occasionally. Read stories which mention adoption. According to the interests of the children, you might start a role-play game about going to the airport to meet a brother or sister adopted from abroad, or preparing the house for the arrival of an adopted child.
Early elementary
In discussing types of families, don't forget non-traditional families (see Module 1, Many Ways to Make a Family), including adoptive families. If a student has a baby born into his family, mention that some children join their families through adoption. This may prompt a child to say, "I was adopted" and you can extend the discussion. Note that a child's adoption story is her personal story, for her to tell, or not, as she wishes.
Watch the language you use. There is no such thing as a "natural" mother (or an "unnatural" one!). You should say birth mother (or birth mum) and adoptive mother (see Module 4, Teaching the Language of Adoption).
If a student's family are adopting a child, it's a prime opportunity to talk about the process and the happiness involved in the child's arrival.
Another opportunity is November, National Adoption Month. Display artwork from a family tree project. Consider discussing adoption, reading an adoption story or inviting an adopted adult or adoptive parent to visit the class. Children at this age may feel comfortable sharing their adoption story with their parent present.
You will have to judge, if possible, how receptive the class might be to a child's adoption story. Guard against the child becoming the object of teasing and handle it as you would any teasing.
A variety of books for reading to the class are available (see Module 9, Adoption Resources). Some make adoption the main theme; others treat it simply in passing.
Later elementary
During these years, and in secondary school, students want to fit in, to be like everyone else. Adopted children are aware they are in the minority, that most kids are brought up by the parents who gave birth to them. They are unlikely to want to give adoption presentations or be singled out.
The family tree assignment (see Module 3, Biased Class Assignments) could offer the adopted child a chance to deepen her understanding of the place of adoption in her life.
With input from the FAIR Manual, Vol. 1

Notes about Elora’s adoption
Elora was adopted from Wenzhou, China at the age of 18 months.  She previously lived in an orphanage.  She had a nanny who cared for her and 10 other babies; Elora sometimes refers to her as Nanny or Mama.  We have contact with Nanny and a good long distance relationship with her.  Elora has an amazing memory and remembers quite a bit of her orphanage time.  She also has behaviours and anxiety surrounding that time.  Lack of adequate amounts of food and nurturing lead Elora to come to us with the development of a 6 month old, but she quickly caught up and thrived and you will find she is mostly age appropriate now.  However she is still triggered by things that revolve around food and adult attention.  She is a warrior and learned from an early age how to ensure her own survival.  You will find her to be very stressed when hungry and also that food is something she seeks to self sooth.  Likewise she is very focused on acquiring the love and attention of all adults in her life.  In the orphanage being the favorite of the room ensured your survival.  She tends to find other peers to be a threat to her at times in securing these two vital resources, we are continually trying to encourage her to develop better, more meaningful peer relationships.
Orphanage life was lacking stimulation and paired with her visual needs she developed some amount of sensory processing disorder. 

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), exists when sensory signals are either not detected or don't get organized into appropriate responses. Pioneering occupational therapist, educational psychologist, and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, PhD, likened SPD to a neurological "traffic jam" that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly. A person with SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses, which creates challenges in performing countless everyday tasks. Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school failure, and many other problems may impact those who do not have effective treatment.

 SPD in School Age Children presents in these ways:

·        Child is overly sensitive to stimulation, overreacts to or does not like touch, noise, smells, etc.
·        Child is easily distracted in the classroom, often out of his/her seat, fidgety.
·        Child is easily overwhelmed at the playground, during recess and in class.
·        Child is slow to perform tasks.
·        Child has difficulty performing or avoids fine motor tasks such as handwriting.
·        Child appears clumsy and stumbles often, slouches in chair.
·        Child craves rough housing, tackling/wrestling games.
·        Child lacks special reasoning and the understanding of personal space
·        Child will hurt themselves and others by touching too firmly or running into others and objects
·        Child is slow to learn new activities.
·        Child is in constant motion.
·        Child has difficulty learning new motor tasks and prefers sedentary activities.
·        Child has difficulty making friends (overly aggressive or passive/ withdrawn).
·        Child ‘gets stuck' on tasks and has difficulty changing to another task.
·        Child confuses similar sounding words, misinterprets questions or requests.
·        Child has difficulty reading, especially aloud.
·        Child stumbles over words; speech lacks fluency, and rhythm is hesitant.

We find the best thing for Elora is routines, structure and when her SPD gets really aggravated a chance to leave the room and find some sensory deprivation (quiet, dim lights). And also what is often referred to as “heavy work”, give her a task that requires her to use her energy and strength to positive use.  For example: lift all the chairs onto the desks to help the cleaning staff, carry in the groceries.  Trampolines and anything that involves rocking or bouncing have also been effective for us.
Adoption is a very joyous time for us, her parents but from Elora’s perspective it was a time of profound loss.  She has lots of sadness about the loss of her birth parents and Nanny.  She is often triggered by changes in routine and having new people in her life as well as saying goodbye to people.  These changes create a high level of anxiety for her.  Her birthday, adoption day, Mother’s day and other holidays have also been triggers in the past.  Elora knows her own adoption story but we prefer to keep most of the details private, although it is her story and she may choose to share it with you or other children in the class.  The information we have shared here is sensitive and of course confidential, we only hope to help you to better understand the roots of many of her behaviours so that you can appreciate her truly.  She is our hero, a survivor and a true miracle. J