How to talk to teachers about adoption issues

As the school year is starting, many adoptive parents may be contemplating having a talk with their child’s new teacher about any adoption-related issues that may arise. I’ve done this myself and thought that I would share some of the segments of letters I’ve written in previous years to address adoption, the complexity of “family tree” or ancestral assignments for adoptees, and race conversations in class. I have personally found it helpful to be proactive in any potential issues. If it turns out issues don’t arise, there is no harm in bringing it up, but it’s nice to try to prevent them. I’ve also found that teachers tend to be appreciative of more feedback about their students, and I’ve tried hard to communicate my trust in the teacher, offering myself as a resource at each turn. Here are some templates that may help if you are writing your own letter:

ON TRANSRACIAL ADOPTION

I wanted to give you a bit of a heads-up about our family. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, my child was adopted. At this age, we’ve found kids tend to be a bit curious about why our skin color doesn’t match. We’re very open about the fact that our family was formed through adoption, but we’ve also tried to empower our kids to have boundaries around sharing details regarding why they didn’t stay in their birth family, if they don’t feel like giving up that personal information. Some of those losses are sad for him. We’ve also empowered him to avoid terms like “real mom” since we very much feel like we are a “real” family. I know that kids are naturally curious and we’ve found that honest but brief answers work well in case you ever observe these questions occurring in the classroom.

If it’s of interest, we are always happy to come and share about adoption with the class. We have some great books and could take questions from the class. My husband and I are both family therapists so we are very comfortable talking to kids and enjoy helping others understand the unique way our family was formed.

ON EARLY LIFE

I also wanted to let you know that my child spent a part of his life in an orphanage, and did not join our family until he was almost 4. The fact that he missed out on those years as a part of our family is a loss for him that creates some sadness. I know that sometimes classes do assignments about ancestors, family trees, or what a child’s life was like as a baby. If you wouldn’t mind giving a heads-up if you do an assignment like that, maybe we could brain-storm about how to tweak it for my child so it doesn’t make him feel alienated or different.

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(Check out this incredible adoptive family tree assignment at Never a Dull Moment)

 

ON ATTACHMENT BEHAVIORS
(from this post)

I wanted to discuss a few patterns we have observed in our child that are common in children who lived in group settings early in life. At a young age, my child learned that there were two ways to get his needs met: to be the loudest/bossiest/controlling, or to be the most hurt/helpless/needy.  Even though he now has attentive parents, he still struggles with defaulting to these behaviors for attention at times.  The result is that he can be very dramatic at times, or he can use behaviors to try to control a situation (anything from pretending to be hurt to walking slowly on purpose).  He does best when adults are able to maintain their authority – oddly, while he craves special attention and seemingly wants to be in charge, when an adult relinquishes control to him, it makes him feel unsafe and then his behaviors will get worse and worse. While he spends a lot of energy trying to take the reigns back from adults, he is very anxious when he is able to. It’s a strange dynamic, but I wanted to point it out.  He did very well in school last year, because his teacher was firm and impervious to his attention-seeking behaviors so he quickly stopped trying. However, over the summer he was at a day camp with younger teachers who were more passive, and his behavior deteriorated pretty quickly.

All that being said, he is always a very sweet and loving kid.  I haven’t observed him to be aggressive or mean-spirited, and does very well socially. His issues tend to be with authority figures more than his peers, and tend to revolve around testing limits and seeing how much he can get an adult to give him attention. He responds well to affirmation but also to natural consequences and positive reinforcement. He likes working on a goal and being reminded that he is capable. We do a star chart here at home for behavior and when we are consistent, his behavior is much better. He has a great desire to be a leader, so setting him up to lead by example is a great intervention as well. I am hopeful that he won’t have any behavioral challenges in the classroom this year, but I did want to give you a heads up just in case any of this cropped up. We are always available to talk about any concerns that crop up.

These are some of the aspects of adoption we’ve felt warranted some discussion with teachers. If you have adopted children, have you felt the need to communicate anything at the beginning of the year?

The Myth of the Colorblind Kid

DEF: xenophopbia [zen-uh-foh-bee-uh] noun : a fear of that which is unknown, typically used to describe general dislike of people different from oneself.

I used to like the idea that kids are colorblind. I love the vision of American being this great melting pot where kids of every race play together in perfect harmony. I think we are getting there. But as my kids are getting older, I’ve begun to realize that children do, in fact, notice race. I’ve even had the sinking feeling as I’ve observed playground interactions that Jafta is sometimes excluded because he looks different. When he is with his long-time friends who know him well, this is not the case. But when he is the new kids on the playground, kids are very wary of playing with him, where they may be more welcoming of another white child. He had a really difficult time with being left out at his very vanilla preschool at first, and I think this was a factor, too.

I thought I was just being paranoid until I started doing some research on it. A simple seach on race and exclusion yielded dozens of recent studies on the impact of race in preschool and elementary school. The findings were scary: race is one of the biggest factors in children being left out by their peers. It’s as impactful as gender, physical differences, and even cognitive ability.

I’m not sure why I was so naive to think my own kids didn’t notice these differences. I feel like I have done a good job of exposing my kids to lots of cultural diversity. But they let me know in subtle ways. I was mortified when my son pointed to a Mexican man who was bagging our groceries and asked what that gardener was doing. He also yells “hey neighbor” to any woman he sees wearing a head covering, because there is a Muslim woman who lives across the street. And my daughter? At only 18 months old, she displayed her observation of racial differences. We attend a gospel choir rehearsal at an African American church, and my daughter begins enthusiastically singing one of the songs every time she sees a group of Black people. Um, awkward!

The truth is, at the age that most children begin to notice gender differences, they also begin to notice race. I think many of us are unaware of this, because it can be subject we inadvertently avoid. We want our kids to be “colorblind”, so we pretend not to notice differences and encourage them do to the same. But in doing so, we might miss some important conversations. (Like pointing out that not ALL Mexicans are gardeners). If we avoid the subject, we leave our kids to their own assumptions that are often based on a lack of exposure.

I have a few friends who decided to broach the subject of race with their children, and they were shocked at what they found. One child expressed how glad she was that her skin was light because lighter was prettier. Another child said, point-blank, that he didn’t like kids with brown skin. Another parent decided to just observe her son at their next park outing. She watched her child allow a white child into the circle to share sand toys, but tell a Mexican child he had to play elsewhere.

Now, let me point out that these are not bad, abnormal, or cruel kids. These are sweet kids from amazing families, just expressing a typical (albeit flawed) developmental preference for similarity. A child who is wary of children who look different is not a racist in the making, any more than a child who wants to play with kids of their own gender is a budding sexist. These are normal developmental stages. However, like many “normal” childhood traits (impulsivity, selfishness, etc), this brand of xenophobia may need some gentle guidance and education from parents.

So what’s a parent to do? Here are a few things we’ve been trying at my house:

1. Take an inventory of your home’s diversity. Are your toys sending a subtle message? Make it a point to buy dolls and action figures of every race. Watch how your kids react.

2. Be intentional in showing your children positive examples of other races in the media they watch. Some great examples are Go, Diego, Go!, Little Bill, Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, Dora the Explorer, and Cooking for Kids with Luis.

3. Take inventory of your own racial biases. Be careful with the language you use around your children. Avoid making stereotypical statements or racial jokes in front of your children. (or better yet, don’t do it at all).

4. Look for opportunities to immerse your family in other cultures. Try to find situations where your family is the minority. This is a great stretching and empathy building opportunity for you and your kids. Try attending a minority church event or a cultural festival. Again, observe your child’s reactions and open a dialogue about how that feels.

5. Read books that depict children from other races and countries. Some of our favorites are We’re Different, We’re the Same, The Colors of Us , and Whoever You Are (Reading Rainbow Book) . For an incredible list of multi-cultural children’s books, check out Shades of Love at Shelfari.com.

6. Just observe. Watch how your children plays with children who are different, whether it be skin color, gender, disability, or physical differences. Talk about it. Let your child know that you are a safe person to process their feelings and reactions with, while at the same time guiding them to accept children with differences.

7. Lead by example. Widen your circle of friends and acquaintances to include people from different backgrounds, cultures and experiences.