Adopted children, like all other children, spend a good portion of their daily hours in school. When your child has a problem at school, you might find yourself wonder if this problem is related to adoption.
Adoption can impact children at school in two ways: educationally and socially. If a child is grieving for or fantasizing about birth family to the point where it affects his or her ability to concentrate and learn, that is an educational effect. If a child is teased on the playground by classmates who say that he or she must be bad because his or her "real" parents gave him or her away, that is a social effect.
Preschool/Kindergarten: Children who are 3 or 4 years old and were adopted as infants or toddlers hardly ever show any adoption-related adjustment problems. They do not fully understand reproduction yet so they cannot truly understand what adoption means. Preschool children generally do not have prejudices, but they are aware of differences in physical appearance and might need help understanding that (especially if they are a different race than their family members and classmates). Kindergartners do have some understanding of reproduction, although they are probably more interested in how babies are born than rather than how they are conceived. A detailed discussion of reproduction would not be appropriate but you could say that every baby grows inside a woman and that after the baby is born, the child may live with the woman who gave birth to him, or he may live with other parents.
Elementary School: During the elementary school years adopted children will start to grasp the fuller meaning of their adoption, including the loss and abandonment issues that may be associated with it. They may spend time fantasizing about their birthparents and wondering what they are like. They may feel that they were placed for adoption because they were not good, pretty, or smart enough to be kept. Children may then find it hard to pay attention in class, even if they do not have learning disabilities.
Children in elementary school are old enough to decide for themselves whether to tell their classmates about their adoption. However, they must know that that once they tell, they will not be able to "take it back." You must also help your child realize that people will have different reactions to this.
A child who is newly adopted from the foster care system will have some of the same school issues as a child who was adopted as an infant. He or she will be dealing with the grief and loss that all children living away from their birthparents deal with. However, the child may also have some other difficulties. If he or she experienced abuse or neglect and more than one caretaker, the child may not have received the emotional nurturing that was needed at a younger age. Interruptions in attachment, early deprivations, cultural differences, and moves can cause a child to act younger than his or her actual age. He or she may not be able to learn as fast as other children and yet, if he or she is physically the same size as his or her other classmates, he or she will be expected to perform at the same level as everyone else. These negative experiences may also cause a child to have low self-esteem, problems with authority, difficulties in getting along with other children, depression, or antisocial behavior, such as lying, stealing, or disrupting class. The parent of a child adopted from the foster care system almost has to discuss the child's adoption with school personnel, so that they will understand these background factors and be able to plan useful interventions together with the adoptive family.
Junior High and High School: Once your child reaches the teenage years adoption discussions in school can be more sophisticated. Teenagers know how babies are conceived, and can understand why someone might not be able to care for a baby after it is born. They can also understand the concepts of child abuse and neglect, and that society has an obligation to protect children and provide a safe and secure environment for them. Still, adopted teens may not have worked through their feelings about adoption. Since they have more understanding, and because this is a time when sexuality and identity issues surface, their adoptive status may cause them to feel even more embarrassed or rejected than when they were younger.