By Robin Hilborn, Family Helper editor

There are many issues your child will face when entering school … it's a time when adoptive parents wonder what they should do about helping their child feel comfortable and enjoy school. Some parents wonder if they should tell the teacher their child was adopted, others in a transracial adoption may wonder how much background to share about their child's culture, country and race.

Denying that there are issues related to your child's adoption will likely backfire—she needs to learn early at home that it's helpful to discuss these matters. Children need to find their own words at each developmental level to describe their unique emotional experience.

School is often the first time our children will meet people who don't have the same understanding of adoption as they've been exposed to with family and close friends. Their peer group, their teacher and other adults may have a very different understanding of adoption which perpetuates common social myths or outdated notions. The children need their parents to be vigilant to help make sure the discrepancies they encounter are dealt with in a way which supports their self esteem and shows a tolerance and understanding of racial and cultural differences. (See Help your child deal with racism.)

As well, children from challenging beginnings may have a hard time learning what is expected of them due to emerging learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder or fetal alcohol syndrome. Parents need to know what to expect from their child at specific grades and then be able to advocate for the resources to support their child in their learning. There must be a concerted effort to ensure each child will be encouraged to meet her potential, no matter the learning differences she may present the education system.

No one should discriminate against a child because of early institutionalization, but neither should all children be taught the same way. Teachers should not expect that all children with early deprivation will learn in the way other children who haven't experienced challenging beginnings will learn. (See What are learning disabilities?.) Adoptive parents must be aware of their child's abilities, both strengths and weaknesses, and be involved enough to know if the school's classroom setting and curriculum are meeting their child's learning needs.

You, as their parent, are the primary advocate for all these issues. (See Strategy for the parent advocate.) Your education, understanding and skills in teaching others will provide the effective solutions to your child's adoption-and-school-related situations. No one else knows your child the way you do, feels her emotions and has the life perspective of what's most important for her.


Let's look first at what some call adoptism. When a child says she was "adopted", an uninformed person's opinion of that child is likely to be based on stereotyped beliefs.

We define racism as a belief that race determines human capacities, and that one race is superior to another.

We define sexism as a belief that sexual differences make one sex superior to another, so that women are discriminated against, in favour of men.

Beth Hall and Gail Steinberg in their article "Racism and other 'isms" (Pact Press, Vol. 2, No. 1) define adoptism as "A belief that forming a family by birth is superior to forming a family by adoption. A belief that keeping a child with his/her biological parents, regardless of circumstance, is inherently better than placing a child for adoption. A belief that growing up as an adopted person is a primary determinant of human traits and capacities. A belief that differences in family building structures or methods produce an inherent superiority in families of that particular structure of method. It's prejudice or discrimination shown against members of the adoption triad."

They further describe how parents have been subjected to insensitive comments which disclose the hidden bias against adoption. The stereotype of the adoptee as the cast-off, the bad seed and second-best is often subtly or not so subtly expressed by the language others use in discussing adoptive families' circumstances and children. (See Teaching the language of adoption.)

Even some best-intentioned comments can be quite revealing in exposing just how the other person views adoption. For example: "How could you raise someone else's child?", "How could the birthmother love her baby and then give it away?", "What's wrong with the baby that the biological family would not keep it?" The language assumes birthparent ownership of the child and "first rights", even after adoption, and that there might be something wrong with the child.

Why does society in general have such a hard time accepting adoption as an equally valid way to form a family?

Just one possibility is that in order for all parents to accept adoption equally, they must admit that someone else could love and raise their own biological children just as well as they could, and this is so threatening that they, in defense, create the assumption of superiority and promote the cultural belief that all parents must keep and raise the children born to them.

Any adoptive parent who has tried to discuss adoption with someone who is not part of the adoption community will find many of these issues come out. It's important that parents of school-aged children be aware and ready to gently but assertively re-educate the school and the community their children will interact with. As Hall and Steinberg conclude, "Understanding where bias comes from takes away its power. Adoptism is alive and well everywhere. Let's do something about it!"

Communicating with the school

To tell, or not to tell? Parents have their reasons for not telling the teacher that their child joined the family by adoption. (See Should you tell the teacher?.)

Some want to protect their child from preconceived assumptions they feel the teacher may have about adopted children.

Others feel it's a privacy issue and keep all the information confidential, including early learning challenges.

Perhaps the question ought to be: what will work best for my child while also promoting a positive understanding of adoption?

If you know that the grade 2 curriculum, for example, includes a family tree section, take the opportunity to tell the teacher of your child's adoption and how the family tree assignment offers challenges. (See Biased class assignments.) She ought to appreciate your help in adapting any lessons dealing with family.

It can only help your child if you make yourself helpful to the school, and available whenever your child might need some extra support, understanding or advocacy.

Differences? Yes, they notice

When children enter primary school, at four to five years old, they've already started noticing others' differences. Most children, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, become aware of four differences—gender, race, ethnicity and physical ability—between the ages of two and five. Children can begin to notice differences as early as six months. They become sensitive to both the positive attitudes and negative biases that their families and society attach to those four key aspects of identity.

In the November 1998 edition of Post-adoption Helper, editor Jennifer Smart wrote about how her children noticed differences:

"Although parents may not want to believe that children are unaware of differences, personal experience certainly points to the opposite. My Korean-born son, when being adopted at six months of age, was terrified of my blue eyes, as I was the first Caucasian he had ever seen. The social worker warned me he would likely be afraid of my looks. He would slowly look up at my eyes during the first feedings and then turn away with a frightened look. He always gravitated to dark eyes and black haired children in his early years. Friends in our adoption support group have commented on how their young children aged 4-6, from Korea, Haiti, Guatemala and Peru, have compared skin colour and discussed it amongst themselves. I have seen it for myself between my daughter (blond, blue-eyed and fair-skinned) and my son (black-haired with black almond-shaped eyes) how they comment on each other's hair colour, skin colour, hair type and eyes."

Talking about people's differences is a preschool educational issue, but if children haven't been exposed to the diversity of races and cultures in preschool or in their neighbourhood settings then it will definitely become a point of discussion in kindergarten and the early grades. (See When birds don't flock together.)

Admittedly, exposure to diversity doesn't always come easy. Many of our northern and rural communities have little racial and cultural diversity, unlike the variety in the bigger cities of Canada.

Nevertheless, it makes a lot of sense to provide positive education early rather than having to deal with teasing and name calling later, in the school yard or on the bus.



The challenge of school for the adoptee
School issues your child will face
Help your child deal with racism
When birds don't flock together
Should you tell the teacher?
You can give an adoption talk
Language development is key

Learning disabilities

What are learning disabilities?
Detect learning disabilities early
Cope with your child's LD
Brodzinsky on learning disabilities
Do adoptees need special ed classes?
Are LDs inherited?

Special needs

Accept your child's special needs
FAS: Friendly school environments
Helping students with FAS
ADHD and the school system
Manage your ADHD child in school
Strategy for the parent advocate
You may reproduce this item with the credit:
"From Family Helper," ________________________________________
First published in Family Helper No. 45, "Adoption Goes To School", ISBN 0-9733470-4-X. Adapted in part from Post-adoption Helper No. 7, "Adoptive Parents' Guide to Your Child in Primary School", edited by Jennifer Smart.