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Stepping Back at School

As your child progresses through elementary school, she should take more responsibility for handling tricky assignments. Here's how to hand off the reins.

by Carrie Krueger

When our children are in middle school, we no longer zip their jackets or check their math homework. By that time, they should also be able to handle adoption-related school projects on their own. Getting them to that point involves our gradually stepping back during the grade school years.

Early Elementary

Possible assignments: Family is a major focus of the curriculum in kindergarten and first grade. Your child may be asked to write "All About Me," to draw pictures of his family, or to interview you about the day he was born. He may have a chance to be "Star of the Week," requiring him to talk about himself and his family. When my daughter was five, her turn as classroom star unexpectedly became a discussion of adoption when another student asked, "Where's your father?"

Your role: Parents of young grade-schoolers can take the lead by talking with the teacher or school staff about adoption sensitivity. Offer yourself as a resource about adoption for the school staff, provide adoption materials to the school library, or read a book about adoption to the class. Suggest alternatives to, or ways to widen the scope of, assignments that could cause problems for your child or other students in the class.

When your child is faced with a sticky assignment (which may come despite an initial talk with the teacher), suggest ways to adapt it. When your child is Star of the Week, assure her that she can talk about her hobbies, family pets, where you went on your summer vacation, and so on, rather than explain her past or family life. Some kids this age are comfortable talking about adoption at school, but let her know she doesn’t have to.

At ages five to six, most children welcome their moms in the classroom. They're happy for you to bring in a storybook about adoption, or share a cultural celebration, and are generally pleased to be the center of attention. If you’re thinking of making an adoption presentation in the classroom, now is the time to do it (as long as you have your child's permission). You might also offer to accompany your child during her turn as Star of the Week.

Later Elementary

Possible assignments: In the third through fifth grades, students are often asked to create family trees and autobiographical timelines, assignments that ask for information that she may not have. Her story may be very different from her friends'. At about the same time, children are beginning to understand the families and cultures they left behind in more complex ways.

Your role: When children this age come home with a problematic assignment, parents should resist the temptation to rush in and demand that it be dropped. Instead, ask your child if she would like you to intervene on her behalf or to help her complete it. Some children are troubled by such assignments; others merely want help getting the project done. Some kids prefer parental intervention; others would do anything to avoid it!

This is an opportunity to explore feelings of differences and belonging with your child. Acknowledge how difficult or sad or private the requested information is. You might say, "This is hard. I wish we knew more about your birth family."

If your child would like your help with the assignment, sit down together to brainstorm ways to complete it. For example, if it's a fill-in-the-blank family tree template, you and your child might come up with options that include: attaching a separate page with your child’s birth family in the tree’s "roots"; filling in separate sheets for your child's adoptive and birth families; filling in the sheet as handed out, including information only about your family. Let your child make the call. As he gains confidence in adapting class projects, his modifications may become involved and innovative, and earn him kudos for creativity.

If you'll be speaking with the teacher, whether to request alternatives or to explain a modification your child made, encourage your child to accompany you. If your child is in fifth grade, you may want to insist that he do so, and that he do some of the talking. At this age, some kids want to speak with the teacher by themselves.

Beyond Grade School

During the middle-school years, you'll complete the transition to behind-the-scenes support. Inquire frequently about how school is going, and watch for signs that say "it's hard." Some children this age still aren’t ready to take a stand against the teacher. If your child requests your help, it's OK to agree. The important thing is to make sure your child is prepared and that he knows his options.

Once you've handed over the reins, there will be triumphs to celebrate when your teen confronts a teacher or reshapes an assignment. And there may be tense moments when your child insists on flying alone. But if we teach our kids to express themselves in the face of challenge, the time will come when all that's left for us is to step back and watch them blossom into confident students—and adults—who can handle whatever comes their way.

At a Glance: Problematic Assignments and Your Role

Kindergarten-First Grade

  • Possible Assignments: Bring in a baby picture; Star of the Week; "All About Me" essay or poster
  • A Parent Might... Meet with the teacher before school begins to explain adoption. Ask for a list of units the class will cover. If it seems that adoption could come into play, talk with her about alternatives for adapting certain assignments. Ask your child if she'd like you to come to school to make an adoption presentation or read a story. Role-play adoption questions and answers with her.

Second-Third Grades

  • Possible Assignments: Personal timeline; "The Day I Was Born" essay/interview; heritage exploration
  • A Parent Might... Brainstorm possible solutions with your child if she brings home a difficult assignment. You can offer some possibilities, but solicit options from her. Let her decide what to do. Offer to speak with or write a note to the teacher, and encourage her to come with you to the meeting.

Fourth-Fifth Grades

  • Possible Assignments: The Family Tree; personal timeline; heritage exploration
  • A Parent Might...Let your child see that you understand the problem, but charge her to come up with the solution. You can say, "This family tree project is tough. The last time you had an assignment that asked for similar information, you did _____. What would you like to do this time?" Encourage her to speak with the teacher on her own, role-playing what she'll say, but be willing to write a note to or speak with the teacher if she asks. At this age, a child may prefer to turn in an adapted assignment without an explanation.

Carrie Krueger lives in Washington with her three children.

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