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Becoming an Advocate at School

There’s nothing like a school’s insensitivity to adoption to turn a quiet mom into a bold Jean Sommerville

Before becoming an adoptive parent, I had never written a letter to the editor of a magazine nor joined in advocacy for any cause in a strong, personal way. But when the choice my husband and I had made for adoption was questioned—and my own children were affected—I was driven to action.

In February 1998, we arrived home from Russia with our son, James Kolya, then four, and our daughter, Emma Vika, just over 21 months. By the time we enrolled our son in preschool, a few months later, I already had been questioned by a neighbor—as I pushed my daughter in her stroller—“Do you know anything about their real parents?” I mistakenly assumed that education professionals would use more appropriate language. But a teacher at my son’s school asked the very same question. I was stunned by how frequently it happened.

The following year I attended a seminar presented by The Center for Adoption Support and Education (C.A.S.E.), in Silver Spring, Maryland. I was delighted to learn that C.A.S.E. offers adoption programs for teachers addressing children’s adoption understanding at different ages, how to present adoption positively, and how to adjust assignments to reflect differing family make-up. I assumed the schools and preschools in my community would welcome this excellent resource.

Meeting with Resistance
Before my son started kindergarten in the public school system, I wrote his school’s principal to suggest the excellent C.A.S.E. program. Although she expressed appreciation for the information, she said that all available time for teachers during the year was already booked. I sent two more letters. Though I was unsuccessful in having the school provide the program to staff, the school’s monthly newsletter to families included information about C.A.S.E.

I also wrote to the director of my daughter’s preschool, and again I met with resistance to the C.A.S.E program. I followed up with a letter to my child’s teacher, enclosing the C.A.S.E. newsletter. I asked if I might read an adoption story to her class during November, National Adoption Awareness Month. She agreed, and the reading seemed to be successful. In a subsequent conversation with my daughter’s preschool director, I suggested that the transition period before the start of the school year would provide an excellent time to present the C.A.S.E. material to the staff. The director agreed to allow 30 minutes—for a program that can easily take two hours. Nevertheless, I was pleased to help teachers learn more about fostering positive adoption awareness.

In the session at my daughter’s preschool, the teachers were full of questions. However, when asked how they would handle another child’s questions to an adopted child, the teacher who had asked about my children’s “real” parents said she would let the adopted child answer. It’s hard enough for adults to respond to intrusive questions; why should a preschooler be expected to handle them without support?

After the C.A.S.E. presentation, the preschool sent home the birthday form it’s always used, asking for something that many adopted children don’t have—a baby picture. I submitted a revised version of the form, suggesting “when I was younger” instead of “when I was a baby.” It’s clear that the school could use a second presentation.

When our son transferred to another elementary school, we hoped his new principal might be more receptive to a program on adoption. But calls to my son’s teacher and the school counselor met with avoidance. At the school’s orientation, I noticed that the PTA asked for program suggestions, so I submitted a proposal. At last, a positive response! The PTA program took place in early spring, and the crowd that attended—school staff, adoptive parents, and non-adoptive parents—engaged in a lively discussion. I hope that this can become a yearly program, perhaps held in celebration of National Adoption Awareness Month.

There are many ways to help children, adopted or not, feel that adoption is a great way to build a family. It often begins with parents as advocates, taking small steps, pushing for their schools and communities to cooperate. The important thing is to persevere. We support each other by insisting on respect—in schools, in the media, and in our communities—for all families.


Jean Sommerville, her husband, Jim Lynch, and their children live in Maryland.


Fostering Positive Awareness in Your Schools

In convincing teachers and administrators of the importance of positive adoption awareness, the following talking points will help:
• Our children should be empowered to deal with questions, but they shouldn’t be expected to cope with them on their own.
• All children can benefit from the introduction of a C.A.S.E. program. There are children whose siblings were adopted, children whose cousins were adopted, children whose friends were adopted. They need to understand that this is a valid way to build families.
• Some families may not feel comfortable about school staff knowing their adoptive status. Wouldn’t it reassure these families if their children told them that in a discussion of families, the teacher included adoptive families in a casual, positive way?


C.A.S.E., S.A.F.E., and W.I.S.E. UP!

In our S.A.F.E. at School: Support for Adoptive Families by Educators program, we present participants with questions frequently asked of adopted children (and their parents, too). Sometimes the simplest questions are the hardest. The important thing is to be prepared. And remember, it is normal for children who are not adopted to have difficulty understanding adoption. They need your help!


Typical Questions:

• How much did your parents pay for you?
• My mom says you were an orphan.
• Can you speak your language?
• How do you know what you’ll look like when you grow up?
• Is he your real brother?
• Why didn’t your real mother keep you? How could your own
mother give you away?
• I saw something on the news about an adopted kid. (Describes it)
Did that happen to you?
• What’s it like to be adopted?


Sample Responses:

• Sometimes adopted children do not want to share personal information. That’s their choice. But I can tell you about adoption.
• Adoptive families begin in a different way, but they are families, just the same as other families.
• Sometimes people cannot take care of their children. Other families are available to do that for them. Those are adoptive families.
• That story is in the news because it captures your attention, but it is not true in most adoptions.
• That’s just one story. All adoption stories are different. In fact, there are more than 5 million adopted people in America!
• Adopted children love their families, just like you do.
• Adopted children’s families are forever.
• I think adoption is a great way to build families!
• One of my [cousins] was adopted. I think adoption is great!

In addition to the S.A.F.E. at School program, C.A.S.E. has developed W.I.S.E. UP! for children. It acknowledges the wisdom of adoptees and empowers children to take control of potentially uncomfortable situations. W.I.S.E. stands for:
W: “Walk away.” That’s right. Don’t say a word. Just walk away.
I: “It’s private. I don’t want to talk about it.” Most people don’t mean any harm. But you get to choose who to talk to about private things like adoption.
S: “Share something.” Give a quick answer, or share one thing about your adoption, even if it doesn’t answer the question.
E: “Educate.” Some people ask questions because they don’t know about adoption. Teach them something. Say, “Did you know that the guy who started Wendy’s was adopted?” or “Did you know that there are five million adopted kids in the United States?”
The myriad comments and questions about adoption that come up in our schools point to lessons about difference and tolerance that we can all stand to learn.

Marilyn Schoettle is the Director of Education and Publications for The Center for Adoption Support & Education. For more information on C.A.S.E—and its S.A.F.E. at School and W.I.S.E. UP! programs—visit  


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