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Sticky Assignments

From requests for baby pictures to making family trees, adopted kids face challenges in the classroom. Here’s how to help. By Nancy Sheehan Ng

Now that school's back in session, your child will come home with a variety of assignments, some of which may be difficult to complete. How does your first-grader draw the branches of a family tree if he knows little of his birth family? How does your second- or third-grader tell the story of her birth or bring in infant pictures when none exist? How does your child make a timeline of his life when parts of his past are so painful? Though each family navigates such sticky assignments in its own way (and based on its own story), it helps to be an advocate for your child and to begin a dialogue with her teacher early in the school year.

Celebrating All Moms and Dads
Many children (and more than a few adults) find Mother's Day and Father's Day to be complicated occasions. Teachers can honor parents by celebrating many kinds of families, without singling out their adopted students. They might opt for a "Mother's and Others' Day" activity that could be introduced like this: "Let's think of all the people who have cared about us in our lives. I remember my grandma and a neighbor who made cookies with me when I was your age. Whom can we add to the list?" Students can then write notes of appreciation or make cards for any of these special people.

Becoming Inclusive
In those first discussions, you can share parts of your child's story (while maintaining an appropriate level of privacy) and find out whether there will be an assignment that asks for birth facts, ancestry, or early history. If so, tactfully suggest ways of expanding the project so that all kids will feel comfortable completing it. Though each class—and teacher—will have its own curriculum, there are a few common assignments your child may encounter. Here are some ways to make them more inclusive.

  • Family trees. Teachers generally ask students to create a family tree to explore the concepts of the family unit and/or structures. As an alternative, the tree can be drawn to include people who live with and love a child (i.e., adoptive parents, siblings, grandparents, or pets). The "inclusive tree" can be a springboard to help young writers tell their family story and for the class to discuss how all families are unique.
  • Birth or early life information. Students are often asked to reveal specifics about their birth (What time were you born? How much did you weigh? What was the name of the hospital?) or for details about their early childhood (Whom did you look like? What was your favorite food? Did you have a special blanket?). Adopted children may not have this information and may feel unable to complete the assignment.

    The project can easily be "de-personalized," so that students can be allowed to gather data about all the places in their community where babies are born or to compare pictures of any newborn with those of a toddler. The assignment could also compare a child's size or weight at some age in his life (say, when she first started school) with the present.

    A New Spin on Immigration
    Many third-grade students study immigration, and they are often sent off to investigate where their families came from and why. They may be asked to fill a box or suitcase with items indicative of their family's origin or to keep a journal about life in the "old country" and the new. One wise teacher presented the assignment with other, equally valid choices: Instead of delving into one's own family history, students could interview a friend or family member who had immigrated to America, or they could pick an imaginary or historical immigrant to write about.

    One student, who was part Native American, chose not to tell her class about the impact of immigration on native culture. Like many third graders, she dreaded being "different." Instead, she simply interviewed her adoptive father, who had immigrated from England years ago, and gained a few extra points by inviting him to class for a live discussion.

  • Family pictures. These popular assignments need not be a problem for students who live in nontraditional families. Ask your child's teacher to provide models of diverse family constellations in class and to allow the children to use their imagination when creating their family portraits (birth relatives, a phantom dad, or a few fantasy siblings could be included in stories or drawings).
  • Student of the Week or "I Am Special" days or weeks. These events are designed to build a child's self-esteem. But when students are asked to share baby pictures or family cultural traditions as a way of showing how special they are, adopted children can feel at a loss. Instead, students can be encouraged to focus on any aspect of their lives that makes them feel special: a sport they love, a family pet, a relationship with their birthmother, and so on.
  • Timelines. Many young children love timelines and gain an appreciation of history by making them. As an alternative to the traditional assignment, which starts at a child's birth and follows his life to the present, a teacher might say, "We're going to create a giant timeline of all the years you've been alive. Each of you will find out something important that happened during those years—in your family or in the world—and we'll add it to our timeline." Students can consult books or interview grownups for information.
  • The family story. Some adopted children have no problem writing or telling their personal stories. But others find the task harder. They feel they must either tell the truth (and reveal information that's inappropriate for a classroom setting or potentially painful for the child), or bend the truth and spare themselves the pain. Fortunately, teachers can provide other options: Students can be asked to write a biography of a historical figure and tell it in the first person, or create a story about one particular event in their life or a favorite experience at school.

As parents, we can't assume that every teacher our child encounters will be sensitive to adoption, and we can't rewrite our child's life story to delete the painful parts. But we can be proactive at school, intervene when appropriate, band with other adoptive parents, and be a comforting presence. A parent's fears are easily read by young children, but so is our optimism. We can help make school a fun, invigorating, respectful place to learn and to spend the day.

Nancy Sheehan Ng is the mother of 13 children, nine of whom joined her family through special-needs adoption. She is a board member of Families Adopting in Response (FAIR) and the coeditor of Adoption and the Schools: Resources for Parents and Teachers (FAIR, 2001).

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