The first day of school arrives, and you’re already apprehensive about your son’s transition to kindergarten less than a year after he joined your family—when the teacher emails instructions to bring in a baby picture as a getting-to-know-you activity. Or, you’ve made it through the first weeks and are settling back into the school-year routine when your third-grader opens her homework folder one night to find a “My Family Tree” template.
In school, children are taught to work hard and gain recognition for their abilities and achievements, yet these kinds of assignments put the spotlight on them for personal, perhaps sensitive, reasons. What’s more, it is probably not a spotlight they sought.
Every child, of course, has a different story, with different concerns and triggers. Some students decide how they want to complete a sticky project, and do so, with few concerns. Others may attempt the project, but feel confused, embarrassed, divided in their loyalties to their birth or adoptive families, or worry that it’s inaccurate or incomplete. Still others may find such assignments painful, or nearly impossible. As an adoption therapist, I’ve worked with several adult adoptees who describe being forced to complete assignments that weren’t adoption-sensitive as traumatic.
The teacher may have assigned projects like these for years, thinking nothing of them. What do you do? First, talk with your child. Ask how the assignment makes him feel, what he would like the teacher and his classmates to know or not know, and, together, what you will do. Then, be an advocate for your child and talk with the teacher. In most cases, when the teacher learns of the distress the assignment is causing your child, he or she will share your concern. Ask the teacher if she would be open to removing the assignment from the curriculum altogether, or revising it for the entire class so that it’s inclusive and respectful for all family types. Don’t let the teacher make your child the exception, saying that he can complete the assignment in a different way from the rest of the class, as this will only make your child feel singled out.
Here are the most common school assignments that can be problematic for children who were adopted, why this is the case, and alternatives you can suggest.
The Family Tree
This assignment may compel a child to focus on his adoptive family, and then feel like the information is not quite true, or choose his birth family, and worry about missing information or hurting his parents. A child who was adopted from foster care may know some birth family members’ names, but may not be able to ask them questions to fill in most of the assignment. These can be just as complicated for many other types of families these days, including families with divorced parents, blended, and single-parent families. If you get stuck with the family tree, there are many ways you can modify the assignment.
- For a Family Forest, the child creates multiple trees, rather than just one with numerous branches. This works well for children in many non-traditional family structures. For my child, it would be one tree for me, one for his Samoan mom, and one for his Samoan dad.
- Another alternative that’s well-suited to adoptive families is a single family tree with Roots and Branches. The child is the trunk of the tree, and both families are represented. However this might be more difficult if there is divorce or separation in either family.
- A more simplified, less artistic option I have seen is a Family Wheel. The child places himself in the middle, then can divide the wheel into as many “pie slices” as he needs, and can include foster families as well as adoptive and birth families.
- One of the adult adoptees I spoke with suggested that, if there is a need for a genealogy assignment, an actual Genogram might be in order. The benefit of the genogram is that it is designed with specific symbols for adoption, foster care, emotional relationships, and more, allowing the child to clearly connect his or her two families. While a genogram can get quite in depth, highlighting relational and psychological patterns in a family, it does not have to include that level of detail.
Family and Baby Photos
Sharing photos is an assignment that is usually meant to be fun, but can be distressing for children who were adopted. Many of these children do not have access to baby photos; their youngest photo of themselves may be of them as a toddler…a preschooler…a 14-year-old. Some children’s only baby photo is a referral photo, which looks quite different from the hospital blanket-wrapped photos of their classmates.
Family photos can be just as distressing as they can highlight that the child does not look like other members of her family. Or, children who have a relationship with birth family may want to bring in photos of both families, which may invite curious questions.
Instead of asking children to bring in baby photos, all of the students can draw themselves as babies. Keep in mind that this can be a trigger for some children, as well, though an infant self-portrait can also provide insight for a therapist or attuned parent.
Personal Timeline or Autobiography
Asking a child to create a personal timeline could stir up many distressing memories and feelings. Some children may not know their own history for periods of several years—where they were, who they were with, or what they were doing. Other children may have all of the information, but the truth is painful and not something they wish to share with peers. A timeline can make a child’s adoptive status or multiple foster placements very public, forcing the child to be faced with difficult questions. Even if the child is comfortable with adoption, he may not want peers to know that he has only been with his family for a short period, or that he has been with his family for years but the adoption was only recently finalized.
Instead of a personal timeline, have the students chart one current event from each year of their lives, create a timeline for a historical or fictional character, or have each of the students contribute one event to a class timeline.
Most children who are new to their families and the United States are desperately working to integrate and fit in. They may not appreciate being identified as different. For other children, who left their birth countries as infants, or even as older children, it is inappropriate to call on them as “experts” on that country’s culture. My child left his birth country when he was six, and no six-year-old is going to be an expert on a culture. Such assignments can highlight what they do not know about their country of origin, causing feelings of disconnection and questions about identity or “authenticity.”
In general, I suggest teachers allow children to volunteer or choose any country they would like to present on.
History lessons on immigration may cause distress surrounding missing information, feelings of isolation, a crisis surrounding identity, and more. Immigration is also a hot-button topic in the news these days, and personal feelings, or the way other students hear their parents talk about it at home, can come out in social studies class. While children who were born in other countries and joined their families through international adoption are immigrants, they may not understand that or think of themselves in that way, and may not want that highlighted.
Children who were adopted domestically or through foster care may not know from what country their birth ancestors emigrated, leaving them feeling helpless, different from their peers, and reminded of personal information and cultural connections they do not have. It is also helpful for teachers to remember that children that were adopted have more than one family.
Rather than report on their own family’s immigration story, students could write about a historical or current-day public figure.
Genetics lessons, such as charting eye color, hair color, or other features through their families, can be confusing, frustrating, or even sad for children who were adopted and do not look like their parents.
Instead, teachers can use animals as examples (rather than the students’ families or any people) when teaching these science lessons.
Presenting the Project
Such autobiographical projects often involve multiple stages—completing the project at home, and then sharing it with the class. Even when a child works on the project with little or no confusion or distress, the class presentation can open the child up to difficult questions from peers.
Speak with your child before his presentation day and make sure that he knows that it’s OK to not answer a question that he feels is too personal. Even the idea of being asked questions by peers may create major anxiety for some children. Teachers need to intervene and redirect or stop the questions if the student in the spotlight is uncomfortable (or, ideally, before that happens). They should also be prepared for a child who willingly shares stories of a difficult past that may be uncomfortable for other students.
As parents, we can’t wish away painful experiences in our child’s past. But, with your input and assistance, your child’s teacher can become adoption sensitive for your child, and all the adoptees he or she will teach in years to come. And as your child sees you advocating on her behalf, she will learn that her adoption story is hers to share or keep private, that adoptive families are just another type of family structure, and to speak out when she needs to.