Prepare for awkward school assignments now, and you’ll soon be watching from the sidelines as your children handle them with grace...by Carrie Howard
For most parents, a new school year means the return of homework and sack lunches. For AF readers, it may also mean the prospect of assignments that ask children for information that is intensely personal, or is missing altogether, assignments that cause a child to feel uncomfortable or to stand out from her peers.
Though each family navigates sticky assignments in its own way (based on its own story), it helps to prepare. A parent's fears are easily read by young children; so, too, is our optimism. It's up to us to ensure that school's a fun, invigorating, respectful place to learn and spend the day.
In preschool and early elementary, family is a major focus of the curriculum. Students are often asked to bring baby pictures to class or serve as Star of the Week. Assignments such as these are meant to help classmates get to know one another. The later elementary-school years bring family trees, personal timelines, and heritage projects. In junior high and high school, students are often assigned genetic charts in biology and autobiographies in English class.
By using the children's lives and families as material, teachers hope to engage their students and show them that what they are learning has practical applications. But the instructions and formats all too often reflect an outdated view, one that assumes that all children live in nuclear families, with biological relatives who share the same ethnic background. While some school districts have updated this approach, many have not.
A child faced with such assignments may feel dishonest by acknowledging only his adoptive family on his family tree or heritage report. He might not be ready to put his adoption story on public display. He may be dismayed to find that he is missing a basic piece of information (such as the name of the hospital in which he was born) that all his classmates seem to possess. And he may be frustrated by an assignment when it is impossible for him to obtain the information he needs.
How to work with schools
A proactive approach to school assignments is often best. Lansing Wood, an adoptive mother and co-author, with Nancy Ng, of Adoption and the Schools: Resources for Parents and Teachers (FAIR), advises parents to begin a dialogue with a child's teacher early in the school year. Share parts of your child's story (while maintaining an appropriate level of privacy), and ask whether there will be any assignments that ask for birth facts, ancestry, or early history. If so, tactfully suggest ways of expanding the projects so that all the students in the class will feel comfortable completing them.
"You can't merely complain after the fact about problematic assignments," says adoptive and foster parent Sue Badeau, who talks with her kids' teachers at the beginning of each year. "It's best to build an ongoing relationship, so that your input will be accepted and valued."
Remind the teacher that your child will not be the only one affected. Without naming names, you might say, "There are several children in the class who live in nontraditional families. Would it be possible to modify the assignment to meet your educational goals without making any child feel exposed?" As Ng says, "Adoption is only one of many kinds of family formations that teachers see represented in a classroom of students."
Don't be surprised when, only weeks after meeting with your child's teacher, your child brings home a timeline project (beginning with an account of the subject's birth), for example. If this happens, let the teacher know specifically why this may be difficult for your child: "My son feels uncomfortable as the only child in the class not to have a photo of himself taken at the hospital the day he was born. Would it be possible to use a different format?" (Download the clip-and-save guide, "Tackling Tricky Assignments.") The teacher most likely had no idea that this assignment would be difficult for anyone, and may well adapt it for the entire class.
On the other hand, parents who bring awkward assignments to a teacher's attention are often asked to just "do the best you can." In those cases, parents must help their children complete their homework without violating their privacy.
Helping children find their own way
"Lighthearted and free-flowing family conversations about assignments are helpful," says Ng. "Remember that this is your child's assignment, not your adoption crusade. If your daughter feels most comfortable leaving out one of her families on a project, that's her choice. What you can do is discuss the topic around the dinner table."
Although a child may decide to complete the assignment in a certain way, a parent may remain uneasy. For example, if the teacher offers your child a different family-tree format than his peers, your child may be pleased, yet you worry that she'll be teased or treated as being different. "Remember that kids are adept at picking up on their parents' feelings," says Ng. "So, if you worry, your child may worry. If you are confident that all will be well, your child will be, too." Remain optimistic!
Beyond providing a supportive sounding board for your child, your level of involvement will vary based on his age and developmental stage. As children mature, they are able -- and willing -- to take more responsibility for their decision-making. Here are tips to keep in mind for what's ahead in each school year.
Preschool through early elementary. Young children usually welcome their parents' presence at school, and enjoy being the center of attention. Take advantage of this openness to give a presentation on adoption toward the beginning of the academic year, perhaps during National Adoption Awareness Month, in November. Helping schoolmates understand adoption terminology will save your child from having to explain the concepts later. Children this age may also feel more comfortable in Star of the Week presentations with a parent at their side to answer tough questions. (See "Helping Your Child Cope with Intrusive Questions.")
One mom gives a presentation in her children's classrooms every year on each child's "Coming Home Day." "I enter the room bearing bags of snacks and items from Korea to pass around. I start by explaining adoption, and give them the chance to ask questions that they might not want to ask my child directly. Then we talk about Korea. For many children, this is their first exposure to life somewhere else on the planet, and they are eager to learn about the culture. It's a lesson for my children's peers and an opportunity for my children to be understood and accepted."
Late elementary. Children in third through sixth grade want to be like their peers. Although your child may appreciate your meeting with her teacher to discuss alternative approaches to a project, be sure to check with her before doing so. Help your child brainstorm ideas at home for completing the assignment. Families often create their own family-tree or timeline formats with good results. Or, you might help your child identify the personal details she would prefer to omit.
"I offered to help both of my sons complete fifth-grade timeline projects," says adoptive mom Terry Mandeville, "but told each that it was up to him to decide how to complete it. My older son chose to include only a single date from his life before adoption. He started with his birth, then skipped to age four. My younger son diligently included the dates of his birth, his entrance into the orphanage, the death of his birthmom, and his adoption, along with his first home run and his surgeries. It's something we talk about often."
Junior high and high school. Although teens want to solve their own problems, they may still welcome some assistance. Help your child with an autobiography, heritage, or genetics project by talking through his decisions. You might ask, "Would you rather ask the teacher to modify the assignment, or come up with your own solution?" or "Are you comfortable telling your whole story, or would you prefer to edit some events?" Acknowledge his concerns, and then cheer him on, however he decides to handle the requirement.
Jeanne Patterson, of Shelby, North Carolina, says, "For years, I dreaded the day we had to face the family-tree assignment. But when it finally happened, in ninth-grade Spanish class, my son was unperturbed. He went straight to my mother and asked her for family pictures and stories to use in his project. Clearly, ours was his family!"
Think of difficult assignments as an opportunity for parents, teachers, and children to discuss adoption. Your child's experience with problem-solving may turn out to be one of the most empowering lessons of his school years.
Carrie Howard writes frequently on adoption and parenting. She lives near Seattle with her family, which includes three kids adopted internationally.
Photo: Travis and Connor (8 and 3, both Russia) are ready for second grade and preschool.
Share photos of your child's school days in the School Days Adoption Photo Album on AdoptiveFamiliesCircle
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