This article offers advice on what you as an adoptive parent should discuss with your child's teacher when it comes to adoption.

How to Talk to Your Child’s Teacher about Adoption

As a teacher, I’ve had experiences with children who were adopted or in foster care. The common emotions and issues among children who have been adopted include the following:

  • issues concerning identity, belonging, or attachment
  • managing complex and/or non-traditional relationships between the birth family and adoptive family
  • experiencing loss and grief
  • figuring out how to be in a family or blend in with a different culture or ethnic group

These emotions when not addressed would hinder the child’s development socially, emotionally, and academically. Over my ten years of teaching, I researched and listened to the advice of counselors at my school because I wanted to create a safe and inclusive environment for all of the children. I am truly thankful for my professors in graduate school and my staff support at my current school. They helped give me the tools to emotionally aid my students. Naively, I thought it was normal for teaching staff to have a background in working with students with various emotional needs. 

As an adoptive mom, I learned that this was not the case. I found that teachers were unaware of the support that adoptive or foster families needed. Also, on the parent end, there were many parents that were having difficulty themselves describing the needs for their child. Some desperately needed strategies and support to help them without feeling as if they were overwhelming the teacher. 

Being an adopted mother and a teacher, I knew what questions to ask and the tools that my son needed. Knowing this information helped us to transition very smoothly when he started school. Here are some suggestions that I have for parents when speaking to their child’s teacher about adoption.

Schedule a Parent/Teacher Conference at the Beginning of the School Year

As a teacher, I would have a parent/teacher conference with the parents. Due to the busyness of back-to-school time, I know that many teachers do not meet with parents. If you feel that this would be helpful for the comfort level of your child in the classroom, please schedule one. This helps to establish a line of communication with the teacher and thereby maintain success for the child. 

Write a Letter to the Teacher

If you are unable to schedule a parent/teacher conference with the teacher, write the teacher a letter concerning your child. Creating a Family is a great resource for those who would like to write a letter to their child’s teacher. I had a parent who created a template for their child that was very visually pleasing for the teacher. It was one that we kept in a special spot and helped us keep in mind his behaviors and triggers. This was very helpful for us to create a wonderful beginning of the school year. I found these letters very helpful for me because they were a keepsake that could be useful in the future.

Information Communicated with Teacher

Share Background Information Important for Success in the Classroom

With my foster/adoptive parents, I would let them share information they felt comfortable sharing. I only asked additional questions if I felt that I needed that information to accommodate the child in the classroom. For example, I had a student who was a foster child that had visits with his biological mother but lived with a foster mother. I knew that there would be emotional issues that could influence behavior in the classroom. This information came from a parent/teacher conference. The foster mother didn’t want to share anything more and I didn’t need to know anything else. We met the child’s emotional needs and successfully place him on an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) to help him with emotional support moving forward. This would not have happened if there was not a sitdown with the teacher in a comfortable setting.

Language

Also, this is a time to discuss with the teacher what language to use with the child about their family background as an adoptee. For example, encourage the teacher to not use the term “real parent.” Explain to the teacher to use the terms “adopted parent” or “foster parent” or just “mom or dad.” Replace “given up” with “placed.” This helps normalize the situation and emphasize that adoption enabled the child to join your family. Growing a family by adoption should not be a taboo topic. The goal is to have a positive attitude towards adoption and to emphasize that adoption is one of the many methods of growing a family.

List of Common Terms in Adoption

  • Birth parent, birth mother, or birth father are more common in the adoption community when referring to the biological parents. The term “real” or “natural” parent is inappropriate. As I explained to many people, we are very much “real” and “natural” parents to our child and he is very much “real” and “natural” to us. Labels such as “unwed mother/father” should not be used as well. There are times in adoption that the birth parents are married and unable to care for the child. Addressing a label like this would help dispel a myth that plagues the adoption community often.
  • Birth child refers to a biological child in a family. These terms should be used instead of “real,” “natural,” and “own” child. 
  • “Illegitimate” or “unwanted” should not be used when referring to the adoptee/student/child. Terms such as these create a sense of discomfort for the adoptee/student/child. As their advocate, you are called to create a sense of positive self-worth. Terms like these do not create a sense of positive self-worth.
  • “Make an adoption plan” or “transfer parental rights” are appropriate, as opposed to “give up,” “surrender,” “give away,” or “adopt out,” when referring to a birth parent’s decision to place a child for adoption. 

Triggers and Strategies

Address any specific situations that may apply to your child that could affect their performance in school. All children have triggers that need to be addressed. If the trigger goes unaddressed, it could lead to trouble in the classroom. I know that with my son, we always express to his teachers that he becomes very upset when angry. We give him a minute to breathe and calm down by himself. Once done, we address the situation. If my son has not had the time to breathe or calm down, then it takes longer for him to agree to resolve the problem.

Respond to Uncomfortable Questions with a Follow-Up

Contrarily as an adoptive parent, I’ve had my son’s teacher ask me personal questions about my son’s adoption that I refused to answer. It was not information that she needed to know to socially or emotionally support him in the classroom, so I responded by asking the teacher if they would approach a family that biologically had a child with the same question. A personal example is such:

Teacher: Do you know his medical history? What type of hospital was he born in? Me: If I biologically gave birth to him, would you ask me this question?Teacher: (silence)

Try not to Overshare Information

Teachers come from different backgrounds and different levels of experience. While the teacher may have worked for many years with children, they may not have the experience of working with children from traumatic backgrounds. I love Jennifer Kaldwell’s advice in Talking About Adoption With Your Child’s Teacher. She explains that if a child has no special needs, then there is no need to speak about the adoption’s details. I believe it is fine to explain that the child is adopted because it is a huge part of their life. Nevertheless, in the case of no special needs or circumstances, scheduling a meeting may not be necessary. 

Be Honest about Potential Difficult Assignments

There are certain assignments that can be triggering for adopted students. Some assignments that I’ve found tricky over the years are autobiographies, baby pictures, family trees, studies of genetics or ethnicity, or Mother’s Day/Father’s Day gifts. I tend to send an email or speak with the parents myself addressing these assignments.

The one assignment that I’ve had pushback on over the years is the family tree assignment. Many adopted or foster children that do not own baby pictures or feel that working on a family tree is sensitive for them. A couple of friends with school-aged children disliked the idea of speaking about a family tree or seeing themselves with baby pictures; it brought up the fact that they owned no baby pictures. As a parent, I had to push back over the baby picture assignment because my son’s baby pictures were private.

Parents, feel no shame in explaining that your child is not comfortable with a project like this. We Are Teachers shares, “Families are important to children.” I’ve had a child have a meltdown or get upset over being unable to relate to a project about family. One suggestion that I’ve seen as successful over the years is this family project. 

Circle of a Caring Community: One suggestion that I always used in my preschool classroom is to have the students share about the different people or animals in their life. It balances sharing about family and all of the adults in our life that are not biologically family. My son has many people in South Africa that are a part of his caring community. They are not his biological family or his adoptive family, but they love him just as much as we do. We consider them “family” thus his caring community. Many of my students add that their dog or cat is a part of their community.

Provide Curriculum Resources for the Teachers

The parents of the students from adoption prepared me as an adoptive parent. They were amazing resources for me because they knew of different places that I could gather resources for children of trauma. YOU as the adoptive parents understand the number of resources and tools provided for parents and educators to gain a trauma-informed approach to parenting and educating. Sharing with the child’s teacher adds to the school’s ability to serve the needs of not just your child, but other children with similar backgrounds of trauma.

Here are some resources that have helped and are helping me with my child at home and my students at school.

Books about Adoption

Non-Fiction Books for Teachers:

  • In on It: What Adoptive Parents would like you to know about adoption. A guide for relatives and friends by Elisabeth O’Toole.

Children Fiction Books: Megan Rivard gave a great list of adoption-related picture books for teachers to add to their classroom library or sneak in their curriculum. I added some of my favorites to my classroom library.

  • Pugnose Has Two Special Families by Karis Kruzel
  • Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born by Jamie Lee Curtis
  • Families Are Different by Nina Pellegrini
  • A Mother for Choco by Keoko Kasza
  • The Family Book by Todd Parr

Other Curriculum-Related Resources

The Child Welfare Information Gateway includes a list of adoption resources for teachers, including information about possible assignments and additional ideas for creating a sensitive classroom. One item on the list that I’ve sent to other teachers and parents is a pamphlet from the Quality Improvement Center for Adoption & Guardianship Support and Preservation. Finally, Gladney Adoption Agency has many resources for teachers to read as they consider the curriculum for the school year.

When I became an adoptive mom, I felt scared to strongly advocate and provide resources for my child. As an educator, it was my instinct to learn from the teacher. When I saw well-intentioned teachers unequipped for adoption and children from traumatic backgrounds, I decided to become more vocal in my advocacy. Also, hearing the pains of parents who adopted when they had to address their child’s teachers broke my heart.

For me and my husband, it felt amazing to see our son thrive under teachers who understood children from different backgrounds and for him to grow socially. Also, these teachers knew the types of questions to ask about his background and not those uncomfortable questions. I hope that this empowers parents in addressing their child’s teacher and that parents also learn the boundaries that teachers naturally build in their classroom.

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Deirdre Parker

Deirdre Parker is an early childhood educator in Washington DC. She proudly hails from Baltimore, MD where she received her BA in liberal studies from Notre Dame of Maryland University. She continued afterward to receive her BS in Music Therapy from Texas Woman's University and MS in Early Childhood Education from Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development. She entered the adoption community with the adoption of her son from South Africa. When she is not at school teaching her “babies” and mentoring new early childhood educators; she is traveling, reading, writing, playing music, following politics, hiking, attending church, and cheering on the Ravens with her intelligent husband and her extremely bright 4-year-old little boy.