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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


October 4, 2003 - Issue 97


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Understanding Adoption

art Navajo Little One by Ray Swanson

Navajo Little One by Ray Swanson"Draw your family tree." "Research your ancestry in a term paper." "Bring a baby picture to post on the bulletin board." Seemingly innocent, common school assignments turn into land mines for adopted and foster children. Just as children are coming to understand the full implications of adoption, a classroom project can increases vulnerability and trigger unresolved feelings.

  • For foster children, feelings of not belonging can be triggered.
  • When lacking family information, children may feel that they are the missing piece that is out of place.
  • Open adoptions, in which birth family information is accessible does not remove the inherent loss issues that are central to all adoption.
  • Inevitable comparisons with peers can lead to feeling "all wrong."
  • The public classroom setting - reading aloud a child's paper or posting baby photographs on the bulletin board - can heighten feelings of being different from others.

For trans-racially adopted children, who are required to write a paper about genealogy, race presents further complexities. While some children are happy to explore their racial or ethnic heritage, others are ambivalent, resisting being pegged as being and looking different. The child may feel caught between disloyal to the adoptive family and feeling guilt for denying the essence of "who I am."

A Proactive Approach:
Together, teachers and parents can revamp curriculum to be inclusive of all children. This effort doesn't mean that the teacher must create a special curriculum to accommodate adopted or foster children, but rather that lessons be enlarged to accommodate a wide variety of family conditions.

In designing adoption-sensitive assignments, educational professionals can start by considering a child's developmental age in relationship to their understanding of adoption, divorce or other life situations. Include books, software and additional resources that enlarge the definition of "Family" and that match the child's understanding of their unique family situation. Provide assignments about adoption that non-adopted children as well as adopted children could choose to do.

Preschool years: Ages 3-5:
Preschoolers are concrete thinkers and use play to work things out. Two themes appear frequently: good vs. bad and big vs. little. Logical thinking is not part of their verbal, creative play. Rather they are masters of magical and egocentric thinking. Preschoolers are convinced that they are the hub around which everything revolves.

Talking Tips:

  • Be concrete and simple. Use props, such as dolls, simple drawings, storybooks.
  • Stay relaxed and factual. Your tone of voice is more important than the words.
  • Don't worry if they reject the explanation, for now, especially about being born to someone else.
  • Remember that there will be many chances to talk about adoption.
  • Keep in mind that children usually feel good about being adopted at this age but will still have confusions.

Elementary Years: Ages 6-10
Six, seven, and eight-year-olds take a leap at the same time they are facing new challenges outside of the family. They spend a lot of energy gaining motor skills, acquiring new academic knowledge in school, and engaging socially with peers, especially of the same sex. Nine and Ten year olds are even more competent and independent; they experience the ordinary conflicts with teachers over TV privileges, chores, clothes, bedtimes, language, movies, etc.

Talking Tips for Teachers:

  • Respect adopted children's privacy in public.
  • Notice and help kids with adoption-related teasing as with all teasing.
  • Help kids deflect intrusive questions if they do not want to talk about it.
  • Be proactive. Mention adoption and adoptive families regularly. Some children may volunteer to share about adoption and their story. Be casually encouraging.
  • Support the idea that there are many kinds of families, including adoptive families.

Talking Tips for Parents:

  • Take advantage of your child's growing maturity to fill in details of her story.
  • Help your child distinguish between what is family information and what is appropriate to share in school.
  • For newly arrived children, help them rehearse simple answers to inevitable questions.
  • Respect your child's comfort level with classroom presentations or celebrations. Offer, but don't insist.
  • Bring up the subject casually but often.
  • Help your child connect with other adopted kids and families.

The Center for Adoption Support and Education, Inc.
C.A.S.E. was created in May 1998 to provide post-adoption counseling and educational services to families, educators, child welfare staff, and mental health providers in Maryland, Northern Virginia, and Washington, D.C. In addition, C.A.S.E. is a national resource for families and professionals through its training, publications, and consultations.

Institute For Adoption Information
The Institute for Adoption Information, Inc., is a nonprofit organization of adoptees, birth parents, adoptive parents, adoption professionals and others who have united to enhance the understanding of adoption and to advocate for balanced, accurate coverage of adoption in news and entertainment media.

Fair Families Adopting in Response
FAIR exists for adoptive families. Through its all-volunteer organization FAIR offers information, education, support and fellowship to adoptive and preadoptive families. Our membership includes families who have adopted children through public and private agencies, from the US as well as from many other countries. FAIR focuses on the children who need a permanent, loving family and the parents who have opened their hearts and homes to those children, infants through teens.


Out of the Shadows
In the earliest pictures Jill Lampman has of her older daughter, Elena's hair is short and choppy. There are dark circles under her eyes. When Elena's kindergarten teacher sent home her first assignment — to bring in a baby photo for the bulletin board — Jill knew she had to tell the teacher her child's story. Elena had spent her first three years in a Romanian orphanage. "The first pictures I have of her," Jill says, "are not something I would want to share."

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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.

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