School Issues and Adoption: Academic Considerations and Adaptation

Francine Fishman & Elliotte Sue Harrington. Handbook of Adoption: Implications for Researchers, Practitioners, and Families. Editor: Rafael A Javier, Amanda L Baden, Frank A Biafora, Alina Camacho-Gingerich. Sage Publication. 2007.

During childhood and adolescence, children and teens spend approximately one third of their day in educational settings. Schools, educators, and researchers have explored the impact of learning styles, disabilities, teacher expectations, and a host of other issues on school-age children. Although they have focused on a number of both internal (e.g., intelligence) and external (e.g., social class) factors that might affect students, relatively little attention has been given to students who were adopted into their families. Thus, although adopted children and teens have been the subjects of research studies addressing heritability issues (e.g., Scarr & Weinberg, 1983), there have been few studies addressing educational and school-related issues pertaining to them. However, given that it is widely acknowledged that adoptees may encounter various challenges and opportunities throughout their lives, such as those related to identity formation and loss (Brodzinsky, Schechter, & Henig, 1992), educational and school issues for this substantial portion of the school-age population need to be discussed. The 2000 U.S. Census (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2003) found that 2.5% of children below the age of 18 (1.6 million) were adopted, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2003) estimated that another 542,000 children resided in foster care during 2001. Clearly, this issue deserves greater attention.

Interestingly, the nature of adoption can result in adoptees meeting their greatest challenges during their school years due to the cognitive, emotional, and social development that takes place during that time. Research studies have reported varying results regarding the outcomes for children during these crucial, developmental years. Some studies have suggested that adopted children may be more prone to certain problems when compared with nonadopted children. For example, some traits, including learning disabilities (e.g., Brodzinsky & Steiger, 1991), intelligence (e.g., van Ijzendoorn, Juffer, & Poelhuis, 2005), school performance (e.g., Teasdale, 1984; van Ijzendoorn et al., 2005), adjustment issues (e.g., Benson, Sharma, & Roehlkepartain, 1994; Verhulst, Althaus, & Versluis-den Bieman, 1990), and identity development (e.g., Grotevant, 1997; Miller, Fan, Christensen, Grotevant, & van Dulmen, 2000) reflected differences that might be attributable to adoption. Regardless of the source of the behavioral and emotional issues that may present during the school-age years, children who are adopted may face additional challenges due to the stigma that surrounds adoption (March, 1995; Miall, 1994), and this can lead school personnel, nonadopted children, parents, and society to make faulty attributions for the child’s behavior.

In recent years, some researchers have started the complex process of analyzing issues that affect school-age adopted children. For example, meta-analyses were used by van Ijzendoorn et al. (2005) to examine cognitive development, intelligence (in the form of Intellience Quotients), and school performance. This chapter addresses the developmental, educational, and clinical issues that affect school-age children. Using an Eriksonian developmental model, educational issues at each of the relevant stages are reviewed. Case studies and current research are also used to demonstrate some of the issues seen in this population and best practice strategies.

School Issues Viewed Through a Developmental Stage Theory

A clear framework through which to view developmental milestones for adopted children is Erik Erikson’s (1980) framework for psychosocial development. Using a similar developmental stage model, Brodzinsky et al. (1992), in their seminal work, Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self, presented a review of developmental issues that adopted individuals typically face at various ages. Applying their work specifically to educational and school-based issues can further inform school professionals, parents, students, and the community. This section explores the developmental stages across the life span and how they apply to school-based issues for adopted students. These stages and the challenges that accompany each stage can be used as benchmarks for development to illustrate how adoption weaves its way into the fabric of the lives of adopted students at school. Each phase of development represents a set of critical tasks that requires coping skills or adjustment to achieve resolution.

Academic achievement is the universal goal for educational institutions and settings. Students are expected to learn age-appropriate material and to meet educational goals that prepare them for additional educational pursuits as well as for eventual independent living and success. Despite these seemingly reasonable, clear, and attainable expectations, many students struggle in the U.S. educational system. The reasons for their struggle vary, and more contemporary educators recognize the need for emotional and social health to support academic achievement. Emotional and social setbacks can be due to a variety of factors, but when adoption is one of the factors in children’s backgrounds, educators, clinicians, parents, and society rightfully question the degree to which adoption may hinder or support educational pursuits. The emotional or psychosocial stages that follow can serve as guidelines for exploring the role of adoption in adopted children’s school experiences.

Developmental Ages and Stages


Although children may not enter into a formal school setting until they are 3 to 5 years old, the emotional growth during infancy is significant. This phase of life was referred to as the stage of Trust versus Mistrust (Erikson, 1980). Infants adopted at birth seek resolution to this dichotomy, as evidenced, for example, through hurdles they face in bonding and attachment. Attachment theory (Bowlby, 1982) has been used to explain differences that occur at this stage among adopted infants and children, particularly due to the preadoptive circumstances that play a crucial role in the outcome of this task for infants. Age at adoption and preadoptive experiences (e.g., multiple placements, trauma, drug exposure, health concerns) are two factors likely to have significant impacts on attachment. Research suggests that when children are placed for adoption before 6 months, there may be little difference, if any, between the quality of mother-infant attachment in adoptive and nonadoptive families (Singer, Brodzinsky, Ramsay, Steir, & Waters, 1985). In fact, secure attachment (Bowlby, 1982), which results from maternal sensitivity and responsiveness during infancy, was found to predict socioemotional and cognitive achievements in later life (Stams, Juffer, & van Ijzendoorn, 2002). For those adopted later in life, a variety of outcomes may affect their school preparedness and attachment to their families. For example, children who experienced neglect prior to adoption were found to suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, making early intervention necessary. Early intervention programs allow for children who are experiencing developmental delays to benefit from a combination of state-administered direct services, and children are eligible for these services if they are under 3 years of age and have a disability or developmental delay (Scarborough et al., 2004). A developmental delay is defined as a lag in at least one of the following areas of development: physical development, cognitive development, communication, social-emotional development, or adaptive development. Adoptive families may consider preadoptive circumstances as a predictor of developmental delay; however, if a developmental lag is suspected, a professional evaluation is needed to accurately assess the child. The goal of early intervention is to provide support for the family, while creating opportunities for children with disabilities to participate fully in their communities and their education.

Therefore, the challenge for adoptive families may be to integrate the children into the family and develop a sense of safety, security, and trust, which will become the foundation for healthy psychological development (Brodzinsky, Smith, & Brodzinsky, 1998).

Toddlerhood and Preschool Years

According to Erikson (1980), the toddler and preschool years have to do with the maturation of the muscle system and the consequent ability (or inability) to coordinate a number of highly conflicting action patterns, such as “holding on” and “letting go.” Erikson identified this phase as two separate stages: Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt, which lasts from 18 months to 3 years old, and Initiative versus Guilt, which lasts from 3 years old to 6 years old (Erikson, 1980). In addition to new motor skill accomplishments comes the emergence of language and representational thought. The adoption-related tasks at this point involve first learning about birth and reproduction and then incorporating this information into the personal history story. Whereas adoptive families may spend much of the first year mastering the challenge of integrating their children into the family, at this stage they begin the process of family differentiation (Brodzinsky et al., 1998). Adoption professionals generally encourage adoptive parents to begin speaking to children about their adoption during toddlerhood (Brodzinsky et al., 1992). Initiating the discussion about adoption can be anxiety producing for some parents. Many adoptive parents seek out support, which helps them get through this task successfully. During this developmental period, adopted children may begin to tell their personal stories of being adopted. Research has shown, however, that although adopted children may identify themselves as adopted during this stage, they have relatively little understanding of what that means (Singer, Brodzinsky, & Braff, 1982), and they do not understand the implications of adoption.

Although preschool-age children are not capable of conceptualizing the depth of adoption, presenting it positively and openly is beneficial for adopted children and their peers. Presenting adoption with openness and affection provides a safe environment for children to continue to ask questions about the subject. Deanna and her school counselor read age-appropriate stories of adoption together and spoke about how the stories may have been different or similar to her adoption story. Deanna and her school counselor used the resources available through W.I.S.E. Up (Schoettle, 2001) and FAIR (Wood & Ng, 2001), school-based programs designed to address school-based issues about adoption.

In addition, Deanna’s parents needed to decide on how much, when, and if to tell teachers and schools of their child’s adoption history. Parents who are reluctant to share adoption-related information with schools may be attempting to avoid potential stereotyping. Whether or not parents choose to inform the school, adopted children must still deal with adoption-related questions. As illustrated in this case, when school personnel are better prepared to deal with questions and peer curiosity in sensitive and supportive ways, schools become a safer place for children to express themselves. Nevertheless, disclosure is a personal decision, and this decision needs to be respected by educators and staff and supported in situations involving other students and their parents (Wood & Ng, 2001).

Case Study 1

Presenting Problem

Deanna, a biracial 5-year-old girl, was adopted at 14 months, and has been attending kindergarten for close to 7 months. Recently, Deanna has not been able to maintain herself at school for the full day. School personnel have had to ask Deanna’s mother to pick her daughter up early on numerous occasions. Deanna has been crying inconsolably while asking for her mother and expressing her fear that her mother may not come back.

Preadoptive Background

Deanna was relinquished 6 months after her birth. Deanna’s birth mother, Lisa, kept her at home while she made the difficult decision leading to the voluntary relinquishment of her daughter. Lisa was 19 years of age, unwed, unemployed, and living at home with her mother. Just prior to her pregnancy, she spent 6 months in a drug rehabilitation program for cocaine and marijuana. Lisa’s parents were divorced, and she had no relationship with her own father. Deanna’s biological father, Sean, was African American, and was not accepted into Lisa’s family. Lisa loved this man, yet she felt a loyalty to her mother to respect her position and ultimately ended their relationship. Sean moved out of state immediately after Deanna’s birth and left no forwarding information. Lisa often wondered if she had masked what was really a fear of her mother’s rejection with what she thought of as “loyal.”

The few months Lisa spent at home with her daughter were unmanageable. Lisa began using drugs again. She was not able to attend to the needs of a newborn baby. Deanna was a “fussy” baby; she had trouble feeding and was not gaining an acceptable amount of weight, according to the doctors. She cried, it seemed to Lisa, “all day long … nonstop.” During the pregnancy, Lisa spoke with her mother about possibly making an adoption plan for her child. Lisa’s mother was not supportive of this idea. Lisa returned to her drug rehabilitation counselor, who referred her to a family planning counselor.

Adoptive Background

Deanna was relinquished at 6 months; she spent the next 3 months with a foster family and the next 5 months with a second foster family. At 14 months of age, Deanna was placed for adoption with the Fuller family, a middle-class, Caucasian family. The Fullers had two biological sons: Justin, 6 years of age, and David, 4 years of age. Deanna’s arrival was a joyous event for the family. This was a closed adoption, facilitated through Social Services; therefore, the information available to the family was limited.

Deanna was “small for her age,” the doctor reported to her parents. Her eating habits were poor and she disliked many foods. Dinnertime was always a challenge for the family. The family faced many other challenges as well. Deanna was resistant to affection, and Mrs. Fuller began to feel a sense of disappointment when Deanna stiffened her back and would not embrace her. Deanna’s verbal skills were virtually nonexistent. The family was attentive to Deanna’s care, both medically and socially. Deanna’s adoptive parents were professionals who both worked in the education field. After noticing significant delays in development, the family had Deanna evaluated for early intervention services.

Treatment and Educational Issues: Issues in Education and Treatment

Deanna’s early intervention services focused on the family and Deanna. In-home services were provided that involved occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, nutrition services, health services, family training, and counseling. These early intervention services continued up to 3 years of age and had a significant positive impact on Deanna and her family. Feelings of disappointment, social isolation, stress, frustration, and helplessness were alleviated for the family. Having these services in the home helped to boost the Fullers’ self-esteem. The Fullers acquired the skills necessary to help teach Deanna and provide a supportive and nourishing environment. With the help of this early intervention, Deanna was able to start mainstream kindergarten at 5 years of age.

When Deanna began kindergarten, she also began to acknowledge her physical differences as compared with her family and her peers. Just as Deanna began to recognize differences between herself and her parents, so did her classmates. Whether adopted into a traditional two-parent same-race family or by a single parent, older parents, two moms, two dads, or across racial lines, adopted children may be asked innocent yet complex questions by their peers, such as “Where is your dad/mom?” or statements such as “That can’t be your mom, she’s White.” These types of questions and comments were common for Deanna and her family. These remarks were often confusing and hurtful to Deanna and her family.

The adoption agency provided postadoption counseling for the family, which the Fullers participated in on a weekly basis. Their therapist explained that there are no automatic responses since each adoption brings its own set of circumstances. In an effort to be truthful, yet not overbearing, it was important to use simple positive adoption language. Deanna seemed to associate adoption with the concept of “wanted” and “not wanted.” Deanna began to question the reasons behind her relin-quishment and asked, “Why didn’t they want me, why did they give me away?” In anticipation of these types of questions, the Fullers were prepared with the right language and their understanding was able to alleviate some of the confusion. Confusion is common at this age; however, their therapist emphasized that overexplaining may only compound the problem. The opportunity to explain further would come later, as emotional and cognitive development increase readiness and understanding.

While Deanna had been referred to a counselor at school, she was also attending weekly sessions along with her parents at the postadoption counseling center. During Deanna’s individual session, the therapist allowed her to use play, dolls, puppets, and storybooks to express her understanding of adoption. On a number of occasions, the play would conclude with the small children in the story being lost or not able to find their way home. As Deanna’s therapist assumed the role of the mother in play, it was helpful to be able to use this opportunity to illustrate how “the mother” would search relentlessly for her children and inevitably find them and bring them home. Deanna used play to express her fear of being lost or not belonging anywhere.

Middle Childhood

This stage of development encompasses ages 6 through 12 and is identified by Erikson (1980) as the Industry versus Inferiority stage. This stage represents a phase of development characterized by an increase in curiosity, exploration, and children’s need to master their environments. It is during this time that children move from the days of play and make-believe to an exploration of their ability and drive to produce. Erikson refers to this as a sense of industry. Along with this sense of industry comes its counterpart, inferiority. The drive to bring a task to completion may cause children to experience insufficient resolution, thus making them develop a sense of inadequacy or inferiority (Erikson, 1980). They begin to explore, meet new friends, acquire new knowledge in school, and grow physically at a rapid speed. Although adopted children experience this stage just as nonadopted children do, they are also learning to master and make sense of the world of adoption.

The development of cognitive skills at this age enables adopted children to bring adoption into a new focus. As a result of this new understanding, questions may arise that require more concrete answers, which are not always available. As adopted children learn to understand the concept of adoption, they may begin to view adoption as being born out of loss and may stop asking questions aloud. It is important to realize that this is not necessarily an indication that there is no need for discussion. Even though children can verbalize the concept of adoption and retell their adoption stories at this stage, they have not necessarily reached resolution (Brodzinsky et al., 1992). It is important for families to realize that over the next few years children’s sensitivity to, and appreciation of the implications of being adopted grow quite rapidly (Brodzinsky et al., 1998). Children’s initial understanding of the concept of family is that of a unit represented by individuals who share the same space and provide affection. The development of logical reciprocity allows children to understand that in gaining a family they have also experienced loss. Children may acknowledge familial loss in terms of other significant and related losses, such as loss of culture, language, heritage, birth family, genealogical connections, and identity. These losses can be profound in a child’s life and vary for each child.

Implications for School and Social-Based Issues in Middle Childhood. When children begin their academic careers, it is often a time when they will encounter questions from peers. These questions are usually based on innocuous curiosity and not intended to be cruel or impolite; however, they may be interpreted as such. This period represents an opportunity for parents, teachers, and professionals to take on the role of educators about adoptive families. Classroom activities may begin to center on understanding the concept of family. This is an opportunity to include examples of families joined by adoption in the classroom curriculum. A teacher who has knowledge of adoption-related issues is able to introduce the concept of adoption as a means of building a family.

Along with an awareness of being different, adopted children may experience rejection or sometimes an exaggeration of being different. The reactions may manifest themselves in many different ways, which can have an effect on the ability to concentrate at school. Behavioral difficulties that affect academic learning may include the inability to stay on task, the expression of anger, or the display of oppositional attitudes (Brodzinsky et al., 1992). Conversely, adopted children may become consumed with projecting an overly positive image, in an effort to overlook any differences. These may be typical reactions of unresolved grief (Melina, 1998). Whereas the concept of adoption has significantly different meanings for adopted children, their nonadopted peers may categorize adoption as an Achilles’ heel. Therefore, adopted children may be teased on the playground by classmates who suppose that adoption represents “bad” or “unwanted” children. The social effects of teasing can result in low self-esteem (Horowitz et al., 2004), thereby affecting school performance. Distractions of this magnitude during such a crucial developmental stage can result in the inability to focus academically. The consequences of these difficulties can be a misdiagnosis of a learning or emotional disability, as will be discussed later in this chapter.

Positive interventions from school professionals can include being supportive and understanding of the fact that some families are joined by adoption, sharing knowledge on a regular basis using positive adoption language, being attentive to teasing and intervening, respecting children’s rights to silence or not wanting to share information about their adoption, and a thorough assessment of students’ difficulties or behaviors.


This stage of life, categorized here by ages 13 to 19, covers a time of rapid growth and development. The most significant changes come in physical, cognitive, emotional, and social functioning. According to Erikson, due to these rapid changes, the continuities relied on earlier in childhood are questioned. While adolescents experience these physiological changes, they are mostly consumed with what they appear to be in the eyes of others. This stage brings on the dilemma of bridging who or what they feel they are with who they feel they are expected to be and how to incorporate their earlier roles (Erikson, 1980). This stage of psychological development is referred to by Erikson as Ego Identity versus Ego Confusion. The basics for mastering this task are grounded in establishing a secure sense of the physical self. For adopted adolescents, connecting to the physical self may be more challenging due to the lack of physical similarities with their birth families. In adopted children’s quest to identify with another person, this may be a time when they begin to think more about searching for and finding their biological ties.

Along with the emerging physical changes of this stage comes sexual maturation. This can be a very tumultuous time for all teenagers, with added challenges for adopted teens. How adopted adolescents deal with sexual experimentation may be indicative of their identification with either their adoptive parents or their birth parents. The adoptive parents may be symbolic of the responsible choice, and the birth parents may be representative of the “bad seed” (Brodzinsky et al., 1992). Adopted adolescents who are able to move through this period of identity crisis, and closer to identity achievement, tend to be those whose families allow them to discuss adoption and help them come to a resolution (Brodzinsky et al., 1992).

Academic approaches to the subject of sexual responsibility have changed considerably over the past few decades. Along with these changes have come necessary adjustments in school-based health and family life curricula. The subjects of genetics, sexual responsibility, and human development can have considerable impact on adopted students. A longitudinal research study of the changes in teenage sexual relationships (comparing the high school classes of 1950, 1975, and 2000) suggested a dramatic change in sexual attitudes and experiences. Overall, there has been a steady decline in negative attitudes toward premarital sex, and the percentages of teens that have engaged in sexual behavior have increased steadily over the 50-year period. These findings point to a much more sexually responsible group of teens, who not only engage in sexual intercourse with protection but who also feel comfortable talking about sexuality with others (Caron & Moskey, 2002). Research has indicated that adopted adolescents do not act out sexually more than their nonadopted counterparts (Benson et al., 1994). However, Sorosky’s research did suggest that female adopted adolescents may act out sexually more than their nonadopted peers through identification with their birth mothers or out of a desire to become pregnant and create a blood link to a relative (Sorosky, Baran, & Pannor, 1989). These conflicting research studies indicate the need for further research.

Some ways for schools to be supportive in this regard may be to include a lesson about adoption in family life or health classes. Bringing adoption into school discussions about ways of forming a family helps to normalize the adoption experience and sets the stage for open communication. Helping to form a support group for teens from blended families may provide a place for adopted adolescents to share feelings. Group counseling with adolescent adoptees is a particularly potent modality because it mitigates the sense of difference and alienation that they may feel and allows them to identify with others who share their experiences (Cordel, Nathan, & Krymow, 1985).

Adolescence is a time when many changes are considered, such as college, leaving home, and choosing relationships. For example, young adult adoptees who have not dealt with any adoption-related issues may find the prospect of leaving home too disturbing or stressful to even consider. These changes and new choices also represent loss of the familiar and a leap into the unknown. This can be an anxiety-producing time for any young adult, and it may require added considerations for adopted teens. It is often very important to adopted young adults to be in control of their adult life decisions, given that they had no control over the first life-altering decision. It would not be uncommon for young adults to delay or sabotage taking destiny into their own hands with respect to these major decisions. This may require understanding on the part of family, guidance counselors, and other professionals and will involve their continued support. Through a supportive mirror of a counselor or family, adolescent adoptees can tell their stories, integrate the facts of their lives, explore possible journeys, and develop a sense of mastery over themselves and the direction of their lives (Winkler, Brown, van Keppel, & Blanchard, 1988).

As this case illustrates, Lindsey’s struggles in school were similar to those of a typical high school student, yet complicated by her adoption. Lindsey’s anxiety and pain were exacerbated by her family’s avoidance and denial of her feelings. As demonstrated in this case, the support of school and family was instrumental in dealing with issues of adoption and how they may affect a child’s behavior and thinking.

Case Study 2

Presenting Problem

Lindsey, now 15, Grade 11, is currently attending her neighborhood high school. Lindsey has recently been suspended for the sixth time this year. The majority of the suspensions were for “cutting class, oppositional/defiant behavior, and insubordination.” Currently, Lindsey is out of school on suspension and has started home instruction. The most recent suspension resulted from Lindsey acting sexually inappropriately with a group of her peers. Lindsey’s parents anticipate that Lindsey will return to the district school and hope to avoid a referral out of district.

Preadoptive Background

Lindsey was adopted at 6 months and was born with a positive toxicology. Lindsey’s birth parents were both 17 years of age at the time of Lindsey’s birth and were never married. Lindsey was relinquished at birth, the adoption was closed, and records were sealed. Nonidentifying information was left for Lindsey by her birth parents. This information contained facts about Lindsey’s birth mother’s bout with drugs and her struggle with drug addiction for most of her teenage years. Lindsey’s birth father was a high school graduate. However, Lindsey’s birth mother was pregnant during her senior year and dropped out of school. It was reported that Lindsey’s birth mother was of Italian descent, her birth father was Colombian. Lindsey spent the first 3 months of her life in foster care and was placed with a family for adoption at 6 months.

Adoptive Background

Lindsey was adopted by the Canes, an affluent, Caucasian couple. Her parents reported that Lindsey’s childhood was pleasant and that she did not demonstrate any overt reactions to her adoption. However, the Canes did report that the adoption was very rarely or almost never discussed. Lindsey was aware of the nonidentifying information available to her and viewed it for the first time at age 13. The Canes have always felt that their child was “born from the heart” and admittedly have trouble discussing their child’s history or birth family.

Treatment and Educational Issues

Throughout elementary school, Lindsey excelled academically and socially. When Lindsey entered middle school, she began to neglect her studies and separated from her usual group of friends. She drastically changed her look and began to experiment with alcohol and illegal substances. Lindsey’s parents sought professional help to address Lindsey’s struggle with substance abuse. This course of treatment was specifically designed to deal with Lindsey’s drug addiction. During a counseling session, Lindsey revealed that she was not committed to stop using drugs. Lindsey added, “my birth mom used drugs too, it must be inherited.” Lindsey also admitted that she felt guilty for causing her birth mother to drop out of school. Family and individual therapy was recommended; however, the Canes did not immediately follow up on these referrals. Mrs. Cane revealed that she had never been in counseling and feared that she would not be able to “deal with the issues which may come up.”

During Lindsey’s last suspension hearing, the board required that Lindsey get a psychological evaluation. The Canes brought Lindsey for the evaluation. Recommendations from the evaluation included the need for individual therapy along with family therapy, and continued drug counseling. In a desperate attempt to have Lindsey remain in school, the Canes agreed to all recommendations made by the board.

Lindsey’s substance abuse continued only for a short time after the start of treatment. Lindsey was able to stop using drugs and continued the treatment while she became sober for close to 1 year. The family began to attend weekly sessions to learn how to support Lindsey in her battle of addiction. During these family sessions, Lindsey began to speak about her biological mother and father for the first time ever in front of her adoptive parents. The Canes presented as defensive and dismissive at first. After weeks of counseling, the family was able to see Lindsey’s pain and began to respect her opinions and feelings. Although the Canes were resistant at first, they began to realize that without their love and support, Lindsey would continue to suffer. They also began to consider Lindsey’s birth parents as less of a threat to their family’s cohesiveness and as more of a common bond.

Lindsey also continued to work hard in her own therapy. She began to understand the connections between some of her behaviors and her feelings about “who she is and where she comes from.” Lindsey could understand that her sexual aggressiveness was inappropriate and most likely her way of identifying with her birth mother. Lindsey also worked hard to recognize that failing school may be another way of identifying with her birth mother, who dropped out of high school. Lindsey stated that at times she did not “feel worthy” of living such a privileged life, and she felt selfish and not deserving of a high school diploma.

Lindsey often wondered if there were other students who had not shared their adoption story and who were in pain. With the help of a school guidance counselor, they were able to begin the support group “Here a Different Way,” for those students touched by adoption. The group met on Saturday mornings at members’ homes, in an effort to consider the confidentiality of students.

Considering IQ and Environment

Cognitive Abilities, Genetics, and Environment

The nature versus nurture debate is a controversial topic for many researchers and can generate passionate discussions on both sides. It has been said that heredity and the environment both contribute 50% of the makeup of an entire human being; but much of the existing debate is about specific percentages and the existence of higher percentages of one factor in different age-groups than another (Petrill et al., 2004). The goal of this section is to explore the origins of individual differences in cognitive abilities and the role of genetics and environment. Various studies suggest an increasing role for genetics and a decreasing role for environment. Genetic and environmental influences are found throughout the life span; however, an important issue now is how genetic and environmental factors influence cognitive ability, especially later in adolescence through adulthood (Petrill et al., 2004).

With respect to cognitive ability, various individual skills and abilities can reflect “intelligence.” In fact, although one of the most common outcome measures of cognitive ability involves the use of the intelligence quotient, IQ as measured by a variety of instruments reflects one way of looking at intelligence; but other forms of intelligence exist that may not be captured by these measures. Moreover, many of the IQ measures have continually suffered from racial and cultural bias (Suzuki & Valencia, 1997).

Data collected for research studies examining genetic and environmental influences were collected from the Colorado Adoption Project (CAP). The CAP used a longitudinal design, permitting the analysis of the etiology of change and continuity in development. The CAP sample consisted of 245 adoptive families and 245 biological control families matched to the adoptive families (Plomin & DeFries, 1985; Plomin, Fulker, Corley, & DeFries, 1997).

A study to determine genetic and environmental influences on general cognitive ability suggested that there were significant correlations in cognitive ability. Researchers from the CAP found that genetic influence increases from infancy to childhood to adolescence. This study indicated that genetic influences are strongest for general cognitive ability and for the specific cognitive development of verbal ability (Plomin et al., 1997). The study concluded that the length of time a family lives together does not influence how similar they will become, unless there is a genetic link.

In a meta-analytical comparison of adopted and nonadopted children’s IQ and school performance, researchers found that when compared with siblings or peers who remained in their family or in institutions, the adopted students had higher IQ scores. When adopted children’s IQ scores were compared with siblings or peers in the same environment, there was an insignificant difference (van Ijzendoorn et al., 2005).

Transracial IQ Correlations

Transracial adoption studies suggest a genetic contribution to between-group differences. Studies of Korean and Vietnamese children adopted into White American and White Belgian homes reported that, although many had been hospitalized for malnutrition as infants, they excelled in academic achievement and ability with higher IQs than their adoptive nation’s norms (Frydman & Lynn, 1989). Researchers concluded that early undernourishment may not cause irreversible damage for children but, instead, can be negated by early, drastic, and stable environmental improvement (Columbo, de la Parra, & Lopez, 1992). However, in a later study by Weinberg, Scarr, and Waldman (1992), results found that at age 17 African American and mixed-race children adopted into White, middle-class families performed at lower academic levels than the White siblings with whom they had been raised.

Literature indicates that environmental differences that exist between races are extremely important in IQ determination. For instance, data from the Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study reported by Scarr and Weinberg (1983) found that when African American children were adopted by White families at an early age, their IQs were more similar to the White IQ average of 110, compared with the average IQ of 90 for African American children reared in the African American community.

Impact of Adoption on School Performance

Research has been conducted in an effort to dispel the myths of the “adopted child syndrome.” The “adopted child syndrome” myth supposes that adoptees have higher rates of psychopathology, obtain lower levels of academic achievement, and are overrepresented in psychotherapy. The National Council for Adoption (1989) asserted that adoptees are over-represented because adoptive parents are familiar with dealing with agencies and are more likely to seek help.

Environmental Influences at School

To determine the effects of the school environment on academic achievement, researchers analyzed data from parents and first graders (adopted and nonadopted) who were from the CAP (Coon, Carey, Fulker, & DeFries, 1993). The question of whether or not school environment influences academic achievement has been a long-standing discussion. It may be supposed that parents who send their children to private school regard education as significantly important in their child’s life. With that consideration, it may follow that they themselves are more intelligent and have maintained higher academic standards. Because cognitive ability and IQ are genetically linked, perhaps it may also be assumed that the school environment might be less significant in influencing academic outcomes. The CAP data allowed researchers to separate students for whom the association was entirely environmental and those for whom the association had both genetic and environmental components (Coon et al., 1993).

The design of this study considered the students separately by gender, as compared respectively to both mother and father, in a controlled environment. When the mothers’ IQ was compared with boys’ academic achievement, there was a negative correlation in adoptive families but not in nonadoptive families. Results for mothers and girls established a positive correlation between IQ and academic achievement (Coon et al., 1993). In addition, results indicated that boys with better reading skills tend to be placed in private schools, whereas results of math achievement were inconclusive regarding private versus public schools. Inconclusive outcomes suggest further research is necessary in evaluating academic achievement and school environment effects. Another mitigating factor was age at adoption. Age at adoption did not influence cognitive IQ as much as it did cognitive performance (school performance). Children adopted within their first year of life did not show any delays in school achievement, whereas children adopted after their first birthday lagged behind in this area (van Ijzendoorn et al., 2005).

School Attitudes and Performance

In an effort to compare adopted students with nonadopted students, a research study was conducted that included a representative sample of adolescents in Grades 7 through 12. Data were collected from adolescents, parents, and school administrators (Miller, Fan, Christensen et al., 2000). As noted in a previous section, across the different developmental stages, adoptees adapted to school and dealt with adoption using individual coping skills. The level of individual resiliency within each child is another significant factor. However, in this research study, certain demographic and background variables were considered, including gender, age, race, family structure, and parental education. Overall, the positive outcomes for adopted students as compared with nonadopted students included higher school grades, a more positive school feeling, and higher participation in academic extracurricular activities. It is interesting to consider the findings regarding a higher rate of adopted students feeling more positive about school and willing to join clubs. Perhaps the need to belong to a group and be accepted by peers is what drives adopted children to seek membership in extracurricular groups. More negative outcomes were associated with issues such as school troubles and skipping school (Miller, Fan, Grotevant et al., 2000).

Data reviewed by the meta-analytic research of van Ijzendoorn et al. (2005) concluded that adopted children outperformed their left-behind siblings or peers in academic achievement. A major conclusion drawn from this study is that adopted children are able to benefit from a positive change of environment.

School Interventions and Teacher Influence/Sensitivity and Understanding

In discussing school involvement, it is important to consider the fact that some families may choose not to share information about their child’s adoption with school personnel. It is essential that anyone involved in the child’s education respect the family’s decision to share or not to share information. Whether or not to share information with preschools or lower grade teachers remains a controversial issue. Professionals are split as to the necessity of sharing information so early (National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, 1993). However, teachers and school personnel can become more sensitive to adoption issues, use positive adoption language, and help adopted children feel accepted, if parents are not willing to share and affirm their knowledge and feelings about adoption. Increasing the sensitivity of school personnel about adoption should not be interpreted to indicate that adopted students will be treated as “different” or “exceptions.”

Restructuring Common Assignments

Baby Pictures

Young students enjoy seeing how much they have grown and changed. Adopted students may not have pictures that show them before the age at which they were adopted. They may have the desire to see themselves as babies, but may never have the opportunity. Although this is an assignment that is intended to be enjoyable, emotions may run high when a teacher suggests bringing in baby photos. The educational goal of this assignment is to assess deductive reasoning ability. As an alternative to this assignment, teachers may request that students bring in facts or childhood pictures of famous people and ask the class to guess who it is.

Family History

Perhaps in the place of asking about family history, teachers can have an “All About Me Day.” On this special day, students can create their own individual guidelines for what they will include.

Family Tree

For adopted children the “Family Tree” assignment can be daunting. The educational goal of this assignment varies by age. Younger students learn that there are many loving and caring relationships in their lives. Including all those individuals with whom the students have a loving, caring relationship helps to illustrate the concept of what makes a family. For older elementary school students, this assignment represents learning about societal structures. The family tree can be redesigned to include many different branches and roots. Perhaps a family forest can be used, where there are many different types of trees, yet no two are exactly alike. A family forest is a good representation of diversity in families. Children who may not be prepared to share the details of their history may still consider this assignment overwhelming. Students may not know who to include—the adoptive family or the birth family. If they include the birth family they may feel unfaithful to their adoptive parents. When the family tree assignment is approached with sensitivity, it can become a successful project. Adopted students who have not been able to speak openly about adoption may use the family tree assignment as an opportunity to break ground and discuss details.


Children especially enjoy celebrating holidays at school. Holidays and birthdays can be very real reminders of loss or trauma for adopted children. For instance, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day can elicit many different emotional reactions. These holidays are meant to honor those people who have had an impact on individuals’ lives; nonetheless, these special days need to be approached with care and empathetic understanding. Another way to approach Mother’s Day or Father’s Day is to broaden the assignment to include “Special Persons Day.”

Suggestions for Schools

Books. Local school libraries can order age-appropriate books about adoption. Many books include adoption stories and useful information to relay messages of sensitivity about adoption. Books on foreign countries are useful for learning about and introducing other cultures. We suggest some titles to include in the school library:

  • We’re Different, We’re the Same by Bobbi Jane Kates (ages 2-6)
  • How I Was Adopted by Joanna Cole (ages 4-8)
  • Lucy’s Family Tree by Karen Halvorsen Schreck (ages 8-11)
  • The Orphan Train Adventures by Joan Lowery Nixon (ages 10-14)
  • How It Feels to Be Adopted by Jill Krementz (ages 12 and up)
  • When You Were Born in Korea: A Memory Book for Children Adopted From Korea by B. Boyd

Groups/Meetings. Forming an advocate group in schools can be helpful in disseminating information and/or organizing events. Schools can form adoptive parents groups that can be sponsored by the PTA or announced in the school newsletter. These meetings can be facilitated outside the school, or a weekend meeting may be suggested.

A presentation about adoption to students, to faculty, or at a PTA meeting can introduce adoption as a way families are born and will raise awareness. Many of the issues students face about loss or change will be relevant to both adopted and nonadopted students. Moreover, it will help raise the sensitivity level regarding adoption and adoption-related issues. Workshops on adoption may be integrated into parent trainings.

Curriculum. Teachers can integrate adoption into lesson plans. For instance, a history class may reference famous adopted persons who have made contributions in various industries. For example, George Washington Carver and Bill Clinton are two adopted individuals who have contributed to American history. Health or family life cycle classes can include a unit on adoption. The goal is to educate and normalize adoption as a way of forming a family.

Celebrate National Adoption Month. National Adoption Week was first proclaimed by the governor of Massachusetts in 1976. Later that same year, it was officially made a national celebration by President Gerald Ford. More and more states began to celebrate it, and in 1990, the month of November was declared National Adoption Month. Activities, special events, and observances are planned to highlight the needs of foster children who need permanent families. A school hall bulletin board dedicated to National Adoption Month is one suggestion to help students “see” adoption in school.

Considerations of Race, Culture, and Ethnic Identity

Vignette: Jessie’s World

Jessie is a 9-year-old boy who loves comic books. They always fit into the duffel bag where he keeps all his stuff. No matter which foster home he was in, he could always pull them out late at night and take a peek at what his favorite superheroes were up to.

Jessie is really excited because next week his foster parents are going to take him along with them to talk to a judge so that they can officially adopt him. He is also a little confused—he has a mom whom he hasn’t seen in a few years, but he remembers living with her and his two older stepbrothers in their apartment when he was little. He knows that his mom is sick and can’t take care of him, and that his stepbrothers are older and live together with his aunt; but he wonders when he will get to see them all again.

He really likes Judith and Tom; they’ve told him that he’s going to get to stay with them forever and that they’ll take care of him and be his parents. But they have a few other kids already and some of them need extra help. He likes playing with his “new” brothers and sister, and they keep saying that they are happy that Judith and Tom are their parents (they even call Judith and Tom “mom” and “dad”). But Jessie keeps wondering what it’s going to be like to have White parents. Everyone is going to know right away that he’s adopted (and “different”) because he’s Black. When the kids in his class see Judith drop him off at school, or when Tom comes to watch his baseball games, the other kids might not even know who his parents are, or they might ask stupid questions or make fun of him. Also, he’s been wondering if he has to have just White friends now. Will his new parents be disappointed if he keeps his best friend Rafael, who just moved here from Puerto Rico?

Jessie already feels different from everybody else because he’s had to move around so much. He was always changing schools because he had lived in so many foster homes before he wound up with Tom and Judith. Now he’s going to be different because his parents are White and he is Black. He’s heard a lot recently about how Black people are poorer than everybody else. Is the social worker putting him with White parents because she’s White too, and she knows that no Black people have enough money to adopt a foster kid? Tom and Judy have told him that he can talk to them about anything, but he’s not sure if he should let them know about all the things that he’s been wondering about. It would be great if superheroes really did exist—a lot of them have things about them that make them different too. If they did exist, then he could talk to one of them about what it feels like to be so different.

Vignette: Anne’s World

Anne is very excited about next week too. Her mom is letting her have a sleepover for her 12th birthday party. It was a little hard to make up the guest list, though. She wasn’t sure if she should have her school friends over, or if she should have her girlfriends over from her group for children that were adopted from China. Nobody her age at school belongs to the group, so she felt like it was almost like she was choosing sides when she had to decide who was coming to her party. She remembers that when she first started going to the group for adoptees from China, when she was 6, she was really excited because she got to meet girls who looked just like her. They spoke English really well, without a Chinese accent, and dressed “normally” like she did. Before going to the group, she had only seen Chinese girls in a few books and movies, and most of them were living in China and weren’t American like her. She was adopted by her mom and dad when she was less than 2 years old and doesn’t remember being in China at all. The orphanage didn’t have any record of her real birthday, so her adoptive parents chose a day that was supposed to be “lucky” and that’s been her birthday ever since. That’s the day she’s celebrating next week.

Lately, Anne’s been distracted at school. She has a crush on Jason, a boy who is in her class, but she’s not sure if he likes her. A girlfriend told her that Jason said he thought that she was pretty, which made her feel good about her looks, which are really important to her lately. She wonders if maybe she’ll marry Jason or someone who looks like him one day. If she does, she wonders if her birth mom will be at her wedding. Maybe she has a brother or sister back in China; her mom has talked to her about maybe going back to China in a group tour with other adoptees someday. Maybe she’ll meet a brother or sister there and bring them back here to live. Anne knows another girl on her soccer team who is adopted. They talked about it once, but that girl was adopted in the United States and already knew her birth mom and her half brothers. Anne doesn’t think that it will be as easy for her to find out about where she came from as it was for that other girl.

Vignette: Nadine and Alek, Through Their Parents’ Eyes

Nadine and Alek are siblings who were adopted 1 year ago from the same orphanage in Russia. Nadine is 5 and Alek is 7. Although they are brother and sister, they rarely saw each other in the orphanage since boys and girls were kept in separate areas. They are both relatively small compared with their respective classmates. Beverly and Brian, their parents, were happy to find out recently that the nutritional supplements and diet that the physician recommended have resulted in increasing their children’s height and weight, and the children seem healthier than ever these days. However, they had to go through a real trial and error process to find healthy foods that suited Nadine and Alek’s already developed preferences for taste and flavor. It also took a while for Beverly to understand why both the children were so unusually anxious around their pediatrician (“Dr. Bob”) when they came for checkups. Beverly had mentioned it to another mother who had adopted a child from the same orphanage a few years before. That mother had pointed out that all the caregivers at that orphanage were female, the children there had experienced very little close contact with men, and they almost certainly had never had a man physically touch them before they were adopted.

Nadine and Alek love to play together and share well. When they were first brought to the United States, Beverly was concerned that they seemed to talk only to each other and in a way only they seemed to understand. Beverly had learned some basic Russian words and phrases before she and her husband traveled to meet the children, and none of the words that she heard pass between her children seemed to be any of the ones that she had learned. But that phase seemed to pass quickly, and both children seemed to have picked up on speaking English very quickly. They had learned in the same way Beverly’s little niece had—by having to express their needs and desires out of necessity. Early on, there had been a lot of frustration between the kids and their parents as they tried to communicate with each other; the children were old enough to know exactly what they wanted and to expect to be understood. Thankfully, there was a program at the elementary school that worked with students for whom English was a second language.

Socially, the children seem to be doing well; however, they appear to be adjusting to school still, especially Alek. Beverly and Brian were told that there was no formal school day at the orphanage where Alek and Nadine had lived, so, at first, the combination of freedom, structure, and stimulation was perplexing to Alek. He was used to staying either in a very confined place with no specific expectations from grown-ups and only a few toys that were commandeered by the older kids, or being told exactly what to do and when to do it (including activities like going to the bathroom). Although Alek’s teachers report that he seeks out his sister on the playground, he is slowly developing friendships in his own class. Nadine is doing well socially, too; she had some extra time at home with Beverly last year, and they were in a music and play group that helped Nadine work on her English and physical coordination through singing and moving to music. Beverly and Nadine also spent a lot of time exploring places that most of Nadine’s peers were already familiar with, like the local mall and the grocery store. When Beverly and Brian first brought their children home, they thought that it was great that both Nadine and Alek were so comfortable around other people; the children often put their arms out, wanting to be picked up (even with total strangers). But now, Beverly and Brian have had to work hard on helping them to understand “stranger danger.”

Beverly and Brian are very pleased with how their children seem to be progressing physically, mentally, and socially. They know from working with their adoption agency and adoptive parents groups that, should Nadine or Alek need any special counseling or educational assistance, they can go to professionals for help. They continue to look to the teachers and staff at the school for feedback as to how they can continue to raise healthy, happy, and well-adjusted children.

Children of Intercountry/Transracial Adoption and Their Identity

As you can see, Jessie, Anne, Nadine, and Alek are all engaged in the same major developmental tasks as other children in their age-groups, including working on establishing a personal sense of identity. Individual identity is not created in a vacuum but develops through the process of personal exploration, comparison, differentiation, and integration as experienced in relationship to society. Adoptees engage in the additional task of creating an “adoptive identity”—an understanding of the personal meaning of being an adopted person.

Considerations for Children Adopted into Racially Integrated Families

Jessie and Anne, who were described in the vignettes above, are transracial adoptees in that they were placed with an adoptive family of another race. Nearly 20,000 children were adopted internationally in the United States in 2001, and approximately a quarter of those were adopted from China. It is estimated that transracial adoptions accounted for 15% of the 36,000 adoptions that took place from foster care in 1998 (the most recent year for which comprehensive information is available). The number of transracial adoptions (especially international adoptions) is expected to continue to increase (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2002).

Concurrent with the psychosocial and cognitive development that was described earlier in this chapter, children experience a progression of awareness of race and culture and their meaning in society. Adoptive identity formation can be viewed in multiple contexts, including intrapsychic (a cognitive/affective construct), the family environment, and extrafamilial contexts (community connections, relationships with friends, and culture) (Grotevant, Dunbar, Kohler, & Lash Esau, 2000). This section explores considerations of transracial and international adoption within these three contexts.

When children have been adopted into culturally and/or racially integrated families, cultural and racial identities each play a role in personal identity formation. According to Erikson (1968, 1980), the feeling of belonging to a group both racially and ethnically is an important part of creating a sense of self. The cultural-racial identity model that was developed by Baden and Steward is an especially helpful approach to conceptualizing the complexities of the identity formation of transracial adoptees (Baden & Steward, 2000). Recognizing the limitations of racial identity models that assume a homogeneous family, they created a framework that allows for the multiple dimensions of identity that are encountered by those who are transracially adopted. Their model differentiates between cultural identity and racial identity. It then allows for self-identification within those two areas with either the parents’ racial or cultural group, the adoptee’s racial or cultural group, or multiple groups (Baden & Steward, 2000). We can see that Anne, represented in the vignette above, is working on figuring out who she is with respect to both her race and her culture; this process may continue throughout adolescence and into early adulthood for Anne. A study of young adults who had been adopted from Korea confirmed that racial and cultural identity development takes place at least into middle adulthood for many transracial adoptees (Meier, 1999).

The complex issues of identity development have long been the basis for the attribution of adjustment disorders to adoptees, especially when observed during adolescence. Findings indicate that the negatively determining factor may be societal racism itself, as opposed to whether children are adopted transracially or intraracially (Feigelman, 2000). Caution is advised when professionals consider the racial and cultural identity formation of children who are members of racially integrated families. The mere presence of additional challenges does not mean that these matters can’t or won’t be met and mastered. All individuals, including Whites, develop a racial identity (Helms, 1984). However, children who are transracial or international adoptees may need additional support and time as they work through the multiple layers of their personal identity formation.

Domestic Transracial Adoption

Most domestic transracial adoptions involve adoption by White parents. In 1998, although African American children made up only about 15% of the child population in the United States, they constituted 47% of the children in the nation who were awaiting adoption placement in settings such as foster care (Burrow & Finley, 2001). In 2001, African American, Asian American, Hispanic, and Native American children constituted 60% of children waiting to be adopted from foster care (Lee, 2003). In light of the large numbers of children affected by this practice, it is important that educators realize the many challenges that these children face. As in the case of Jessie, most African American adoptees are adopted later in life than other children (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2002). This puts these children at greater risk for certain complications; studies indicate that the older children are at the time of their adoption, the more prone they are to exhibit certain behavioral problems (Smith-McKeever, 2004). Other factors that can result in behavioral problems are a plurality of foster care placements and abuse or neglect. Multiple placements in various foster homes may result in the disruption of the psychological growth of some children as they try to adapt to ever-changing environments. Multiple placements can also necessitate changing schools frequently, making consistent record keeping for purposes of assessment and progress tracking very difficult.

The practice of adoption of African American children by White parents has been a point of controversy for many years; many of the concerns have focused on positive racial identity development and the ability of White families to prepare their children for the experiences of racism that they will encounter in their lives (Grotevant et al., 2000; Park & Green, 2000). A study of transracially adopted African American children revealed that they had more problems with establishing a racial identity than African American children who were intraracially adopted. However, the same study revealed no difference between the first group’s overall self-esteem and that of the second group (McRoy, Zurcher, Lauderdale, & Anderson, 1982). African American children who are adopted into families with White parents also appeared to have different patterns and delayed establishment of racial identity (Johnson, Shireman, & Watson, as cited in Haugaard, Dorman, & Schustack, 1997). Despite concerns about adjustment, the majority of studies indicate that transracial adoptees eventually adjust as successfully as intraracial adoptees (Bagley, 1993). However, every effort should be made to consider these additional stressors that may delay learning and social and emotional growth.

International Adoption/International Transracial Adoption

Nadine, Alek, and Anne were all adopted internationally. Since Alek and Nadine look similar to their White parents, they will probably not have to grapple with the many complex issues of racial identity development that transracially adopted children do. However, they may need to consider their cultural and national heritage and its meaning in each of their lives. As indicated earlier, Anne will also probably develop a sense of how her cultural and racial identities inform her self-concept.

Nadine and Alek were raised in an institution for most of their lives prior to their adoption. Even a short time in an institutional setting can result in delays in social-emotional, cognitive, and motor skills development (Meese, 2005); the longer the time that children spend in institutional settings, the more at risk they are for these delays to continue into later childhood and adolescence (Judge, 2004; Kadlec & Cermak, 2002; Meese, 2005). Many children who have lived in these settings are also at risk for physical complications from malnutrition, limited medical care, fetal alcohol exposure, and the consequences of being exposed to environmental toxins (Meese, 2002). Many of these physical complications can be improved through healthy diets, the administration of nutritional supplements, and the use of therapies that focus on sensory integration, occupational interventions, and speech and language improvement (Meese, 2002). The earliest intervention possible is recommended for the greatest effect (Johnson & Dole, 1999; Meese, 2002).

Reasonable suggestions have been made proposing that the early sensory deprivation and malnutrition that some adoptees experience during institutionalization results in low IQ. However, postadoptive studies show that this may be the case with respect to only those children who have lived in the most extremely depriving of institutions (Rutter, O’Connor, & the English and Romanian Adoptees Study Team, 2004). Research shows that children who have been adopted from overseas institutions may be at an increased risk for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This is probably attributable to prenatal, preinstitutional, and institutional environmental factors (Hoksbergen, ter Laak, van Dijkum, Rijk, & Stoutjesdijk, 2003).

A study of children who were adopted from Romania to The Netherlands indicated that some children who had lived in extremely neglectful physical and social conditions exhibited indications of posttraumatic stress disorder (Hoksbergen, ter Laak, van Dijkum, Rijk, Rijk, et al., 2003). Some children from these setting are also prone to indiscriminate friendliness, such as was exhibited by Nadine and Alek. This may be due to a reduced ability to attach to any one caregiver and may be adapted behavior learned in a setting with many caregivers (Haugaard, Palmer, & Wojslawowicz, 1999; Marcovitch et al., 1997). Despite these seemingly overwhelming risks and potential hurdles, a meta-analysis of children who have been adopted through intercountry adoption found that they are well adjusted, have fewer mental health referrals, and have fewer behavior problems than children adopted domestically (Groza, Ryan, & Cash, 2003; Juffer & van Ijzendoorn, 2005). It is important to remember that there is a broad range of care provided to children awaiting adoption from overseas, and that various environmental and psychosocial factors contribute to a child’s ability to adapt to postadoption challenges.

Nadine and Alek have faced a challenge that is common to most children who are adopted from another country at an older age—that of acquiring a new language. The most crucial time for language development is from birth to 2 years of age; most American children having acquired a working vocabulary of over 10,000 words before starting school. Children who are adopted from non-English-speaking countries after 2 years of age are at a great disadvantage with respect to school performance as well as making social and emotional connections with others. As we saw in the portrait of Alek and Nadine, children who are raised in neglectful institutional settings may develop their own institutional language. As they transition to American culture and the English language, children of international adoption usually lose what they had learned of their first language, which had served as an important tool for getting their needs met. Children between the ages of 4 and 6 have the greatest difficulty in transitioning. They are expected to rapidly catch up to the level of their peers to function, and yet they may not have enough of a base in their previous language to facilitate an understanding of how language works (Meese, 2002).

Implications for School and School-Based Issues

Educators and school counselors can have a great effect on the racial and cultural identity development of transracial and international adoptees, as well as on all students under their purview. What is of utmost importance is that professionals gain insight into their own thoughts and possible biases regarding adoption-related matters. This might include gaining insight into the following issues: What constitutes a “real” family? Would I anticipate that a particular child was going to have a behavior problem if I found out that he or she was adopted? What about if he or she was adopted from another country or was a different race from most of the students in the class? Research shows that the dominant concept of a “real” family is that of a heterosexual couple and their biological children (Wegar, 2000). A study of preschool and elementary school teachers showed a bias against adopted children, based on preconceptions as to their behavioral and personality attributes (Kessler, 1988). Teachers should consider reframing their perspective on children adopted from institutional settings. Instead of assuming deficits or pathology, they should consider the positive traits that particular children may have, such as resilience or adaptability (Juffer & van Ijzendoorn, 2005). Effective education professionals are those who will challenge their preexisting opinions and attitudes regarding matters of race, culture, ethnicity, and adoption.

Educators should protect their transracially and internationally adopted students by refusing to tolerate racial slurs, “jokes,” or comments in school by students or adults. Keeping a vigilantly high standard sends a message of positive regard and respect for all students.

Encourage early intervention, especially for students who spent time in an institution and for whom assessment reveals additional needs.

Remember that an English-language delay is not necessarily an indication of a learning delay (Meese, 2002) and that there may be differences in language attainment for day-to-day usage and academic usage (Dalen, 2001). Additionally, children who are “losing” one language and “gaining” another may not always make predictably linear progress (Meese, 2002).

Include projects and activities that portray people and places in other countries with respect, and avoid stereotyping. For younger children, this may include making available dolls that reflect various races and cultures. Books and stories about other countries may be used as a springboard to teaching children the similarities and universality between people of different cultures and races.

Recommend and encourage students’ participation in adoptive family support and culture groups, or organize a family night for racially integrated families. A study of transracial adoptive families found that participation in such groups increased family stability and functioning (Zabriskie & Freeman, 2004).

Special Education Issues in Adoption

This section will evaluate the incidence of adopted children in special education. Studies have indicated that adoptees are more likely to have significant learning difficulties. As a prelude to the following research reporting, it is worthwhile keeping in mind that these conclusions are limited because of significant methodological problems. For example, in some studies, only a small sample size was used, and participants were recruited from clinical settings (Brodzinsky & Steiger, 1991). Brodzinsky, Schechter, Braff, and Singer (1984) reported lower teacher and parent ratings of school success among adopted elementary-school-age children. In addition, Kenny, Baldwin, and Mackie (1967) and Silver (1970, 1989) noted that the number of adopted children with learning disabilities was disproportionately high.

A more recent study used a sample population of neurologically impaired, perceptually impaired, and emotionally disturbed students to determine rates of adopted children found in special education. The results of this study concluded that the percentage of adoptees in special education among this group is significantly high (Brodzinsky & Steiger, 1991). The widespread conclusion of the compiled research indicates that adopted children are overrepresented among children having difficulties at school. Therefore, educators and counselors should be compelled to learn about, acknowledge, and address adoption-related issues.

Reasons for Over-representation

The reasons for overrepresentation of adopted children in special education are varied. Experts suggest that parents who adopt may be more likely than biological parents to seek help for their children because they are accustomed to using the services of agencies (Deutsch et al., 1982). Adoptive parents are found to have higher education levels than nonadoptive parents and tend to make greater use of counseling and other services than families with less education (Miller, Fan, Grotevant et al., 2000).

Another contributing factor may be the prenatal environment of the child. If a child’s birth mother did not have adequate nutrition, or if she drank alcohol, took drugs, or smoked cigarettes during her pregnancy, these environmental influences may have some effect. Abuse or neglect, if it caused physical injury, neurological damage, or emotional distress can also play a role in producing learning disabilities (National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, 1993). The effects may be especially evident in cases of intercountry adoption, particularly in those from institutionalized environments (Meese, 2002).

Intercountry Adoptions

Intercountry and transracially adopted children, who enter school in the United States as students for whom English is a second language, bring to the classroom their own special needs. Children of intercountry adoptions differ from other students who learn English as a Second Language (ESL), such as children who are immigrants and are still exposed to their first language in their home environments. Intercountry adoptees usually lose their first language while learning English. These circumstances make it harder for educators to assess if the difficulties are due to slower but “normal” ESL learning (Pearson, 2001). Just as language is a challenge, so is acculturation into American school systems. Educators who recognize achievements other than academics (i.e., behavioral) will be instrumental in raising the self-esteem of these children (Enge, 1998).

Clinical/Educational Implications

Often, adoption is not the presenting problem with students referred to special education and, therefore, it is disregarded and not included in treatment plans. All too often school counselors who have not had training or who do not understand how adoption can affect students will avoid adoption-related discussions. Without acknowledgment or validation of the impact of adoption, educators and counselors cannot provide a supportive environment in which to work through these issues.

If there is no supportive forum wherein adopted children are able to explore grief and loss, behaviors may emerge that can facilitate a referral to out-of-district special education. Although it is good practice to be aware of the special issues of adoption, educators and counselors should be cautious and avoid overreacting to learning and behavioral difficulties that may be temporary, age-specific responses to adoption issues in children’s development (Meese, 1999).

Case Study 3

Special Education Issues in Adoption

Ashley was adopted from Colombia at 6 months of age. Her parents had one biological child who was 13 years old at the time Ashley was adopted. Ashley and her family enjoyed a very affluent lifestyle. Her adoptive mother was a special education elementary school teacher. Ashley struggled in school in the early years, Grades 1 through 5. Although Ashley was very sociable and made friends easily, she would commonly find fault with them and leave them. Ashley’s parents divorced when she was 8 years old. At this time, Ashley was living with her adoptive mom and visiting her adoptive father on the weekends. Both parents remained very attentive to Ashley and they continued to enjoy a pleasant lifestyle. Soon after the divorce Ashley’s adoptive mother remarried. Her mother’s new husband and his two children moved into the home.

Ashley was experiencing failing grades and was refusing to attend school on a regular basis. Her mother was familiar with the required testing for special education and had Ashley tested for special placement. The school district agreed on special education services out of district, stating Ashley’s academic testing scored three levels below grade. Remedial classes and an individualized education plan were put into place for Ashley. After close to 2 years of services, an evaluation showed little or no improvement in Ashley’s academics.

Ashley’s mother then negotiated for special placement in a specialized intensive support program, where the emotional needs of the child were on par with, or perhaps sometimes paramount to, academics. The school district agreed.

Just as Ashley’s new school placement was about to begin, Ashley’s adoptive mother was diagnosed with cancer. Ashley was displaced from her home once again and moved in with her adoptive father and brother. Ashley’s adoptive mother died within 1 year of Ashley’s placement in her new school. Her academics showed no improvement at the end-of-year testing. Ashley received intense counseling weekly at school to address the drastic and sad changes in her life. While working with a counselor, Ashley was asked to write about one wish she had. Ashley crossed out the words “one wish” and wrote “three wishes.” Ashley wished (1) for her adoptive mom to come back, (2) to find her biological mom, and (3) for money so that she could help her biological mom. Ashley shared with the counselor that these had been her thoughts almost every day for quite some time. After 2 years of intensive work, Ashley was ready to graduate from middle school to high school; triennial testing at the end of the year showed Ashley on grade level for math and above grade level for reading. Ashley was referred to an in-district placement for high school and continued counseling with her family.

Reflection Questions and Discussion

School Issues Viewed Through a Developmental Stage Theory

  1. Adopted preschoolers tend to have very positive feelings about being adopted. At what age does this begin to change for adopted children, and how does this change in thinking manifest itself at school?
  2. Which stage of development is considered especially complicated in the search for self? Discuss why.

Considering IQ and Environment

  • During childhood and adolescence, adopted children become increasingly more similar to their biological parents and increasingly less similar to their adoptive parents. Discuss the implications for adoptive parent influence and peer and environmental influence.
  • Age at adoption may influence cognitive IQ and school performance. Are children adopted in their first year of life more apt to excel at school performance or yield a higher cognitive IQ? Discuss the reasons for why this is so.

School Interventions and Teacher Influence/Sensitivity and Understanding

  1. In an effort to honor differences in the classroom, discuss an inclusive assignment that a teacher might use.
  2. Suggest some activities to acknowledge National Adoption Month.

Considerations of Race, Culture, and Ethnic Identity

  1. Discuss concrete and specific ways in which you can or do challenge your students to become more aware and accepting of their own racial, cultural, and ethnic identity and that of others. Discuss concrete and specific ways in which you can or do challenge yourself to become more aware and accepting of your own racial, cultural, and ethnic identity and that of others.
  2. Choose one of the vignettes that were presented above and identify specific concerns that you might have if Jessie, Anne, Nadine, or Alek were one of your students. What interventions might you employ to assist that student to develop to his or her fullest potential?

Special Education Issues in Adoption

  1. Adoptees were overrepresented in neurologically impaired, perceptually impaired, and emotionally disturbed groups in special education. Discuss reasons why the prevalence of adoptees may actually be overestimated.
  2. To support adopted children at school, a counselor or educator should try to provide a supportive environment. Describe examples where professional intervention can be more detrimental than helpful.