make this school year exceptional (adoption/foster)

This article originally appeared in Adoption Today magazine.

Make This School Year Exceptional
by Tracy Dee Whitt

The kids have enjoyed swinging, swimming pools, sidewalk chalk, and scrumptious mud pies, but now it’s time to think about school. Some kids are excited about the new year and some are wary and worried.

My daughter, Payton, is a mixture of both. She has looked forward to kindergarten since she began uttering her first words, it has seemed to constantly be on her mind. Yet, despite the excitement, there is always trepidation when she enters a new situation; a new Sunday school class, another year of preschool, or Vacation Bible School. The jitters are fairly pointless, as she walks in with her fingers in her mouth, barely moving her feet forward, but when she is among the new kids, it all flitters away because she soon has friends, who she just met, following her every move.

I still have to pay attention to her worries and concerns, because in her mind they are real. We try to prepare her as best as we can. In the past months we’ve talked with her about what the new year, at a new school, will bring. At Kindergarten Roundup we found out class time would be vastly different from what we told her. Whoops. There are now so many requirements for teachers, they don’t have time for recess, indoor playtime, or snack. You’re most likely responding just as I did, “What?”

We made sure to share this with Payton right away so she wouldn’t go through the summer imagining something different. Many children like to know what’s happening in their world, and this is especially true for adopted children, and kids with attachment issues. The more you can prepare them for, the better it will go for them.

As school approaches, you will also want to consider what you want to share with your child’s teacher. Does your child have any behavior issues that you need to notify them about before school begins? Is your child ahead or behind academically? Do certain situations set your child off? If there is any information that will help your child succeed and the teacher to keep her hair intact, consider taking some time communicating this with them. Most teachers will be open to hearing what you have to say, will be willing to work with you, and will be happy you care about your child’s education.

Our daughter, Payton, had a very difficult time in preschool. Part of the issue was that she wanted to be in control. She would rush through her work and begin helping other kids with theirs. Most days she is a blessing at home in how she helps with her brother, who has Autism, but this proactive spirit of hers proved as a detriment in a school setting.

There were other behavior issues, many stemming from inconsistency in discipline between home and school. She was getting away with far too much in class, and most of the time it corresponded with having free time. She knew she would be warned several times without consequences, which reinforced the idea that she could manipulate her environment, and by the time consequences were put in place, she was out of control.

“After all, one of the defining elements of a traumatic experience…is a complete loss of control and a sense of utter powerlessness. As a result, regaining control is an important aspect of coping with traumatic stress.” Dr. Bruce Perry

We waited far too long before sitting down with the teachers to discuss what our daughter would need to succeed. We thought we had explained enough, but months later it was evident we hadn’t.

This idea of communicating with your child’s teacher applies to any parent of any kids, but it’s particularly important if you have a child who has behavior issues. We went to Payton’s preschool teachers with a printout they could keep and refer to. We laid out where she had come from, and what her life had looked like, they knew she had been adopted from foster care, but I don’t believe they understood the logistics of it all.

We didn’t write out all the specifics, just letting them know that your child was in an orphanage or foster care, and that they experienced neglect, abuse, and trauma is enough. On the paper we wrote what her triggers were, what behaviors might pop up, why she acted and reacted that way, and then we listed what to do about it.

I then asked the teachers to focus on what Payton did well, because there is so much negative in our kid’s lives. You can give the teacher specifics on what your child does well, where they can see them shine. At the end I wrote in bold letters, “If we are all on the same page, her behavior will get better!” You can add a little smile emoticon there if you’d like. Then welcome their questions, but try not to be offended by what they ask, as this may be something completely new to them.

I would suggest letting the teachers know that you want to hear about how your child is doing in class. Don’t wait for parent/teacher conferences to come around, continually keep yourself updated. Ask them how your child is doing at least on a biweekly basis. If you always get the same answer, “He’s doing fine/good/great,” ask pointed questions occasionally. How is he doing with the other children? What are her interactions like? How is she doing in (subjects she struggles in)? Does he listen to instructions?

You can consider volunteering in the classroom. If your child doesn’t tolerate you spending time in their class, dropping in periodically will help you get a feel for how he or she is doing.

We had a meeting with my son’s preschool teachers, aids, and therapists last year. One of them said, “When a parent is involved in their child’s education, the child is worked with more [in school].” Right or wrong, everyone around the table agreed, and they are all truly amazing educators. It’s sad that this is true in many instances, but now you know how it works in some school settings.

As my daughter has healed from her past trauma, we have found it less critical to share information with teachers. I was relieved this summer when I dropped Payton off at Vacation Bible School and didn’t need to go through her behaviors and worry about what she would do when I left. I didn’t pester the teachers when I picked her up, I knew that things had gone fairly well. Because school is every day, for most of the year, I will still need to talk to the teacher about things to look for, but the list has dwindled significantly from last years. You can decide what to share, and maybe as the year moves forward you will find more transparency is best for everyone.

Communicate with your child’s teacher so they will be better equipped to teach your child, communicate with your child so he or she is prepared for change in the coming school year. Everyone will benefit from knowing what to expect and what to do in given situations. May you and your children have a great school year!

How have you made a school year improve? I’d love to hear your ideas.
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