What schools need to know about adoption

My son, the Dude, finished his school career a few weeks ago, and is enjoying a blissful summer before starting college in September. (Well, not entirely blissful, as he’s broken his hand, but he’s managing). It’s fair to say that school can be a difficult place for adopted and care-experienced children, and we’ve had our share of issues to cope with over the years. As an adoptive parent, you have to spend a huge amount of time being your child’s advocate, and this often involves having to explain things about adoption that you’d hope education professionals would be aware of already. So here’s my list of things that schools need to know about adoption, based on fourteen and a half years of adoptive parenting.

A long, long journey: the Dude, aged two, shortly after his arrival
  1. Adoption has changed since the 1960s and 70s. It’s no longer about young single mothers giving up tiny babies because there was no other option available to them. The vast majority of children adopted in the UK nowadays have been taken into care as a result of abuse or neglect. A court then has to be convinced that there is no possible chance of them returning safely to their birth parents. For this decision to be made, a huge amount of evidence has to be built up. That takes a long time – time when children might have been in harmful situations or in the uncertainty of foster care. All of this will have had an impact.
  2. Linked to this is the fact that children don’t have to have a conscious memory of the events that led to their adoption in order to be affected by them. Early trauma – neglect, abandonment, exposure to harm – disrupts the formation of secure attachments, and leaves its mark on the developing brain. Some of our children will also experience the consequences of poor antenatal care and exposure to drugs and alcohol before birth. It’s not a question of whether our children ‘remember’ any of this.
  3. Adopted children are not lucky. Even if they’ve been adopted by the most supportive and loving of parents, who can give them experiences and material advantages that their peers don’t have, this doesn’t make them lucky. In order to be adopted, they will have been through a whole raft of pretty horrible experiences. Living through circumstances that are so bad that a court has to separate you permanently from your family of origin does not make you particularly fortunate.
  4. Adoption doesn’t make everything okay. The effects of early trauma mean that some of our children will continue to need support for years into the future (and some adoptive parents will have to fight for every bit of this support, because accessing it isn’t easy). So don’t roll your eyes and claim that adoptive parents are making a meal of it when they remind you that you need to make adjustments.
  5. The classroom can be a scary place. This applies especially to children who have only just been placed with their adoptive families, who will be facing a whole bunch of new situations and people and sensations, and might well be in a different part of the country. But even children who are relatively settled in placement might still find the school environment overwhelming. Give them a safe base and clear routines that don’t involve having to make too many choices. This is particularly important in the early years, when free flow play can present children with so many different options that they end up completely bewildered: it’s like having too many puddings to choose from.
  6. Some areas of the curriculum can be extremely difficult for adopted children. Anything that involves bringing in photos of yourself as a baby, talking about your family tree, reading about children who are displaced (Goodnight Mister Tom, I’m looking at you), talks from organisations about trauma and abuse. If you’ve got adopted or care-experienced children in your school, you should do an audit of your curriculum and, if necessary, liaise with parents or foster carers. There’s a surprising number of adoption-related set texts on GCSE English Literature specifications: make sure your students aren’t blindsided by the vengeful birth mother in The Woman in Black, or the appalling worksheet on Blood Brothers that asks students to imagine only finding out that you’re adopted when you discover your original birth certificate at the age of sixteen.
  7. For many adopted children, shame can be an overwhelming emotion. Shame about what happened in their past; shame about whether it was their fault; shame about having a different kind of family. This can then bleed over into other aspects of their lives (being told off, losing a game, doing badly in a test, being teased in class). Help them to manage their reactions, but be aware that this is a difficult thing. Don’t expect them to just laugh it off, or chide them for not being able to take a joke. And don’t tell them it doesn’t matter, because it does.
  8. Social thinning is a very real thing. Many adopted children struggle to form friendships, and will need support with this. Nurture groups, friendship benches, extracurricular activities: they’ll all help. If possible, help our children to build friendships that will extend beyond school as well. Those cliques at the school gate will often exclude our children from playdates and parties, especially if their behaviour marks them out in class as being different. Anything you can do to combat this would be brilliant, and adoptive parents will be extremely grateful.
  9. Do pass on information. Make sure everyone involved in the child’s day-to-day school life knows everything they need to, including any relevant information about developmental trauma and triggers to watch out for. It sounds obvious, but it doesn’t always happen.
  10. Don’t expect adopted children to be spokespeople for adoption. They might not want to talk about being adopted. They might not want their friends to know. That’s fine, it’s up to them. It’s not a secret, but it is private. They might find anything that sparks memories of life-before-adoption really scary. They definitely shouldn’t be put in a position where they’re asked ‘What’s it like to be adopted?’ in front of a whole class of their peers. If they want to talk about it, that’s different, but make sure it’s a safe environment.
  11. Jokes about adoption really aren’t funny. The only funny adoption-based joke I know is the late Jeremy Hardy’s comment about how some parents like to cook and eat the placenta, after their child is born: adoptive parents don’t have that option, so they might want to cook and eat their social worker instead. He was allowed to say that because he was an adoptive parent. Don’t say ‘I bet your mum wishes she’d given you up for adoption’ to a random kid in your class who’s just done something mildly foolish. Really. Just don’t. Even if you don’t have any adopted or care-experienced children in your class. It’s still all shades of wrong.
  12. Adoptive parents are real parents. We went through a lot to get here. As one of my friends eloquently put it: ‘You had to go on courses and be assessed and everything; most people just have a shag.’ Our children might not be genetically related to us, but we love the very bones of them. And they’re bloody amazing, so help us to look after them.

3 thoughts on “What schools need to know about adoption”

  1. This is very useful, and demonstrates that however far we have come, there is still far to go. I’m not adopted, but when I was a growing up, in the 1950s-60s, I overheard enough from grown-ups to realise that, at that time, adopted children were expected not to do so well at school, and to have less life-chances generally to do well at anything, including that they were hard to raise because of behavioural issues, which ‘must be expected’. In other words, everything was put negatively… This negativity can hang about them still, from what you say. It must be very hard to have to read books about adopted characters – sadly a trait which can occur more than necessary in children’s stories. Possibly good children’s writers should attempt to put some realities out there?


    1. The stereotypes are so difficult – very much rooted in ignorance. It’s hard to see them being wheeled out as convenient plot tropes by so many novelists and screenwriters. I think we’re starting to make our voices heard – we really need to see adoption treated with more sensitivity.


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