Overcoming Classroom Anxieties
School provides wonderful opportunities for children to learn and develop new skills and friendships. Adopted children—especially those whose pre-adoption history included abuse, neglect, or orphanage life—often experience unique educational challenges. These challenges can be related to the learning process or to something less obvious—simply feeling socially or emotionally vulnerable at school.
One of the greatest fears of any child is losing a parent. Young children who were adopted have already experienced this loss at least once in their lives and often experience more fear and anxiety when they are separated from their adoptive parents, such as when going to school (more so than other children). They may also be more anxious about the change and unfamiliarity that a new school or classroom represents.
If prior to adoption, your child’s life was highly structured and did not provide sensory stimulation (e.g., orphanage life), changing schools or even classrooms can be overstimulating. Some children need a sense of control over their environment in order to feel safe. Without it, they will have difficulty focusing.
When you understand why your child feels vulnerable, you can employ several strategies to help your child prepare for a new school year.
- Visit the school or the classroom with your child a few days before school starts. One visit can alleviate a number of anxieties and new experiences your child would have faced on the first day of school. Taking the time to make her new school environment more familiar before school begins can help your child adjust—and even look forward—to this new chapter in life.
- Meet with your child’s teacher before or at the very beginning of the school year. If you know that your child has vulnerabilities related to early childhood trauma, you can provide general information about the trauma to the teacher. You do not need to share all of the details of why your child has a particular sensitivity; just that your child does, along with two or three basic strategies for helping him in the classroom. Keep your child’s confidentiality and privacy intact as much as possible, and ask the teacher to do the same.
- Generate ideas with your child in advance. Common adoption-insensitive classroom assignments include family trees or providing baby pictures. In a light, age-appropriate way, explore your child’s ideas for how he would like to handle them. Talking about assignments in advance is especially important if your child does not want to share with the teacher that he or she is adopted. If the teacher does know, offer alternatives that are more inclusive.
- Role play with your child about how to respond to questions about adoption from her peers and teachers. The WISE Up! Powerbook from the Center for Adoption Support and Education (CASE) is a helpful resource for doing this.
- Consider educational alternatives. Some children may benefit from alternatives such as starting school later, enrolling in a grade according to developmental rather than chronological age, or homeschooling. Know that this is normal, and it is okay to explore these educational alternatives to help your child thrive academically.