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Meeting the unique needs of foster/adopted children in scho

Spring Hecht, . msw. , . licsw. www.healingworkstherapy.com. My story. Adopted person from South Korea, placed at 6 months. Raised and loved by a white family in Seattle with 2 older brothers. Attended school from 2-8.

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Meeting the unique needs of foster/adopted children in scho

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Meeting the unique needs of foster/adopted children in school

Spring Hecht,





My story

Adopted person from South Korea, placed at 6 months

Raised and loved by a white family in Seattle with 2 older brothers

Attended school from 2-8


grade in the Central District (APP/busing)

Many struggles and challenges encountered in school, mostly centered around issues of self-worth, race and differences

Over 14 years of experience as adoption professional

Private therapy practice in Seattle, specializing in adoption



Adoption has been one method of building families since ancient times.

It is estimated that there are over six million adopted persons of all ages in the U.S. (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute).

According to the U.S. DOS there were


children adopted internationally in Washington State between 1999-2015.

In a 2010 U.S. Census Bureau report, it was estimated that there were


adopted children under the age of 18 (


in Washington State).


kids in foster care in school system (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) Slide4

Why is it important to discuss adoption and foster care in our schools?

School is where adopted children face the most challenges and parents express the most concerns. Educators are influential and kids value their advice/opinions (trusted to provide factual and accurate information).

Children spend all day at school, and these experiences play a major role in shaping key aspects of every child’s adjustment:

The ability to have educational needs met in order to learn successfully

The parent-child relationship, including parents’ views of their children, the stress they experience in parenting, and their feelings of competence as parents.

Peer group experience

Self concept/identitySlide6

Why it matters

Foster/adopted children often have different needs than those of their peers.

School staff need to be prepared with both sensitivity and knowledge about adoption in order to assist all children and their families in successfully dealing with issues on an ongoing basis.

These questions and challenges may arise in class discussions, during interactions among students, and in completing assignments.

The explicit and implicit messages from school staff about adoption and foster care (or lack thereof), have a significant impact on these children, and they help to shape other children’s attitudes and beliefs.Slide7

Educating educators

Many children who have been adopted or in foster care have experienced traumatic events and complex trauma which affects behavior, development and relationships.

Even children adopted as young infants may experience their adoption as traumatic.

Maladaptive survival behaviors can cause challenges in school, at home and with peers.

Many foster/adopted children have on-going struggles with identity, including cultural, familial and personal.

School counselors are in a pivotal role, and can help reduce and mitigate both the short and long term effects of severe stress and trauma. Slide8

Challenges in the school setting

Children may have trauma histories that are triggered by events & activities at school.

School staff, peers and parents may not be aware of the need to use inclusive and adoption positive language.

Many activities are geared toward a majority of children who live in “traditional” households.

Behavior is often viewed in a strictly “pathological” sense rather than in a way which includes an understanding of a child’s background (ex: Reassure and food security, not punishment for food hoarding).

Oftentimes, these children are not able to get emotional or educational needs met at school.Slide9

Challenges cont.

Adoptive and foster families may feel isolated and lack support.

Often parents are blamed for a child’s externalizing behavior problems and are viewed as “bad” parents when understanding, support and collaboration is needed.

Adoptive and foster parents are often told “how wonderful they are” or “how lucky their child is”; this may leave a family feeling misunderstood.

Families and children frequently face a maelstrom of questions such as, “are those your real parents”, “why don’t you look like them”, “what are you”, “was she a crack baby”; can leave children and parents feeling exhausted, embarrassed and ashamed.Slide10

Risk/protective factors that shape adjustment

Risk factors

:  pre-natal exposure and care, age at adoption, institutionalization, loss of culture, country and language, trauma, neglect, numerous moves/broken attachments, missing information, separation from birth family

Protective factors

: gender (F), temperament, loving/therapeutic adoptive and foster families, resilience, and capacity to develop strong attachments in their early years that carries them through their later years

Family-related protective factors

: adoption training/preparation (realistic expectations), stable marriage with good communication, warm/cohesive family interaction, authoritative/nurturing parenting style, and support system.Slide11

Special needs

Children who have grown up in chaotic and traumatic circumstances may not have experienced logical consequences to their behavior (unreliable/unsafe).

Due to persistent high stress, they may have lower brain levels of oxytocin and high levels of cortisol/adrenaline which cause overactivation of ‘fight/flight/freeze/hide’ response (hyperarousal/hypervigilance).

They have challenges with executive function (attention, memory, reasoning, problem solving, cognitive flexibility, planning) and tend to respond with “reptilian” brain.

Many children who have been fostered/adopted may have been exposed to drugs/alcohol in-utero which  may lead to organic brain damage (FAS).

Genetics and early deprivation/neglect/abuse may contribute to sensory integration issues (SPD).Slide12

Special needs

Foster/adopted children can experience a greater number of adverse childhood experiences (ACE study), increasing risk for health and social problems (disease).

Children who have experienced a great deal of trauma/neglect often view the world as an unsafe place.  Trust issues, especially adults as they were the ones who hurt them.

Many of these children also experience a disruption in their attachment and have insecure attachment styles.  

School is often difficult for traumatized children as they may be triggered by a multitude of things during the day causing them to behave in a manner which is perceived as misbehavior, when in fact it may be the child attempting to calm, protect or remove themselves from the situation.Slide13

Increased risk for mental health issues anxiety, depression, attachment/trauma issues, OCD, ADHD, ODD, behavior issues

Kids with compromised beginnings are frequently misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed.

Former foster children are almost twice as likely to suffer from PTSD as U.S. war veterans (NW Foster Care Alumni Study, Harvard Medical School, the University of Michigan and Casey Family Programs, 2005).

According to the study, 1 in 4 alumni had experienced PTSD in the previous 12 months, and more than half had experienced at least one mental health problem such as depression, social phobia, or panic syndrome.

These high rates of mental health problems may also affect rates of educational and occupational success.Slide14

Mental health issues

Experiencing trauma can lead to behavioral and mental health challenges and unfortunately some foster/adopted children may resort to substances to self- medicate and alleviate symptoms.

Psychotropic medications often have unpleasant side effects.

Every adoption starts with the profound loss of biological parents compounded by a cascade of additional losses (pathological grief).

Significant psychological impact when part of their story is missing; need help to put the pieces together and make sense of it (cohesive life story).Slide15

Effects of complex trauma

Trauma affects the overall development of a child’s physical brain and affects his ability to navigate life’s challenges and changes. Symptoms of extreme on-going stress:

Impairment of emotional regulation

Chronic self-destructive behaviors



Altered relationship with self and distorted relations with others

Loss of sustaining beliefs

Stress affects the body: decreased immunity, decreased growth hormone, disordered digestion, and cardiovascular risk Slide16

Mental health issues

In a largescale study, researchers found that kids in foster care were:

Seven times as likely to experience depression

Six times as likely to exhibit behavioral problems

Five times as likely to feel anxiety

Three times as likely to have attention deficit disorder, hearing impairments and vision issues

Twice as likely to suffer from learning disabilities, developmental delays, asthma, obesity and speech problems


7 Core Lifelong Issues In Adoption

These impact all members of the adoption triad. Many issues converge during adolescence because three factors intersect: acute awareness of the significance of being adopted; a drive toward emancipation; and a biopsychosocial striving toward the development of an integrated identity.



Guilt and shame





(Silverstein & Kaplan, https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/adoption/intro/issues/)Slide18

How adoption impacts school aged children

Adoption has an impact on children’s social and emotional development, as well as their education. No one narrative for the adopted person--different temperaments, personalities, histories and experiences.

We will focus on four general time periods in an adopted child’s life:


Early Elementary

Late Elementary (Tween years)

Middle School and High School (Adolescence) Slide19


Most adopted children at this age don’t fully comprehend reproduction, although most have had conversations with parents about adoption.

Most who were adopted as infants/young toddlers do not exhibit adoption-relational adjustment problems.

Some awareness beginning around racial differences and physical features, but most children of color will not experience prejudice during this time.

Educators can emphasize that foster care/adoption is just one of the many ways different families are created (books, lessons), and that sometimes family members can’t live together due to circumstances. Slide20

Early Elementary School

By age 6-7 most children understand reproduction basics, and they are beginning to understand what it means to be adopted.

Children begin to develop more awareness around issues of loss and abandonment, and they may begin to show signs of grieving (denial/anger/sadness) by acting out or withdrawing at times.

Children notice racial and physical differences, and growing awareness that they look different than their parents (transracial adoption) and peers.

Many transracially adopted children wish they were white (dominant culture).Slide21

Early Elementary School cont.

At this age, may experience heightened awareness of differences in their family structure (single parent, two moms, divorce/step parents, two dads, etc.).

They may harbor fantasies about birth parents (‘magical thinking’).

Foster children or kids from open adoption may be having visits/contact with birth family. 

Look for changes in behavior and difficulties with concentration.

Can seem emotionally younger and less mature/more impulsive than peers (self- regulation).Slide22

Early Elementary School cont.

Increase in educational demands placed on child and children may exhibit signs of ADD/ADHD or learning disabilities (trauma can be confused for ADHD; institutional autism; FAE; attachment issues).

Encourage teachers to be sensitive to school projects and assignments that exaggerate differences and highlight info gaps (e.g. Family Tree, autobiography, baby pictures, Father’s/Mother’s Day).

Continue to positively emphasize the different ways families are formed.

Respect boundaries, set the tone, and let children know what personal questions are OK to ask.

Good time for presentations on child’s birth culture/adoption.Slide23

Upper Elementary/Tween Years  

Many begin to think about their adoption status more as they move from concrete to more abstract thinking.

They begin to wonder why they were placed for adoption and fear that something is inherently wrong with them (guilt/shame).   

Begin process of integrating adoption story into their identity and dealing with missing pieces of background information.

Feeling different than peers can be source of anxiety and embarrassment (don’t single kids out or ‘out’ them; they can decide who and when to tell).

May feel insecure and question permanence of family.Slide24

Middle School/Adolescence

Kids moving through the tasks of adolescence (adoption layer).

Begin transition from childhood to adulthood, forming their own identities and process of separation from parents; this process can be harder for adopted kids.

Most kids are thinking more abstractly which enables them to understand more complexities of adoption (e.g. legal aspects). Overwhelming!

Everyone on a spectrum--some kids are seekers and spend more time pondering meaning of adoption and unknowns, than others.Slide25

Middle School/Adolescence cont.

All differences heightened: issues of race/culture affect identity

Intimacy/attachment/rejection can affect dating/friendships, relationships with teachers, and sports/extracurricular activities

Teasing/joking, bullying about race/adoption

Intense need for acceptance and belonging

Challenges around self-worth/self-esteemSlide26

High School/Teen Years

Expanded understanding of adoption and possible reasons for relinquishment (poverty, child abuse/neglect, addiction, adult responsibilities)

Bodily/hormonal changes affecting mood, performance, self-esteem

Issues of sexuality and identity

Time of exploration and pushing limits

Social and educational demands are much higher (increased pressure)Slide27

High School/Teen Years cont.

Be alert to approval-seeking behaviors among peers, risk-taking behaviors, maladaptive behavior patterns, and self-harm/suicidal ideation.

Seek meaningful relationships; friend groups can change, cliques form (rejection and intimacy issues).

Preparation for emancipation and independence; those leaving home may experience separation from parents as a loss/abandonment trigger.

Approaching legal age (18 years) for search and reunion with birth familySlide29

How YOU Can Help

5 Principles for facilitating an adoption friendly school environment:






(Evan B. Donaldson).

Celebrate National Adoption Month (November)

Famous adopted people include: Moses, Nelson Mandela, Babe Ruth, Truman Capote, Edgar Allen Poe, Bill Clinton, Dave Thomas (Wendy’s), Michael


, Faith Hill, Steve Jobs Slide30

How you can help

Encourage teachers and librarians to have books and other resources with foster/adoption themes available

Promote racial equity and inclusion in your school

Help remove stigma/stereotypes and normalize adoption; discuss it in a general, matter of fact and positive manner, reinforcing it as simply another way families are formed (teachers can fold it into existing lessons on literature, genetics, immigration, history)Slide31

Use Adoption Positive Language

There is no one narrative in adoption. The hope is to help an adopted child develop a positive and cohesive life story and positively integrate adoption into their identity.


‘make a plan’

and ‘

place their child for adoption

’ (


‘given up’ or ‘put up’ for adoption) and ‘

transfer’ or ‘terminate’ parental rights

Refer to an adopted child’s parent as mom or dad (


adoptive mom)




‘real’ or ‘natural’ parent) and

birth childSlide32

Making a difference

Team approach and coordinated care to ensure educational needs being met (include adoption competent specialists, OT, Speech, psychologist, teacher)

Build adoption competency into IEPs and 504 Plans

See beyond maladaptive behaviors to the true child who is feeling lonely, hurt, scared and confused. Slide33

Making a difference

Teach skills, provide options, ‘mindfulness’ training, provide structured and predictable environment, self-soothe activities, grounding techniques, build trust, praise efforts (competencies not deficits)

Respond effectively and use therapeutic discipline and trauma informed approach (sensitive to issues of worthlessness, rejection, shame/guilt)

Outreach, advocate and support; step in when necessary (build rapport, open communication, and seek input from parents)Slide34

Questions to ask parents

What are some important things I should know about your child to help her be successful?

Is there anything I should be sensitive to with regards to your child?

What topics might make your child feel uncomfortable in class?

Does your family have any special celebrations or traditions you would like to share with the class?

Who else lives at your house (grandparent, siblings, pets etc.)?

Does your child have any anxieties/fears (large or small)?Slide35

Thank you!