As the new school year opens, parents will find themselves trying to engage a system that is somewhat bewildering and overwhelming. Most of you are well aware of the importance of finding the right match of educational environment for your child's ability, personality, and learning style. The challenge is in trying to achieve the best approximation of that match in light of program availability, finances, etc. Somehow, no matter how competent we are in other areas, taking on the role of advocate and savvy consumer is something we are often not quite comfortable with when it comes to school systems. Therefore, I would like to make some basic recommendations on how to make your child's educational experience the best it can be.
The most important thing is to find out whether a school or teacher is able to play to your child's learning style. While class size often precludes individualized lesson plans, a teacher should be capable and willing to present content with a variety of learning styles in mind.
Communication with your child's teacher is key, and time spent building a relationship is well worth the investment. Let the teacher know you are willing to be a partner in your child's education and give information about your child's learning style and anything that might affect his or her learning (for example, a new sibling or moving to a new house). Ask for advice on how to reinforce what your child is learning at home, and be supportive of class and school activities where possible.
It is important to get a sense of how savvy the teacher is about adoption. Pass on an informative article about positive language when speaking about adoption or alternative activities for lessons that are broader than that old standby, the family tree. You might discuss how you would like situations to be handled that could be of a sensitive nature to your child. (For example, assignments about family, bringing in birth pictures, or how to handle the interaction if another child says "that's not your real mother.")
If your child was adopted at an older age from another country, we highly recommend ESL (English as a Second Language) classes rather than bilingual education classes. Bilingual education offers minimal benefit to a child who is growing up in this country and needs English to succeed. ESL programs encompass both social communication and academic language. They also will provide a little extra help and support for both the student and the family as the child learns his or her new language.
Assessment of children who have spent their early years in another country and/or institution is complicated. Norm referenced tests and standardized behavior scales cannot be relied on alone since it isn't accurate to compare these children with the sample of children born and raised in America. A more accurate assessment of capability can be ascertained by testing that focuses on how your child learns, and not on what he or she knows at the present time.
Sometimes behaviors that are survival techniques for children raised in orphanages are misinterpreted by school staff. Sensory issues due to poor prenatal care or early years in an unstimulating environment can often look like ADHD and be inaccurately diagnosed.
There are Federal laws protecting your child's right to an education that provides supportive services for learning weaknesses while building on your child's strengths. If your child has special educational needs, it is important to know how to secure an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). You must contact the local school district's Committee on Special Education (CSE) and arrange for an evaluation. After the results have been shared, the CSE sets up a meeting to write your child's IEP. At the meeting there must be a representative from the evaluation team, a representative from CSE, a parent advocate, and the parents. You should be familiar with the kind of environment and process that maximizes your child's ability to learn and insist on those things being put into the IEP at the meeting. Do not sign any papers if they are not willing to give your child what he or she needs to learn. You can request a fair hearing and an adoption expert can assist you in negotiating this process. Once your child's IEP is written, be persistent about monitoring that it is being followed.
The great educator Thomas Dewey said "What gain is it, if we win prescribed amounts of information but lose our soul in the process." Children deserve the best educational experience possible, one that opens their eyes, engages their minds, and allows them the joy of feeling competent in mastering the learning process. Through working together as a team -- parents, teacher, and child -- you can assure this will happen for your child.
For more information on ADHD or other issues in this article, call SPARK Child Development for Adoptive Families at 212-360-0259 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rita Taddonio, CSW, is the director of SPARK, Spence-Chapin Adoption Resource Center.