Every year, without fail, one of my kids will come home from school upset because they've been given one of six, always-upsetting, school assignments. The assignments are usually given by language arts, social studies, and science teachers. Each of the six assignments can vary, depending upon the grade level to which they’re assigned. However, all six involve painful topics for a lot of adopted children (not to mention kids in foster care, kids who’ve experienced a traumatic event such as a fire or tornado that destroyed their home and all their possessions, children being cared for by someone other than their parent, etc.)
Dear teacher, if you absolutely MUST incorporate the following projects into your curriculum, would you take the time to read why these assignments are a challenge for my children, and so many other children in your classroom now, or in the years to come? I’ll start with the one our family has most recently worked through together, and conclude with the most dreaded assignment of them all.
DNA – Genetic Traits: This is the assignment usually given by middle school science teachers and high school biology teachers. The student’s task is to chart or write about a genetic trait or traits that run in that students’ family. The assignment is designed to give the student personal experience in studying how genetic traits are passed through generations. The challenge with this assignment for kids who were adopted is it often raises questions which cannot be answered for the adoptee. Some teachers mistakenly think by framing the assignment so students can chart a genetic trait in their adoptive families, it makes the assignment okay. The fact is, this can make it much more painful, and can be a very real trauma trigger for the child.
Suggested Alternatives for the ENTIRE Class: Study genetic traits in various people groups. For example, why do people of Celtic heritage often have red hair and/or green eyes? Or look at historical examples such as inherited diseases in the royal families of Europe? (I suggest alternative projects be given to the entire class so as not to single out the child unable to trace their genetic heritage, or for whom it would be painful to do so.)
The Family Tree: My kids HATE this assignment. It sends each of them reeling whenever they get it, no matter how benignly the teacher believes they’ve framed the project. This assignment usually involves either drawing a tree with branches (and sometime roots if the teacher is trying to accommodate kids) or drawing a chart with family names and relationships defined as they relate to the student. The assignment is designed to illustrate family relationships. Sometimes, it can be part of a “getting to know you” assignment, as it was in my son's 9th grade English class this year. This assignment is a challenge because even when it does accommodate birth and adoptive or step families, it can involve very painful memories for the student and make him feel as though he’s being forced to reveal parts of his history he would rather not share. Even when the teacher tells him he need not share all of his history, he is conflicted because he feels he is denying a part of who he is – or is being unfaithful to a part of his family. As my children have gotten older, the feelings associated with this assignment become more complicated and more painful.
Suggested Alternatives for the ENTIRE Class: Have students create a forest of trees or a neighborhood of houses, showing all the close relationships in their lives. The trees could include friends, neighbors, teachers, coaches, clergy, and family. If the assignment is geared more toward biology, trace the tree of a historical figure, or even of the teacher, and make it a classroom assignment. There are plenty of genealogical resources available online. Most public libraries also have a genealogy room.
Student of the Week: This assignment is usually only given to elementary school students. However, my daughter’s 6th grade English teacher did a variation of this assignment with her class. The assignment involves students taking turns each week to be the “star” student of the week. They design a poster (in my daughter’s English class, they used paper bags), and then add things to the poster such as pictures of the student growing up, family pictures, and the student’s story. The goal of the assignment is to help students know one another and give each child a leadership opportunity in the classroom. This is a challenge for many adopted kids, and especially traumatized adopted kids, because the subject of their adoption is often brought up when they would rather it not be. Not all kids are comfortable sharing their adoption with fellow students. For traumatized kids, the classroom is not a safe place to process the big feelings surrounding their adoption and they cannot separate their past trauma from their adoption story.
Suggested Alternative for the ENITRE Class: Have students use current pictures of themselves and of their favorite things, such as pets and activities. Let the star of the week write about their favorite color, food, subject in school, favorite activity, etc. Focus on the present. Students are interested in their classmates and what they’re about NOW.
Exploring Our Heritage: This assignment usually involves making a map, drawing a flag, or doing a presentation on the student’s country or culture of origin. This assignment happens throughout grades K-12. The goal of the assignment is to have students learn about various cultures. This assignment can be a challenge for adopted students in several ways. For my kids, the only “culture” they remember experiencing in their birth country was a culture of alcoholism and abuse. While they are curious about their birth country, its history, its government, and its people, they do not want to process that curiosity in the classroom. They are much more comfortable processing it in pieces, as they direct, at home. Other students may want to share their country’s culture, but because they do not share that culture with their adoptive family, they are uncomfortable with the inevitable questions about the differences between themselves and their adoptive family. Others may rather talk about their adoptive family’s culture. There’s just not an easy answer. Each student will react differently to this assignment.
Suggested Alternative for the ENTIRE Class: Have students choose a culture of interest to them to research, rather than one related to their family.
The Life Timeline: This is another assignment my children hate. The assignment involves having the student create a timeline of events from their birth to the present. Timelines incorporate both personal life events and historical events. The goal of the assignment is to chart historical events on a timeline and show the student’s relationship to history. This assignment is a challenge for adopted kids because they may be unsure of the time, location, or even the date of their actual birth. My daughter wondered if she needed to include painful details such as when she entered the orphanage, when she last saw her birth mother, etc. Adopted children are often confused about what personal information they should and should not include in their timelines.
Suggested Alternative for the ENTIRE Class: Do not specify that the timeline begin with the child’s birth. Allow for open ended time frames such as, “past and present.” Create a timeline for a historic figure, or perhaps, for the teacher.
The (Dreaded) Baby Picture Assignment: This assignment is by far the most painful for my kids, and one I find the most cruel. Teachers ask students to bring in baby pictures, which are usually posted anonymously, and students are challenged to guess who is who. This assignment is also part of a lot of graduation programs and celebrations. (Do I really need to say why this is a challenge?) My kids came home at ages nine and twelve. We have no baby pictures. We have very few pictures of them before their adoption, and those pictures are of them in situations we do not share publicly. My “baby” pictures of my two youngest kids are of them at the age of their adoption. Not all adopted kids were adopted at birth. Most are adopted as "older" children. For some kids, the race or physical feature of a child may make them stand out from most of the other children.
Suggested Alternative for the ENTIRE Class: Have children bring in pictures of “when they were younger,” or perhaps a current picture of themselves, disguised by a costume. Younger children can draw pictures of themselves “when they were younger.” (Again, my most honest suggested alternative would be to ban this assignment all together.)
Dear teacher, you can find additional resources regarding school assignments and the adopted child in your classroom by visiting two of my favorite websites: