This article was originally published in Adoptalk, NACAC’s quarterly newsletter. Adoptalk is a benefit of NACAC membership. Learn more about becoming a NACAC member.

School success is often a challenge for children and their families, and may be more so for those who have been affected by trauma, loss, stigma, and marginalization. Therefore, it is important that adoptive, foster, and kinship parents and caregivers understand the factors behind the challenges and develop specific strategies that will promote educational success. 

Underlying Challenges Affecting School Success

There are four factors that contribute to educational challenges for children who are adopted or in foster or kinship care:

  • trauma and resulting attachment issues
  • individual and environmental issues
  • insensitivity of schools
  • overrepresentation in special education

Trauma and Attachment

Experiences of separation, loss, and trauma lead to issues with attachment. Attachment issues can lead to emotional and behavioral issues such as a lack of trust, disruptive behavior, and delayed cognitive, emotional, and social development.

If a child mistrusts others, the learning environment can be stressful. Mistrust of teachers and fellow students leads children to fear taking risks, which can interfere with learning. This may lead to shame and fear of looking “stupid,” and often toward a preference for information that is factual, concrete, and visual. Preference for factual, concrete, and visual information may be interpreted as a cognitive or perceptual issue. Self-consciousness around school performance may also be expressed by being a class clown or being overly competitive in another area of perceived strength such as sports.

Individual Issues

Emotional and behavioral issues may affect social relationships with other students and with a teacher, which can also lead to negative experiences. In addition, being “different” as an adoptee or child in foster or kinship care and, in some instances, a different ethnicity from the majority of children, requires that the child manage these “differences.” The stigma associated with the difference may lead to students being teased, bullied, pitied, or rejected by others.

Social effects of stigma, teasing, pity, and rejection can result in low self-esteem, which affects school performance and leads to further stigma. These social issues can result in an inability to focus on lessons—because the student is driven by their need for social acceptance rather than a desire to learn.  This lack of focus may be seen by the school as a learning disability or emotional regulation disorder. And, as the child matures and develops abstract thinking, their understanding of their adoption or foster care story becomes more complex and may lead to more question and worry—again, affecting their academic performance.

Prenatal environmental factors such as lack of prenatal care, use of substances, and poor nutrition can lead to emotional and cognitive issues, including those caused by fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). Abuse and neglect can also negatively affect emotional, social, and cognitive development. An early environment of illness, inadequate or no medical care, poor nutrition, exposure to lead, smoke, etc. can contribute to emotional, social, and cognitive issues. For some, speaking English as a second language brings an added challenge.  Genetics or hereditary factors can have an impact as well. 

Schools’ Insensitivity

Teachers and administrators may be misinformed or under-informed about adoption and foster or kinship care and its impact on children. They may not understand the impact of trauma and loss or of FASD or other prenatal challenges that affect children in care more often than other children. They may use outdated or negative language related to adoption (“natural” parents) or foster care (“bad birth parents”). Language is very powerful, and stigmatizing language can lead a child to feel shame that will interfere with learning. 

Many schools continue to lack sensitivity in assignments. In many ways, school curricula acknowledge family as only defined by blood relations, as evidenced by assignments like the family tree, cultural heritage projects, and many science classes.

Special Education

Studies suggest that children in adoption, foster care, and kinship care are overrepresented in special education due to learning disabilities, school performance problems, adjustment issues, and disruptions with identity development. Interestingly, studies have found a negligible difference in the IQ, but they did less well in school. There may be other factors beyond IQ that lead to overrepresentation within special education.  It has been suggested that adoptees and children in foster or kinship care are overrepresented because parents and caregivers are familiar with dealing with agencies and are more likely to seek help. Unaddressed mental health issues may also contribute to problems with learning and thus a perceived need for special education.

Seeking a Good Fit Between Learning Needs and Teaching Style

Successful learning first starts when a teacher can teach effectively based on a child’s learning style. Learning styles vary widely by individual and learning will be more difficult for a student when the teacher is delivering content in a way that does not match the child’s style. Ideally, content delivery will be a good fit with how a student learns.  Here are the principle learning styles: 

  • Visual (spatial): You prefer using pictures, images, and spatial understanding
  • Aural (auditory-musical): You prefer using sound and music.
  • Verbal (linguistic): You prefer using words, both in speech and writing.
  • Physical (kinesthetic): You prefer using your body, hands, and sense of touch.
  • Logical (mathematical): You prefer using logic, reasoning, and systems.
  • Social (interpersonal): You prefer to learn in groups or with other people.
  • Solitary (intrapersonal): You prefer to work alone and use self-study.

Best practice in teaching demands delivering content differentially, in a manner  that works for all learning styles, using a variety of teaching techniques. Unfortunately, this does not always happen. Parents can advocate that teachers use a variety of teaching techniques, as this constitutes the “inclusive” education that is the expectation in education today. If you’re not sure of your child’s preferred learning style, a learning disabilities teacher consultant or school psychologist can assess their style, or you can hire a private learning consultant. Parents and caregivers can also explore the child’s learning style while helping with homework. Note how the child is best able to understand instructions and concepts or memorize material. Does the child respond well to visual graphics or pictures? Does singing help with memorization (as in the ABCs song)? Will verbal explanation work?  Some children respond well to role playing the concepts, for example when trying to learn about governmental structure.

As a parent, understanding your child’s learning style, as well as each teacher’s approach to teaching, allows you to advocate for differential teaching to accommodate the child’s needs.

Strategies for Success
  • Maintain open communication within and outside the family
  • Attend to your child’s social/emotional experiences and academic achievements
  • To the extent possible, involve your child in your outreach and advocacy with the school
  • Prepare yourself and your child with responses to possible question related to adoption or foster and kinship care.
  • Get feedback from a range of school personnel (gym teacher, guidance counselor, administrators, lunchroom and recess monitors) about your child’s behavior and performance
  • Educate teachers and counselors about adoption and adoption language
  • Advocate for adoption-sensitive assignments and books
  • Celebrate adoption month or organize adoption or foster care support groups at school


Parents and Caregivers as Advocates to Promote Adoption Awareness in Schools

So given all the challenges, what can parents do? The answer is a lot!

Parents and caregivers can play a powerful role to promote awareness of, and sensitivity around, adoption.  Indi­vidually or in groups, they can have tremendous impact on how teachers, schools, and educational systems treat a child and approach the topics of adoption, foster, and kinship care.  Parents can take the lead in educating teachers and administrators about core issues in adoption and foster care. This helps school staff gain new insights about what may contribute to poor school performance for these children and learn strategies for making the school more responsive.

When parents have an opportunity to educate school staff about foster care and adoption, it creates a space for open dialogue and greater understanding. This understanding can better prepare educators to deal with questions and other students’ curiosity in sensitive and supportive ways, making schools a safer place for children to express themselves. Parents and caregivers should be careful not to give detailed descriptions of the child’s past, but can offer information that will help the teacher to provide a more nurturing, inclusive, and thoughtfully structured learning environment. To disclose or not is a personal decision that must be respected by all.  Parents and caregivers know their child better than anyone else and need to follow their instincts about if, how, how much, and when to disclose. And parents should be sure that teachers know to protect the child’s privacy when talking with others in the school, including other children.

The way adoption, foster care, and kinship care are treated by the school system can profoundly affect how students and the school community view and perceive children who are adopted or in foster or kinship care. Parents can help school staff use the right language. Educators can often benefit from handouts on positive adoption language. Introducing concepts and words such as “birth” or “biological” families rather than “natural” or “real” families; and referring to a “plan for adoption” rather than “giving up a child” is a good start. 

Another area of potential stigma and stress for the child who is adopted or in foster or kinship care are those assignments fundamentally insensitive to adoption.  These include activities that require baby pictures, family tree projects, and lessons about genetics based on discussions of family members who share genetic traits.  A caregiver can inform teachers in advance that these assignments may be upsetting. With this understanding, teachers may adapt or replace the assignment. A parent might suggest assignments related to sharing favorite family foods, activities, or traditions. These can promote concepts of similarities and differences between families, and how families share memories, but does not depend on biological connection.  An adaptation to the family tree project may be to add roots to the tree that represent the child’s first family. When teaching genetics, families of animals can be used.

Efforts at promoting awareness and sensitivity around adoption and foster care are most effective if the parent builds a positive alliance with the school community.  Offering to provide books on the topic of adoption, foster care, or kinship care, or to create a lending library of these books, can go a long way toward openness to a more sensitive perspective.  Similarly, offering to provide some in-class activity for your child’s class or another class during adoption month (if your child is willing) is another effort that is usually appreciated by students and educators.  Activities may relate to and share the child’s first family’s customs, music, dance, or food. 

Parents and Caregivers as Advocates for Their Children

While it is important to promote change within the school system, caregivers will also want to advocate for their child’s individual needs.

Prepare Your Child

The first steps start at home. Prepare yourself and your child with responses to potential questions from peers and educators related to adoption and foster or kinship care.

Gather Information

You should also talk with children, teachers, and counselors about what’s happening at school. To fully understand your child’s experience and performance in school it is necessary to get feedback about your child’s performance and behavior from a range of school personnel such as the physical education teacher, special education staff, guidance counselor, administrators, lunchroom staff, and recess monitor. Once you have the information, you may be better able to identify and address triggers or places where extra support is needed.

Find Ways to Help Your Child Socially

Social competence can be critical to the emotional experience of being adopted or in foster/kinship care.  Feeling socially competent promotes coping skills with peers and teachers in the school setting.  If this is a challenge for a child, parents should provide a wide variety of informal and formal opportunities for development of social skills. This may be individual or group therapy, or participation in extracurricular activities that the child enjoys, particularly those that are an area of strength for your child. 

If emotional or behavioral issues come up during school activities, caregivers should consider acting as coach, support staff, or leader of activities (sports, scouting, etc.) to provide a safe and supportive environment. If these issues are still getting in the way of the child joining, consider seeking therapeutic intervention.

Seek Additional Supports

When children struggle with learning, parents and teachers should consider supports that enhance learning.  Often the first move is exploration of special education. However, special education may not be the fix that many believe it to be.  There are limits as to what can be provided, and services offered may not meet the child’s needs. Stigma often associated with special education, as well as the restrictions special education programs can impose, need to be considered as well.

Before pursuing a special education referral, seek structured interventions in the general education environment. Interventions begin with a meeting between parent and school staff (often called pupil resource committee, school support team, etc.) to discuss the child’s challenges.  A follow up to this meeting would then be implementation of specific, measurable strategies in the classroom that complement the child’s strengths and address the child’s area of weakness. 

Another option is adding outside school tutoring or an afterschool program with an academic component.  If learning issues have a social or emotional component, explore behavioral health services.  To rule out underlying health or mental health issues it may be beneficial to have a consultation with a pediatrician, neurologist, or psychiatrist. 

An alternative in the US may be a 504 plan without special education classification.  A 504 plan consists of accommodations such as extra time on tests, supplemental services, such as a paraprofessional aide, and/or curriculum modifications, including time to stand and move around, time for a snack and drink, or seating in a preferred location.

Consider Special Education

If these proactive interventions are clearly documented and are unsuccessful, you may want to consider special education. The first step is for the parent or caregiver to request a special needs assessment from the child’s school in writing.  It is important for the caregiver to check with their education department for the guidelines specific to their region. Parents can best advocate for their child when they learn their rights and responsibilities in this process, as well as that of the school district.

After a referral is accepted, and there is consensus by parents and school personnel to move forward, the assessment team will be determined, and a series of evaluations will be conducted.  The team can include all or some of the following people: principal, psychologist, counselor, social worker, special education teacher, classroom teacher, speech pathologist and physical or occupational therapist.  Depending on the needs of the child, members of this team will administer standardized tests.  A team member will also interview the parents or caregivers to get background information and discuss the child’s medical history.

If the child qualifies for special education, the parents or caregivers and a team of specialists will determine the Individualized Educational Plan (IEP).  The IEP can include a combination of academic, physical, social, and emotional goals and services that best meet the child’s current needs.  The IEP is reviewed at least yearly by the parents or caregivers, the classroom teacher, and the team of specialists, and goals are continually evaluated and revised as necessary.

All goals on the IEP must in some way be measurable so the child, caregivers, and educators can see when progress is made.  Parents and caregivers are an important part of this team and the true experts regarding their child.  They carry the knowledge of their child’s histories, and witness daily their child’s strengths and struggles inherent in their lives.

Final Thoughts

As a parent, there’s so much you can do to help your child achieve school success. As you do the work outlined above, keep in mind the importance of having the school be your ally in helping your child succeed. School success takes a partnership among you, your child, and the entire school so the more you can do to inform and build relationships, the better things will go.


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