A Unique Perspective
These teachers know what adopted students face because they have them at home.
By Cynthia Kopkowski
When her elementary-schooler came home with an assignment to describe what his parents did the day he was born, Diana DeLauder was reminded yet again of the challenges her adopted son would encounter in the classroom.
DeLauder is one in a fraternity of parents who have unique insights on how their kids' backgrounds affect them at school: the adoptive parent is also a teacher.
There are an estimated 1.4 million adopted children ages 4 to 17 in the United States, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Teachers like DeLauder encourage their peers to consider their own assumptions about what constitutes a family as they're planning lessons and class discussions. "As teachers, we often use what materials we're given, but so many times they have traditional mom and dad birth families," says DeLauder, who teaches high school math in Shelby, Ohio.
When it comes to curriculum, Shelby, Iowa, high school science teacher Chris Oponski, the mother of two adopted children, says that a little tweaking of lesson plans can go a long way to making students feel comfortable and engaged. She used to do a lesson exploring inherited traits until she realized that this would exclude children like her son and daughter from full participation. "Now I preface that lesson by saying, 'We're going to look at individual traits,' and I put a positive spin on it by pointing out that these are the traits they'll pass on to their children."
When Arnette Collins' daughter had to research and create a family tree a few years ago, the Canton, Ohio, specialist for adults with mental disabilities said her daughter "stuck with the family she knew, which is our family." But they talked a bit about her biological background. "One thing that would help is when teachers talk about family units, they need to talk about how not all families are biological," says Collins. When Oponski's daughter had a similar assignment, she included a photo of the judge who finalized her adoption.
Keeping an eye out for behaviors that could be an outgrowth of being adopted is important, too, say adoptive parent-educators. Both Oponski and Collins saw their children's interactions at school change as they aged and as their peers started reacting differently to their backgrounds. In elementary school, children regarded Oponski's daughter's history as cool, she says. But in middle school—where conformity is key—it set her apart, and she stopped talking about it in positive terms. "Developmentally, they're working through some different things than their same-aged peers," says Oponski, who was previously a middle school guidance counselor.
In her mid-teens, Collins' daughter became more introspective after she met her birth family. Soon after that, she was further unnerved when students at school started approaching her to inform her that they were her cousins.
"There's a certain stage where these children are pondering who they are and where they come from," says DeLauder. A prepared teacher can play a valuable role in helping them feel that they've arrived in the right place.
When her adopted daughter Hope had to create a family tree for school, Arnette Collins used it as a chance to talk about the child's biological and adoptive heritage.