Teachers And Adopted Children

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teachers and adopted children

Some adoptive parents feel teachers, as part of society, may be biased for or against adopted children and recommend teachers not be told children are adopted unless absolutely necessary. They also resist filling in any "adopted" information block on a form for school registration, because they don't want the child to be singled out, either in a positive or negative way.

Others disagree, particularly when older children are adopted. They believe a teacher needs to understand if a child has had problems in the past. Of course, if the child is of another race than the parents, the adoptive status is usually readily apparent.

Some people say that adoptive parents can "practice" while their child is in preschool by talking to teachers about adoption and perceiving how they react. Parents can also bring or donate children's books about adoption to the child care center, such as Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born, by Jamie Lee Curtis. Researchers and authors Ruth G. McRoy and Louis A. Zurcher Jr. reported that sometimes teachers bend over backward to be overly nice to transracially adopted children. Said the authors,

"Overenthusiastic acceptance of the black child into the classroom has been characterized as discriminatory by some transracial adoptive parents. In such instances, the teacher has reduced performance demands for the black child while keeping those standards high for the white child. This behavior is likely to occur in situations in which the teacher has had very little, if any, experience teaching black students."

An excessive concern for the adopted students is not unique to black adopted children. A 1987 doctoral dissertation by Lynn Friedman Kessler at the Fielding Institute was a study of schoolteachers and their attitudes towards 121 Caucasian preschool adopted children. The study was intended not only to study the attitudes and possible biases of teachers but also to determine if attitudes affected evaluations of attractiveness, whether the child should be punished for misbehavior and how severely and other factors.

Kessler presented vignettes and photographs, and teachers were told children were adopted or nonadopted. Children were described as misbehaving in a major or minor way.

Findings indicated that the teachers' attitudes about children were primarily affected by their described behavior and the perception of the child's aggressiveness and "callousness." But the study also revealed teachers frequently reacted to a child's adoptive status in relation to gender, physical attractiveness and the degree of the described misbehavior. In addition, the perceived attractiveness, aggressiveness and intensity of punishment recommended by the teachers were all related to a child's adoptive status.

Kessler had hypothesized that teachers, as part of society, would react more negatively to adopted children than to nonadopted children. To her surprise, she found teachers reacted more positively to adopted children.

Said Kessler, "Teachers perceive an adopted child performing severe harmdoing as less aggressive than a non-adopted child performing severe harmdoing. Even more surprisingly, teachers do not identify the adopted child performing severe harmdoing as significantly more aggressive than the adopted child performing mild harmdoing."

Kessler interpreted her results to mean that teachers are still reacting to negative stereotypes about adoption but are bending over backward to be nice to the child.

Said Kessler, "A possible interpretation for this finding is that teachers are reacting to certain aspects of the adoptedness stigma and stereotype which cause them to perceive the adopted child as pathetic rather than 'bad' (as originally predicted)."

Another finding was in relation to perception of attractiveness: the adopted child in the vignette who was described as performing some severe harm-doing was seen as more attractive than the nonadopted child doing the same thing.

Kessler also found the nonadopted girl was judged more harshly by the teachers, who saw her as more "callous" than the adopted girl, despite the degree of severity of harm.

In addition, the adopted male child was viewed as more callous than the adopted female child. Unsure how to interpret this data, Kessler said it may have occurred because of a preference for female adopted children versus male adopted children.

Psychologist Janet Hoopes believes adopted children may exhibit behavioral problems in school. She based her opinion on teacher ratings.

"In the course of my longitudinal research on adopted children, it became apparent to me that although adopted children, compared to a matched sample of biological children, did not manifest significantly more emotional problems or identity problems, they did manifest some subtle problems in school according to teacher ratings." (Hoopes did not think teachers were biased in their ratings.)

Studying 100 adopted children ages 10 to 15 and comparing them to biological children, she found no significant differences in IQ, personality or achievement. The one significant area of difference was in the ratings by teachers. Her findings: "The adopted child did not quite measure up to the comparison child, or, in other words, was not doing as well in school as might be expected on the basis of ability."

Early parental expectations were also negatively related to the child's later performance in school. "These findings clearly suggest that unduly high expectations of adoptive couples for the intellectual endowment of the adopted child are associated with later negative attitudes toward school (as rated by teachers) on the part of the adoptive child."

On the plus side, Hoopes found adopted children were accepted by peers. In addition, the rates of children referred for special class (learning-disabled) placement was about 10% versus 10% to 14% in the nonadopted school population.

Hoopes also discussed the societal bias against adoption. "Reflecting upon the attitude of the general public toward adoption, one 151/2 year old boy in my recent study with Stein?.?.?. on identity in the adopted adolescent poignantly stated, "It's not adoption that is the problem, but what other people think of adopted kids. They're always shown in movies as 'the druggie.'"

Although adopted children may be treated more leniently, such leniency is still unequal, an aspect children quickly pick up on. Dr. Hoopes said adoptive parents' expectations might be too high, and perhaps in some cases, teachers' expectations of adopted children are too low.

There is also the issue of positive bias among teachers; for example, many expect every Asian-born child to excel at math and science, based on stereotypical attitudes often presented in the U.S. media.

It is clear more research needs to be conducted on this issue to determine if there are other factors that may affect teachers' perceptions of adopted children.

It is also important to note that many segments of society have evinced biases toward adopted children, and teachers are by no means unique if they are indeed biased. In addition, it's highly likely that as society becomes more understanding and accepting of adoption, so will teachers and other categories of professionals.

When Children Are "Late Adopted": Advice to Teachers

Some experts have provided specific advice to teachers on working with adopted children. In her essay, "Helping Late Adopted Children Make It In the Classroom," therapist Anna M. Jernberg, Ph.D. offered guidelines directed toward teachers of adopted children or foster children. For example, she recommended that a child be moved back in grades in accordance with the level of his or her emotional maturity. She also urged teachers to be sensitive rather than blaming toward adoptive or foster parents and realize that sometimes late-adopted children take out their anger and frustration on their new parents. Jernberg cautioned teachers to set limits on a child but in a positive and nurturing way.


Anna M. Jernberg, Ph.D., "Helping Late Adopted Children Make It in the Classroom" (Newsletter; Knoxville, Tenn.: Council on Adoptable Children, January/February 1999).

Janet L. Hoopes, Ph.D., "Psychologist Sees Adopted Children at Risk for Learning Disabilities," Hilltop Spectrum, Hill Top Preparatory School, Rosemont, Pa. June 1986, 1-4.

Lynn Friedman Kessler, "The Measurement of Teachers' Attitudes Toward Adopted Children," Ph.D. diss., Fielding Institute, 1987.

Ruth G. McRoy and Louis A. Zurcher Jr., Transracial and Inracial Adoptees: The Adolescent Years (Springfield, Ill.: Thomas, 1983).

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