Online Courses
of Dr. Gindis
Questions & Answers
Presentation 3: Myths and reality B. Gindis Ph.D.

Myths about school issues of internationally adopted children

The factors that may affect school performance of international adoptees (IA) can be divided into two closely related and in most cases intertwined risk groups:
  • The first is called the primary or physical disability factor. These are genetically-based deficiencies, physical, mental, and neurological impairments, such as mental retardation, fetal alcohol syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, astigmatism, deafness, etc. Some of these factors could be present to a relatively mild degree and not easily recognized by professionals during a pre-adoption screening.

  • The second one is often called the secondary or social disability factor: a child's development may be negatively affected by cultural deprivation, lack of positive social mediation and stimulation, and/or an abusive or neglectful environment. These conditions may lead to maladaptive behavior, lack of or limited academic skills, emotional immaturity, language delays, deficiency in self-regulation and other problems that are detrimental to school functioning. Orphanage-raised children may not develop certain cognitive and social/emotional capacities because they never had a chance to learn and practice these skills. They may have only a limited opportunity to participate in age-appropriate learning activities (e.g. drawing, copying, coloring, and other pencil-&-paper activities) and they may be deficient in age-appropriate self-regulation of behavior and emotions because they never had proper adult models to imitate or guidance to follow.

Many, if not all internationally adopted children in this age group, should be screened for possible deficiencies in their school readiness and specifically prepared for school education. For some children, who have "red flags" in their medical records, preschool educational remediation is a must. Generally, the longer and more severe the deprivations are and the earlier in life they occur, the more damaging they can be.

For children adopted between the ages 3 to 8, the expectations are that they will enter kindergarten at the age 5 and first grade at the age 6. However, developmentally, many of them are delayed in terms of American standards for preschoolers. A post-institutionalized child of a certain chronological age may be much younger developmentally and functionally. In other words, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral immaturity is the "trademark" of post-institutionalized children. Many parents try to get informed and do everything within their power to obtain the information: they do research on the Internet, read books, subscribe to adoptive parents networks and publications. But myths and misconceptions about education of international adoptees still persist.

Here are the examples of misconceptions a lot of parents still have

Manyschool professionals (teachers, administrators, school personnel, etc) may hold an unsubstantiated belief that international adoptees are similar to bilingual children from recent immigrant families and should be educated in the same manner.

Reality: what is significant in your child's medical and educational records for future school progress?

I use the phrase Red Flag to indicate a possibility of school related issues. Will the problems necessarily occur? May be not, but there is a significant chance for that.

Children are known for their resilience and the ability to cope with the most horrible experiences. They may recover on their own. But, as a rule, Red Flags mean that you need to pay attention to these conditions and call for professional help to resolve the issues.

Red flags in medical and educational records that relate to future school progress

Premature birth and low birth weight

Perinatal encephalopathy

This term literally means "brain damage of unknown etiology from the birth trauma" or "general weakness of the central nervous system (CNS) due to the birth trauma". This is, indeed, just a "catch-all" broad term, often used in Russian medical documents. It aims to indicate a child "at risk" in general. For example, this diagnosys is given automatically to all premature babies. Many children from orphanages have this diagnosis. Statistically speaking, it does relate to school difficulties, but the individual differences are pretty broad here.

Delay in psycho-motor development, Delay in language and psychological development,
Temporally delayed in psychological development

These are not medical diagnoses, but rather the terms used to indicate observed deficiencies in child development in comparison with his or her peers. The degree of delays may be very different: from a relatively mild to significant. In most cases this is a result of a combination of neurological weaknesses and/or health issues with social/cultural deprivation and neglect. The degree of needed rehabilitation is also different: from minimal remedial and support services to full time special education program. These descriptions should not be dismissed as "nonsense" merely because they are found in so many medical histories of international adoptees. If such description is found in the child's medical documentation, a psycho-educational evaluation on arrival should be requested.


This term means mental retardation. Identification of children with mental retardation in the republics of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is different in many ways from that in the United States. Many adoptive parents reported that their children diagnosed with "oligophrenia" are doing rather well in school. I also came across such a situation on a number of cases. On the other hand, in most of the cases I consulted on "oligophrenia", this diagnosis was confirmed as either "mental retardation" or "severe learning disability". The bottom line is that this diagnosis should be taken seriously, but not as the final say. A psychoeducational evaluation on arrival is strongly recommended in this case. For more details please read an abbreviated version of my article Oligophrenia: Understanding Your Child's Medical Report,
Psychological issues of older internationally adopted children: courses and publications
Copyright ©2003-2020