B. Gindis, Ph.D.
During a telephone conference with this parent I found a rather
typical case of internationally adopted child whose major source of
emotional disturbance was his negative school experience. With some
variations, it's not a rare case when children get by at school and
bring all the problems home making parents think about "attachment
issues," "oppositional/defiant behavior," or just wondering
what's wrong with their son or daughter. Sometime even professionals
fall into the same trap believing that school is not an issue for
a child if the teaches do not complain. For ex., the following announcement
was posted on one of the discussion groups in search of a therapist:
"The child is an 11 year old boy adopted from Russia at age 8.
He was raised by his biological alcoholic grandmother until age 5
when he was put in an orphanage. He is currently having difficulties
academically, socially and emotionally. His adoptive parents report
that he is happy, attached to them and them to him, but needs tools
to deal with his difficulties." Sounds familiar? The child has
academic and resulting social and emotional problems adding up to
other traumatic experiences he has had in his past, but these are
not the school environment and a lack of learning progress at fault
and in need of being modified, but the tools to cope with consequences
that are needed to get things right after the school. It's wrong:
prevention of any problem is always more effective than its correction.
What we all have to realize is that schooling is the "leading
activity" for a child between the ages 6 to 18. All school related
experiences create the cognitive and emotional background of child's
development. School is the place where children learn not only academic
subjects, but also social and self-regulatory skills. If the major
activity is blocked or associated with frustration and emotional pain,
no normal development is possible.
Schooling is like a job for adults. Imagine that you are failing
your job and do not quite understand what's required of you and how
to achieve it, you hate it, you are ostracized by your co-workers
who, as you suspect, make fun of you behind your back or, sometime,
right into your face. You wait for the end of the working hours to
escape unable to change your circumstances. Exactly the same may take
place with your child at school: he is not motivated to do anything
any longer, hates the school, feels isolated from his peers whom he
desperately wants to be with, and his self-esteem is seriously undermined.
Do not comfort yourself hearing positive remarks from the teacher
and underestimating peer pressure: international adoptees are the
subject to bulling, teasing and isolation due to their school failure
and their overall "difference".
Unlike children from immigrant families, the majority of school-age
internationally adopted post-institutionalized children are not ready
for the mainstream educational experience on arrival. There are many
reasons for this, described in several of my publications, see:
Many internationally adopted children are not ready for a mainstream
schooling cognitively: they missed certain stages of cognitive
development associated with early childhood traumatic experiences;
academically: a substandard education in the country of origin
and the need to compensate for the lack of language and cultural experience
are unavoidable; and, especially important, emotionally: international
adoptees are more vulnerable to stress, more prone to frustration,
and less capable of self-regulating their behavior than their peers
at large. They are more fragile in their ability to withstand stress
related to school performance, and they are less self-sufficient in
overcoming the emotional strain, which is a part of competing in the
school environment. At times they are not willing or even able to
express their pain and terror. Emotional fragility constitutes
a serious educational impediment for them.
School difficulties turn into major frustrations, silent blaming
of the adoptive parents for what had happened to them. This leads
to deviations in behavior, depressive feelings, anger, and acting
out behavior; in other words, this becomes a mental health issue.
Reducing school pressure and helping the child to overcome school
difficulties via incremental but steady progress (which is not the
same as giving them a slack) usually has a therapeutic effect, positively
affecting social, emotional, and overall adaptive functioning.
What can be done?