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Older Child Adoption and the Education Dilemma

Whenever I am asked about the different issues surrounding older child adoption, I usually draw in a sharp breath before attempting to answer. It is extremely difficult to summarize within the context of a brief conversation, blog post, or e-mail letter. I think that just as each child is unique and comes with his or her own emotional baggage, fears, coping mechanisms, and expectations- so do the families who are adopting them.

One of my first priorities is to attempt to feel out what the families hopes and expectations are and how much they are aware of the potential stumbling blocks they may face in the journey to make their dreams a reality. There is so much information to digest with so many different potential scenarios that could play out. Here, I would simply like to try to address some of the questions surrounding education and adopting an older child.

The education question is a complex one. There are several markedly different paths that can be taken, depending on the individual families capabilities. At the most basic level, families need to decide if they are prepared to handle a variety of possible outcomes in the child’s ultimate educational status. I know personally I had to really take a long, hard look at my true hopes and dreams for some of my own children- what did I truly hope to help them achieve? For me, it was a long list of things like: a strong sense of self-worth, the ability to form healthy relationships, a sense of trust and feeling safe, etc. and I had to let go of worries pertaining to high school graduation in just a few years. To expect a highly traumatized teenager with no language skills, and in each of my daughters’ cases only a couple of years of education in their native country, to jump right into a new life that they don’t understand and that feels highly unpredictable to (him or her)- and at the same time make leaps and bounds educationally to catch up as close as possible to their peers in a brief period of time… is just not reality, in general. It may sound like a real “duh” moment as you read it in print, and you ponder- “What exactly does she mean by ‘brief period of time’?” However, I have discovered that many of us do have these expectations without even realizing it. In fact, it usually takes at least a couple of years before the child’s brain starts functioning “normally” and can process higher level thinking at the child’s optimal level.

A family considering adopting an older child should be accepting that the child may need much more time and take longer to live independently. When I am answering this question to a family directly, I usually lay out all sorts of potential possibilities for what they may expect to face first and create an awareness that it isn’t just a matter of finding the right resource…it is dealing patiently with a child who may not be immediately ready to handle the resource. Also, it may take a combination of approaches and resources at different times to fill the needs of the child. Of course, there are children who come home, slide into their new lives and don’t skip a beat. I am not the parent of any of those, but I have heard they do exist! I want to point out that while yes, it is a possibility, families need to be prepared when they make the choice to adopt an older child for what may lie ahead, how complicated/difficult it may be, and decide that they are ready to take it all on and bring home the child. I know many parents who felt called toward older child adoption but were truly not prepared and were completely shell-shocked by the sheer intensity of the needs of the children and the problems they appeared to have. If parents are educated concerning what they may expect their child to be able to handle those first few months/years they can be more proactive and aware of what may be underlying causes for the educational bumps they may hit along the way- thus easing the “educational panic” that can inevitably creep in.

Because each child is as completely unique as the family who has adopted them, no one can tell you what is best for your child or how to know in advance of meeting him or her what your best educational choices would be. What you can do is gather as much personal experience information as possible from a variety of resources taking multiple approaches, keeping in mind that not one of these methods is going to be perfect and without glitches. It is important however not to be overcome with feelings of inadequacy as you discover that the waters you are about leap into may be uncharted for your family. Whether you decide to home school or proceed with institutionalized education, there is no one best way to educate children who are ripped out of one culture and thrust into another. I feel the need to clarify that in most cases, I am not referring to the larger, historically-rich birth culture of the child, but instead the culture of his or her orphanage life. Many of these children know very little of life outside of the four walls of their institution, and this is truly their only “cultural” experience before coming into our homes. Whether you feel your child needs the close-knit family atmosphere that home schooling provides, a small more low-key school, or a larger highly structured school, it may take time and a few attempts to see which is the best fit for your family during the current phase of adjustment you are in. At times, you may feel that the intense bonding environment home schooling provides is best while at others the rigid structure of a formal school may be what is more suited. Un-schooling, hands on experienced based learning, strict curriculum, etc. all have merit in their own right to meet the individual needs of the child at various times. I think the key is being flexible and open to the variety of options available and willing to change courses mid-stream without feeling unwarranted pangs of failure.

Spend some time with your child and determine his or her ability to manage stress, emotional state, and control of his or her behavior before laying out an educational road map and be willing to re-route as many times as necessary. Does your child desire a bonding relationship with you? Is he or she capable of attaching, or do there appear to be walls needing to be knocked down first? One of my children is very passive/aggressive, but on the surface she appears to be the most charming, obedient, attached child in our family. Unfortunately, beneath that façade is a child terrified of trusting anyone, and has learned to do what she needs to in order to avoid accepting true close relationships. She walks the walk…but her heart is miles away from home on the journey. I need to constantly take this into consideration when deciding how to proceed in the myriad of educational opportunities offered.

Of course, personal family dynamics are equally important. There is sacrifice, stress, and pure exhaustion that can result from any path chosen. There are trade-offs that will inevitably need to be made and each family needs to decide where they are able to make them and when. Always remember that nobody loves your child more than you do and consequently, no one is better equipped to make decisions for his or her life. You are your child’s best advocate in any environment. Consider you and your child’s individual needs both physically and emotionally as you make your way in the journey, and always remember to trust yourself and not spend precious sleep time lying awake in bed second-guessing yourself. There will always be others with stories of their perfect, seemingly flawless transitions with honor roll students within months of joining the family appearing to be doing a much better job than you could ever hope to. Just because your personal adoption experience is not panning out that way is not necessarily a direct reflection of you or your choices. Be prepared to be humbled over and over again and realize that every experience provides learning in some capacity.

If you are considering adopting an older child or waiting to bring yours home and are pondering the education dilemma, take some time to think about all of the options that are available and which you are comfortable pursuing if necessary. Be willing to try multiple venues until you find one that feels right for your family, and realize that what works one year, may not the next. Every day provides a new educational experience for your child. He or she has likely left a very isolated and controlled environment and has much to learn and experience both inside and outside of the classroom.

Lisa Kaden is a mom to 7 beautiful children, 5 adopted from China. 3 of her children were adopted at older ages and all 5 have special needs. She has been a volunteer for LWB since 2004 and is currently a passionate adoption advocate focusing on older child adoption.

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  • suznews40 says:

    I have also adopted 3 older children from China (after 6 bio kids). I also am a huge advocate for Older child adoption. My daughters were almost 9, almost 10 and one day from 14 at adoption. Each child’s needs in education have been and continue to be different. One was in school full time after one week. The others I homeschooled briefly (I never homeschooled my bio kids.) One who is 12, in 5th grade and has been here 3 1/2 years struggles more in school than the one who has only been here 2 years. It so depends on the child’s early years and experiences. May I add that older child adoption has had some wonderful experiences, but it is HARD. I think it is important and so crucial to the kids, but it is not easy and can be very frustrating and taxing at times. However, I still believe that in the long run (which may be a very VERY long run!) they are better off and I have hope that each of them will be able to make it against very difficult challenges that I certainly never had to face in my life. At least they have a chance anyway.

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  • Jan J. says:

    This is a VERY wise post! My second China daughter was only 6.9 when I adopted her and despite much preparation I was unprepared for the upheaval in her life this adoption caused and the amount of time it took for her to function comfortably or begin to understand much aspects of education. If I did it again, I would not stress so much over her educational level and just try to relax and work more on social/cultural/family life with her. We homeschooled and after almost two years I figured out, after having her tested, she was very good at faking a lot of her work and didn’t really understand it. We had to start over at the beginning and this time she was able to get it and quickly began to gain until she caught up. She is 13 now and doing very well but she still has issues that I believe are related to her beginnings and being removed from a place she did not want to leave. It was the hardest thing I ever did but if I could do it again with another child, I would in a heartbeat!

  • HeatherKCS says:

    Thank you for this timely post. My husband & I are awaiting travel approval to bring home our almost 12 year old daughter from China. We have two younger girls who are in preschool and Kindergarten so we are definitely all going to be jumping into a new educational arena. I am anxious a bit as to what kind of education program will work best and I suppose there are some advantages to bringing home our daughter close to summer vacation. I hope that family time before school begins again gives us time to understand what kind of educational environment will be right for her. I hear about those people whose kids want to get right into school and adapt well and even excel, but I’m reluctant to put think that our daughter will be that way. Too much pressure for her, too many expectations on our part!
    Now I need to book an appointment with my local board of ed to discuss our options!

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