Occasionally, we offer guest posts by experts in foster care, adoption, and kinship care. Katie Biron has been a caregiver (licensed foster parent) and adoptive parent for the past 17 years. She is also the co-creator and Program Manager of the Family Connections Program™ at Amara, which seeks to reduce the trauma experienced by these children by supporting and facilitating a positive relationship between the child’s parents and caregivers.
We are grateful to offer this guest article from Katie about the family tree assignments that many adoptive, foster, and kinship families face when they send their kids back to school.
You may still be enjoying long, leisurely summer days, but before you know it, the back-to-school frenzy will be here again. After you successfully ease into the routine of making lunches, convincing kids to do homework, and all the other fun stuff that comes with a new school year, you can kick back, grab a cup of coffee, and take a few minutes to yourself, right?
Not so fast! Foster, kinship, and adoptive families have one more thing to add to their lists: get ahead of the school projects that strike fear into the hearts of “nontraditional” families everywhere – those dreaded family tree assignments! These school projects frequently get assigned during the elementary school years. They come in varied formats and often look so innocent on paper: fill the boxes with your family members. Easy, right?
There’s No Right Way to Do The Family Tree Assignment
As a parent caring for children touched by family separation, I know this assignment is difficult. I remember when this project first came home, my child bounced through the door — excited to tell me all about it. But the excitement lighting up my child’s face quickly turned to frustration when they realized there was no way to represent their first and adoptive family on the tree as it was assigned.
With a family formed through open adoption, my child felt there was no way to do this assignment “right.” To fill out the tree worksheet the way it was designed, they had to choose certain family members and leave out others. I did my best to help my child navigate the assignment, reassuring them it was absolutely okay to pick their first mama over me. I clarified that being left off their tree would not hurt my feelings. But this solution didn’t feel right to my child. Instead of the intended purpose of the lesson, which was to learn about their family, my child became increasingly discouraged. I muddled through the aftermath alone and allowed my child to put aside the assignment. At the same time, I scheduled a conversation with their teacher.
Since then, I have found that our experience was anything but unique. I have seen this topic in countless foster and adoption social media groups. Parents grapple with the best way to help their child cope with the feelings of grief and loss that surface with this assignment. There are added layers of complexity for children experiencing foster or kinship care. The projects often make our children feel like they must choose between revealing to classmates that they do not live with their parents or lying about their family’s makeup. Neither is a good or acceptable solution.
Educating the Educators About Family Tree Assignments
The good news is that there is hope! As a parent, you can help your child’s teacher and other school staff learn that many families look different from traditional families. This is true for children experiencing foster care, kinship care, adoption, and many other families. We must help teachers understand why these assignments can be so complex for some children. We can direct our kids’ teachers to more inclusive resources representing all families.
Fortunately, there are several great resources to support you in this effort. As an adoptive mom and professional working in the field, I frequently recommend tools to give families a way to talk to educators about the concerns with this assignment. You will find alternative, more inclusive family-based school projects within these resources.
1. The Love Tree* – a children’s book
After witnessing so many foster and adoptive parents searching unsuccessfully for a children’s book about this topic, I authored The Love Tree* to make it easy for both parents and teachers to help children learn that not all families look the same. (You can find a link and book review in the CreatingaFamily.org Suggested Books lists.)
The Love Tree* uses beautiful watercolor illustrations to introduce readers to Little Mouse, a young adoptee struggling to incorporate his first family and adoptive family into the family tree worksheet his teacher sent home. When he breaks down in tears, Mama Fox helps him create a new tree – a Love Tree -which is big enough to include everyone he considers part of his family!
The book also includes an inclusive Love Tree template for readers and teachers to use instead of the traditional family tree model. This would be an excellent gift for your child’s teachers to start the school year!
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2. Family Connections Program Tidbit Training
For many teachers, having a student impacted by foster care or adoption in their classroom can be a new experience. Others may be somewhat familiar with these topics but lack the knowledge needed to support students who have experienced trauma related to family separation. All teachers – including art and PE specialists, special education staff, school counselors, and more – must understand how foster care and adoption can impact students. It is not usually possible for parents to carve out enough time to have the in-depth conversations necessary to share this information with teachers.
Recognizing this need, the Family Connections Program at Amara created a training designed specifically for academic staff. Supporting Students with Foster Care or Adoption Experience in the Classroom is a fun, self-paced, and interactive training they can access by mobile and desktop devices. Each module provides teachers and staff with a solid knowledge base about some of the emotions and behaviors they may encounter from students who have experienced trauma related to family separation.
The training also offers several tips and tricks for creating a classroom environment that includes all types of families. Instead of writing lengthy emails or scheduling several meetings, parents can provide the link for teachers so they can take this training at their convenience. You might even offer a sweet treat or coffee as thanks for giving their time to support your child better!
Thank you, Katie, for your insight and the practical tools to help families navigate these assignments. We’re grateful to find new ways to help kids process, share their family stories, and feel comfortable with their choices.
Below is one more type of resource that we’d like to add to Katie’s suggestions!
3. Connection and Community
Finally, another vital tool to help you navigate these assignments is to seek and build connections with other families like yours. Surrounding yourself with the support and lived experience of other parents, caregivers, adoptees, or former foster youth can help you guide your child through the projects that might feel sticky. CreatingaFamily.org has an active online community where members, including adult adoptees, share their experiences and lessons learned. You can be assured this topic comes up often, and many creative solutions have been offered for families like yours. You can find additional resources to help you learn from adoptees and foster alum at our new resource page, Adoptee Voices.
CreatingaFamily.org also offers online support groups for parents and caregivers. They meet once a month by video call for interactive training and support, including content from experts in the adoption, foster, and kinship spaces. If you are interested in one of those groups, reach out to CreatingaFamily.org at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hopefully, these resources will help you feel more prepared to navigate these conversations with your child’s school team. Now that you have added this to your Back-to-School To-Do list, it is time to finish that cup of coffee.
Image Credits: Negative Space; cottonbro studio; olia danilevich
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