Your child spends several hours a day with his teachers, and you want to set his whole team up for success in the classroom as early as you can, right? One of the most common questions that foster, kinship, and adoptive parents ask in our online community is how much to share about their kids’ stories to support the child’s success in the classroom. It’s a dilemma because adoptees frequently tell us that a child’s story should be guarded and held carefully until the child has agency to tell or not to tell. Where is the line, and what do you share about your child’s story at school?
No Easy Answers, Especially with the School
Unsurprisingly, no single answer to this question suits every foster, kinship, or adoptive family. We know that doesn’t make this conversation more straightforward.
Your priority at the start of a new school year is to get your children’s teachers on your child’s team. You want to invite them to partner with you to support your child and enhance learning. To fully understand your child’s struggles with behavior or classroom experiences, it’s also critical that your child’s teacher also understand the roots of those behaviors and challenges. We know schools are becoming more trauma-informed. However, your school’s leadership or classroom team might not yet understand the links between trauma, felt safety, and challenging behavior. Consider that your goal is to raise awareness of these links without sacrificing your child’s right to own and guard his story.
Raising Awareness While Guarding Privacy
We’ve compiled a few ideas to help you increase a teacher’s awareness of your child’s life experiences and the impacts of those experiences – trauma history included. These ideas can still guard and protect the details of your child’s story for him. Many of these ideas come from our podcast with Heather Forbes, LCSW, in our Back-to-School Resources campaign. Our online community also weighed in with experiences and what worked for them while navigating this line.
Start with Your Heart
In the past, we’ve recommended writing a letter to your child’s teacher. We think this is an excellent introduction to you and your family. When writing a letter or email, if you can get an address before school starts, consider what you want your child’s teacher to know about your child:
- What are your goals for your child this year?
- How do you see yourself partnering with the teacher or support team to set them up for the best experience with your child?
- What has worked – and not worked – in the classroom previously?
If you can meet with your child’s team in person, remember that your words and body language will also convey your heart for your child. Even if it feels vulnerable, use these conversations to invite the teacher to see your child’s preciousness and more than just the diagnoses on their IEP or notes in a file.
Lead with Your Child’s Strengths
When engaging your child’s teacher in introductory conversations, start with your student’s strengths. Is your child exceptionally nurturing? Fun-loving? Thoughtful? Analytical? Creative? Receptive to structure and routine?
Remember, this child will spend 7-8 hours a day with her teacher – brag on the great stuff that your child will add to their lives, too. Tell the teacher about those things and how much you love what your child brings to your life. Leading with your child’s strengths gives the teacher insight into how you view your child. You are modeling with your language how you view challenges and what you’ve discovered about how your child gives and receives love and establishes felt safety.
For example, try something like this:
Janie is such a loving and affectionate child. Her happiest days are when our family is all home, spending time together. She loves to make us laugh. I think you will find that her exuberant spirit will be helpful to create a sense of family in the classroom once she feels safe with you.
Keep it High Level with the Teacher
You can help your child’s teachers be “trauma-informed” without going into the nitty-gritty of specific traumatic experiences your child has endured. Think about what the teacher needs to know to help your child succeed in the classroom. Heather Forbes used the analogy of a broken arm, and the accommodations classroom teachers make for that experience.
We’ve fleshed it out for you to consider when working with your child’s teachers.
When a child has a broken arm, you work with the student, parents, and doctors’ recommendations to adjust classroom expectations. If the fractured arm is his dominant hand, he might need someone to write for him. He wears a cast to protect the break while it heals. He gets breaks to rest his arm from the weight of the cast and the rub of the sling.
My student has a broken heart from many traumatic experiences before joining our family. He will need a warning and settle-in time to transition between activities, especially when finishing something that was a lot of fun. She might also need time to regroup and regulate after recess or gym class. We find that ten minutes with a cold drink and a fidget toy help her regulate well. We also would like her to keep a snack and water bottle handy, as she gets dysregulated if she feels it is unavailable. These three things are big keys to helping her heart continue to heal, and we do them at home with successful outcomes daily.
It’s “Can’t,” Not “Won’t,” When It Comes to Behavior
As a parent of a child exposed to trauma, abuse, or neglect, you know there is a difference between misbehaving and acting out of a history of traumatic experiences. You understand – or are coming to understand – that trauma changes a child’s developing brain and impacts how they learn. How can you help your child’s support team and classroom teacher increase their understanding of these differences?
Use Trauma-Informed Language With the School
Supplying language and resources to your child’s teachers will help them support your child and increase their awareness of his needs without hearing the whole dark story that created those needs. Train yourself to use phrases like “high sensitivity to stress” or regulation, co-regulation, and dysregulation. You can then direct conversations toward the best mindset you know will support your child. Remember, we love the Dr. Ross Green quote, “Kids do well if they can.”
Choose the language that views your child’s trauma responses or challenging behaviors through a lens of regulation, stress sensitivity, or trauma triggers. This viewpoint will help you express your child’s desire to do well with the right tools. Help your child’s teachers understand your child’s typical responses to adversity and why. You can invite the teacher to try the tools you’ve found successful by speaking of what dysregulates or stresses your child in the classroom. However, follow up with the significant progress he has made in utilizing those tools.
Offer Trauma-Informed Resources to the School
Speaking of resources, share with the team what you are learning and from whom you are learning it. Keep the resources concise and targeted to the classroom management and the brain science of trauma related to the learning experience. Most teachers love well-informed parents and will gladly accept your evidence-based research. However, be respectful of their time and remember that the start of the school year is overwhelming for them too.
Here are a few recommendations from our research and families in our online community for quick, easy-to-digest tools for teachers:
- Adverse Childhood Experiences, a website by the CDC
- Aces Too High, a website dedicated to the most recent news and information about ACE scores
- How Trauma is Changing Children’s Brains – an article by NEA News
- Why All Schools Should Be Trauma-Informed – a TEDTalk about ACEs in the classroom
- What Teachers Should Know About Adoption – a downloadable pdf from The National Quality Improvement Center for Adoption and Guardianship Support and Preservation (QIC-AG)
- Protective Factors that Help Your Child Overcome High ACEs – an article by CreatingaFamily.org
Model the Priority of Relationships
As you’ve come to understand the healing process for your child, you’ve become equipped to prioritize connection and attachment with your child. Lay the path forward with your child’s teacher by modeling that as you connect with them. Prioritize kindness and compassion in how you relate to them – and expect the same in their dealings with you and your child. In the early days of building this relationship, ask what you can do to support them throughout the year. This reciprocation of expertise and support is a crucial building block in any relationship – even more so when your child’s success is at stake.
Build relationships with the staff and teachers by sharing resources you discover. But be sure to also show your openness to their insights and tools they have used in other situations or with other students. You will increase your trustworthiness and build credibility by adopting a collaborative approach.
How Trauma Impacts a Child’s Development, a FREE course!
Learning What to Share About Your Child Is Ongoing
With the start of a new school year and considering what to tell the teacher about your child’s story, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by your child’s experiences and the risks of struggle in the classroom. However, if you reflect on your precious child and what he has accomplished thus far, it is easier to think about partnering with another teacher this coming year to help your child thrive. Your expectations for your child’s classroom experience this year may be different than last year’s, but as you learn and grow, so does your child. Inviting the teachers into your journey of who your child is can be rewarding and stretch you in many positive ways.
What have you shared, or not shared, with your child’s teachers? Was it helpful or do you feel as if you should try a different approach? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Image Credits: sydneyewing1; Katerina Holmes; Mikhail Nilov