It’s hard to think about sending the kids back to school while you are packing up for pool days or shaking sand out of everyone’s sandals. But the start of the school year is just around the proverbial corner. When selecting shiny new notebooks and packs of crayons, you might also consider choosing carefully what to share about your adopted, foster, or kinship child’s past at school.

Setting Your Child Up for Success

As parents and caregivers, we want to help our kids succeed at school. Questions about what to share with teachers, administrators, or other educational staff should always come back to that goal. As adoptive or foster parents or kinship caregivers, we are the guardians of their stories. We are tasked with evaluating the wisdom and necessity of sharing about our child’s past as it relates to their success in school.

  • If we share their history, will educators make assumptions about our kids’ learning abilities or hold them to lower standards?
  • If we don’t share our child’s stories, are we limiting the teachers’ opportunities to help our children grow?

Not surprisingly, no “one-size-fits-all” rules apply to these questions. The bottom line is that we must thoughtfully consider the circumstances, keep an open mind to the options, and trust our gut to make the right choices for our kids. We also can listen to other adoptive, foster, and kinship families to hear what has worked for them.

Our online community frequently discusses the issues of what to share at school. Their experiences can be valuable insight for parents and caregivers who are asking these questions. We found their thoughts and experiences generally fall somewhere in these ranges on the spectrum of what to share.

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“There’s No Such Thing as Too Little.”

Many foster and adoptive parents and kinship caregivers advocate for sharing the bare minimum about their children’s history. They take the stance that the teachers and educational team can and should take the child’s needs at face value as they present in the classroom. Their child’s past is private and should be shared with as few people outside the family as possible.

A few of the parents and caregivers mentioned the following concerns that drive their choice to share as little as possible:

  • Judgment and stereotypes about foster, kinship, or adopted kids, such as “foster kids are troubled,” etc.
  • Over-reactions to minor behavioral issues. For example, “She pushed a child because she was abused.” Or “He’s angry because he was given up for adoption.”
  • Lower expectations because of an incomplete or faulty understanding of the child’s history, such as “He has FASD, so he probably can’t do multiplication tables.”
  • Risk of the teacher sharing the child’s past with other teachers or community members.
  • Fear of the child being treated differently or othered.

The Real-Life Example:

In his first school after being placed with me, EVERYTHING to the teachers and staff was a “red flag” just simply because they knew he was a foster child. So things he would do (that any other child would do) turned into big meetings and psychologists being called in. It was infuriating. Granted he does have special needs and emotional things he is working through. But so much of it was overblown. (F)or instance one day he asked the teacher if there were cameras in the classroom. He has previously lived in a group home where there were cameras everywhere in every room to monitor the children, and so he was very aware of cameras in stores and out and about… the school immediately took his question as a massive red flag that he has paranoia and possibly early signs of a much bigger problem. I had to explain… no… he just is curious about cameras. ~ R.L.

“Sharing More isn’t Too Much.”

Some parents and caregivers prefer to share most of their children’s stories – as it pertains to the child’s opportunity to succeed in school. They believe that knowledge is power. These parents and caregivers operate on the assumption that their child’s stories inform how they grow and learn in and out of the classroom. The more the school knows about this child, the better the team can set them up for success.

These parents frequently mention these reasons that drive their choice to “share more” about the child with the school:

  • Trust in the educators to be professional and keep pertinent information confidential.
  • A desire for the team to see the child holistically. For example, remembering that the child’s past challenges inform current experiences.
  • Opportunity to educate the educators on this child specifically and the foster, adoptive, or kinship community generally, including about the child’s diagnoses, like prenatal substance exposure, FASD, or ADHD.
  • Advocacy for their child to get the specific tools and resources needed to thrive and learn at school, such as hands-on manipulatives to help a child with FASD learn money or time.

The Real-Life Example:

I literally have a PowerPoint… it’s called M’s Story. I add to it every year, and every single new teacher, therapist, principal… everyone new in her life gets it before they meet her. It has saved me hours and hours of “telling her story” over and over again. It also gives them a bit of insight on her, and some resources are listed, such as “When Love Isn’t Enough”–a great book I ask all adults in her life to read. ~ L.

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“It’s a Need to Know for Us.”

For yet another group of adoptive and foster parents or kinship caregivers, information about their children’s stories gets doled out sparingly and only as it relates to the immediate needs in the classroom. These parents and caregivers limit the flow of information and choose carefully what to share and how it might be used to support the teachers as they support their children.

Protecting their child’s story is vital for the parents and caregivers who share at school on a “need to know” basis. They keep the teachers and staff in the loop about their kids’ struggles, sensitive triggers, and what has worked well (or not) to support the child through the year. Quite often, though, they decline to share any specifics of why their child struggles.

Why Dole Out Information Carefully and “As Needed?”

1. To help teachers understand the child’s family dynamics

Names, family connections, and timelines for our adopted, fostered, or kinship kids can be confusing for a teacher to follow – especially when explained by the child! For example, Johnny might call his foster mother “Mama Jane” but also refer to his mother as “Mommy.” These differentiations might not always matter in the classroom setting. Still, when it does, teachers benefit from knowing “who is who” in Johnny’s life.

2. To help the child feel seen and known

There are similar opportunities for confusion for kids in kinship care settings or open adoptions. The child might openly discuss the siblings who live with them and those with other family members. Again, it might not always matter. However, when it comes down to helping their kids feel seen and heard by their teachers, sharing their stories can significantly impact the classroom experience. After all, feeling understood and known by their teachers will help the kids feel safe and open – foundational to learning. Additionally, when teachers know and normalize the different relationships in a child’s life, the child feels accepted.

3. To manage safety and contact issues

Another reason to dole out a child’s story judiciously is to manage safety issues and the contacts the kids may need during the school year.

  • The teachers and the office staff need to know Johnny’s caseworker is picking him up on Tuesdays for a weekly visit with his mom.
  • Janie is taking a different bus to spend the weekend with her birth grandmother. Teachers must be prepared to offer increased compassion, felt- safety, and flexibility when she returns on Monday.

4. To help normalize the child’s holidays and family dynamics

Parents and caregivers might also find it helpful to explain a child’s situation to help the teacher plan holiday gifts in the classroom. Teachers can offer the opportunity to make two handprint ornaments or Mother’s Day cards, normalizing the child’s family dynamic.

The Real-Life Example:

I’m struggling with this now. I’m not sure how much to tell his …teacher. I feel like she needs to at least know where he was intellectually and developmentally when we got him 5 months ago to understand where he’s at now and how hard he worked to get this far even though he’s still way behind his peers. And would that include that we had to potty train him at 5? I feel like that’s important to know if he has an accident. But maybe I’m overthinking it… ~ S.H.

“It’s Not My Fault”

The reality is that many of us want the teachers and school staff to understand the roots of our kids’ challenging behaviors. We know how trauma, abuse, loss, and neglect impact our children’s brains and, thus, their behavior or learning progress. But we don’t always trust that educators have the same knowledge and experience. It’s natural to struggle with this, and you are not alone! We want to be sure they see and manage Johnny’s emotional dysregulation in the noisy, crowded cafeteria. And that they know it is not a result of lax or incompetent parenting.

The Real-Life Examples:

As weird as it is… like, it’s icky… but almost everyone we’ve worked with seems to support us more once they realize that her behaviors are not caused by our bad parenting. They’re more open to supporting us when they know we are not her original family. ~ E.

I honestly have to say there is no small portion of “I” didn’t do this to these kids. Teachers etc., work with me better when they aren’t judging me for “causing” the issues in the first place. ~ S.J.

How Do You Decide What to Share About Your Child’s Story?

As your child grows up, expect the conversation about sharing information to change. Your child will likely have opinions about how much they want you to share (and about everything else on the planet!). Around the tween stage, most kids prefer the “say less” option.

Leading up to those years, talk with them about teacher meetings, what you’ve shared, and why. You will communicate honor and respect to your child if you can brainstorm together about the issues of privacy and articulate their preferences. Talk about what they need to do or say to be sure they have the help and understanding they need in school. Role-playing and creating practice scripts can be especially useful for kids who feel unsure of their ability to self-advocate.

The Real-Life Examples:

I used to type a small “get to know me” letter and photos. I explained I don’t know much of my son’s history before he came to me. That he came to me because of abuse & neglect. That he attends therapies, doctor’s visits, and such. I felt if they had a better understanding of who he is, things might go smoother. This year he started 8th grade and asked that I not say anything. He doesn’t want teachers or kids to know he is adopted. I respect his wishes. ~ M.M

My son was adopted at 13. He has guided the conversation. Usually, it does not come up until conference time when he introduces his Mom, Dad, and Mom (me, hubby, and bio mom). We don’t explain the relationship. Most probably assume one is my hubby’s ex. ~ J.G.

Please tell us in the comments where you fall on the spectrum. Do you share Too Much or Too Little at school?

Image Credits: Yan Krukau; RDNE Stock project -1; 2; 3