International adoptees in our schools
Adoption Today February/March 2009;
Boris Gindis, Ph.D.
In the last 17 years American families have adopted
more than a quarter of a million orphanage-raised children from
overseas. The majority of these children are now in schools. This
creates a challenge for our educational system, which has to cope
with the education and often remediation of thousands of former
orphans born overseas who have to begin or continue their formal
schooling while in the process of adjustment to thei new families,
new social/cultural environment, and new language.
One of the common characteristics of children adopted
internationally is that they are educationally "at risk"
and present more academic difficulties and school-related behavior
problems than their peers at large. According to research completed
within the last two decades, nearly one-half of all international
adoptees in the United States and Canada need either special education
placement, classroom accommodations, or academic supportive services
during at least the first two to four years it school.
After the initial phase of seemingly rapid new language
acquisition and adjustment to their new homes and schools, many
internationally adopted children encounter significant difficulties
in their academic work, leading to behavioral and emotional problems
down the road.
There are several major causes of learning problems
in adopted children, ranging from mostly biological to mostly social.
Biological causes include such conditions as premature birth, low
birth weight, severe malnutrition during the infant years, prenatal
exposure to alcohol and drugs, and neurological impairments of different
origins. Social causes include educational deprivation during the
pre-adoption years, first language attrition after adoption, and
inappropriate school placement and lack of remediation after adoption.
In most international adoptees with learning problems we see a combination
of both factors; social and medical causes are so closely intertwined
that it is difficult to suggest what the leading cause of their
learning problems is.
Deprived of essential learning experiences in an early
childhood spent in orphanages, internationally adopted children
may have cognitive and academic problems when moving to more advanced
levels of learning after adoption. The re-establishment and re-enforcement
of their cognitive foundation is the essence of remedial programs
for children with a history of educational deprivation in early
Within the last 10 years, from 9 to 15 percent of
all international adoptees, particularly from the countries of Eastern
Europe and the former Soviet Union, were of school age and expected
to continue their education in our schools. In reality, the majority
of these children were exposed to sub-standard education in their
motherlands. Thus, in my clinical practice of providing psycho-educational
testing to internationally adopted children from Russia since 1992,
I have found that former orphanage residents of school age often
performed from one to four grades below their officially claimed
A major educational implication of this fact is that
these children have significant gaps and breaches in their actual
knowledge base for their age and claimed grade placement, making
it unproductive to decide on the child's placement in a local school
based on their placement in the country of origin. Therefore an
initial assessment on arrival is crucial for an international adoptee's
On arrival, based on the existing practice for children
from immigrant families, an internationally adopted child could
be inappropriately placed in our school system and could be denied
remediation based on an "environmental, cultural and limited
English proficiency" basis. This happens more often than we
think, as schools tend to disregard their actual compromised readiness
for certain levels of instruction and place international adoptees
according to their chronological age.
On top of this, many schools choose not to provide
international adoptees with remediation until they learn "more
English." This, in fact, constitutes a continuation of the
same educational neglect that this child had been exposed to in
his or her native country.
Still another factor predisposing internationally adopted children
for learning difficulties in our schools is abrupt native language
loss called "language attrition."
One of the most shocking discoveries made in the field
of international adoption was the swiftness with which children
are losing their native tongues and the profound nature of this
loss. In a situation of full English language immersion, it takes
children younger than 4 only seven to 12 weeks to reduce their expressive
language to a practically non-functional level.
With older school age children, the speed of language
attrition is measured in months, not weeks, but still the swiftness
of language loss is mind-boggling: in 7-yearold children it takes,
on average, about three months to lose the functionality of their
native language in the expressive mode and only two months longer
in the receptive mode. For a 9-yearold child with literacy skills
in his or her native language attrition will happen within the first
six months in the English-only environment. There are, of course,
some exceptions, particularly when a child is adopted as part of
a sibling group, but the overall speed of language loss is still
Internationally adopted children learn their new language
(English) quickly, particularly the communicative aspect of it that
is needed for social interaction. First language attrition and English
language acquisition take place concurrently, but at a different
pace: losing language is a much faster process than new language
learning. This factor must be taken into account in schools when
addressing the behavioral and academic difficulties of international
What are the consequences of rapid language loss?
Language is a tool, a mediator, a key element in most cognitive
and behavioral skills. If the tool is taken away in an abrupt manner,
all these skills can deteriorate, too. As a result, we see regression
in behavior patterns (when a 6-year-old behaves like a 3-year-old),
in communication (when a verbal child reverts to-a pre-verbal stage,
using mostly gestures and undifferentiated sounds), in cognition
(when basic mental skills such as patterning, sequencing, discriminating,
etc. vanish completely or become ineffective), and in the loss or
weakening of academic skills and knowledge.
No wonder that internationally adopted children age
5 and older often need to start from ground zero not only in language,
but in many other cognitive and academic activities that are mediated
by language. That is why not just education, but early, well-planned,
systematic and intensive cognitive and language remediation is a
necessity for the majority of international adoptees who will start
formal schooling immediately after the adoption. An overall functional
model of such remediation should include four steps:
- Accurate initial evaluation of educational needs.
- Proper placement according to actual readiness.
- Supportive and remedial services at school.
- Remediation via specialized methodologies, if needed.
this proven model typically encounters major roadblocks at schools
due to persistent misconceptions among school personnel and administration
regarding international adoptees, such as:
- Internationally adopted children are similar to
children from recently immigrated families and therefore should
be educated the same way: placed academically according to their
chronological age and taught English as Second Language the same
way. The parents would be generally advised to "wait and
see" how their children adjust to the new social/cultural
- No testing should be done before the children learn
- Difficulties, both academic and behavioral, are
solely due to the children's institutional background; thus, loving
families, good nutrition, and consistent schooling are all these
children need for recovery.
- International adoptees may not be eligible for
special education services because of the language and cultural
All these assumptions are damaging for internationally
adopted post-institutionalized children, depriving them of needed
help and support in education.
Teacher preparedness for work with international
adoptees is currently limited, at best, to sensitivity training:
what is the proper language to use addressing adopted children and
their parents, what assignments to give to adopted children in the
classroom to avoid embarrassment, how to protect adopted children
from bullying and teasing. All these are important topics which
should be further developed and perfected, but they do not address
the most essential educational, cognitive and language issues faced
by international adoptees in school.
Program modifications and support for school personnel
have to be specific to this group of children and need to include
information on most typical disabilities and their implications
for instruction. For example, the effects of Post Traumatic Syndrome
Disorder, attachment issues, and post-institutional behavior syndrome
on child development and educational processes would be a good start.
Staff training for the application of specific behavior interventions
and/or instructional strategies, such as the Wilson Reading System
is important. One also cannot overestimate the importance of teacher
training on language attrition and its effect on educational processes.
The uniqueness of the educational situation in the
field of international adoption is that often parents, as a group,
are better prepared to handle their children's school issues than
professional educators. The majority of parents who adopt internationally
are well-educated, middle class, mature individuals. Most of them
have undergone special training before adoption. They belong to
support groups and to parent organizations. Many of them are well
informed about the challenges and opportunities in educating and
rehabilitating their adopted children. Parents who adopt internationally
are involved and active parents.
Unfortunately, often our schools cannot match parents
in their preparedness. Although schools have resources and skilled
staff, little training, if any, has been provided to school personnel
for understanding this category of students and for promoting the
various techniques and methodologies of physical, emotional and
cognitive remediation for internationally adopted children. Lack
of experience and information may lead to inappropriate educational
practices and may result in tremendous frustration both in parents
and educators, in legal actions brought against school districts
by discouraged parents, and, most important, it may set up conditions
for further aggravation of the educational problems of international
During the last two decades we have learned the hard
way that love and good nutrition are not enough to accelerate cognitive
and language development in children who have been victims of deprivation,
neglect and institutionalization culturally sensitive, age-specific,
and persistent cognitive and language intervention should be applied
in the schools to make remediation more effective and to reverse
detrimental trends in academic performance experienced by many international