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Children Left Behind
International adoptees in our schools

Adoption Today February/March 2009; pp-42-45.

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 childhood.

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 grade placement.

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 appropriate placement.

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 amazing.

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 adoptees.

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.

Unfortunately, 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 environment.
  • No testing should be done before the children learn English.
  • 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 issues involved.

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 adoptees.

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 adoptees.


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