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School Readiness and School Placement of a Newly Adopted Post-institutionalized Child

Published in: The Family Focus, FRUA (Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoptions) newsletter, Summer 2004, Volume X-2, pages 8-10

Boris Gindis, Ph.D.,
NYS Licensed Psychologist

School readiness: what is it?

The practical aspect of the school readiness issue is difficult to overestimate: as soon as an internationally adopted school-age child arrives, the concern for the proper school placement arises and sometimes drags adoptive parents through a traumatic experience. The right academic placement depends on what is known as readiness for appropriate school experience.

School readiness is a set of competencies expected in our society from children of a certain chronological age. It has two aspects: cognitive (the ability to learn specific skills and knowledge) and social (the capability to function socially in school and to participate in shared/joint activities with others). These two sides of school readiness do not always develop in harmony: a child may be ready cognitively or language-wise, but may be immature socially or vice-versa. School readiness is always a continuum (a range) of competencies that may be roughly described as below average, average, and above average in relation to the majority of the child's peers. In fact, there are no selection criteria or universal tests, or even commonly agreed-upon patterns of behaviors that allow us to determine school readiness in a specific child. Legally, the only requirement for the academic placement in the US is the chronological age of the child; thus children must be 5 years old for kindergarten entrance, 6 years old for the 1st grade, 7 years old for the 2nd, and so on. Current options for those who are "not ready" include:

  • Delayed entry to a kindergarten or 1st grade
  • Retention for another year in the same grade
  • Lower-grade attendance
  • Enrollment into "inclusion" or "transitional" classes

Research and practice show that all these options have their detriments as well as advantages. Thus, there is evidence that delaying kindergarten until age six does not necessarily result in the improvement of pre-academic skills, but may assist in terms of social/behavioral functioning. For more detailed information, please refer to the Bgcenter Online School for parents adopting internationally at:http://www.bgcenterSchool.org

The complexity of the notion "readiness" is multiplied in the case of an internationally adopted child. School readiness means different things for children who have been adopted at different ages. I will discuss only so-called "older" adoptees: children of school age (6 and up). Some of them, even if they are 7 or 8 years old, might not have been exposed to formal schooling in their native countries. In Russia, for example, first grade age is 7, not 6 as in the USA. For a number of reasons a child may not be in school even at the age of 8 or older. On the other hand, many who are older than 8 and who have had at least one or two years in school may be surprisingly literate in their native languages and may even be advanced in certain academic skills. General information (in science, humanities, etc.) may be limited or just different from school/parents expectations. Grapho-motor skills (e.g. writing, drawing, copying) may be limited (due to the lack of practice), or age-appropriate, or even advanced. Language development, as a rule, is delayed. Social skills, motivation, and emotional self-regulation may be immature. Cognitive skills may be age-appropriate or immature as well. These are individual differences, varying from child to child. Bilingual issues, loss of native language, communicative versus cognitive language dilemma in learning English, cognitive problems related to losing one language and acquiring another, behavior/emotional problems related to adjustment - all these issues are typical for this group of internationally adopted children.

Although international adoption on a mass scale in the USA has a history of more than a decade, our school system has not caught up yet, and school personnel are not always knowledgeable about the specifics of international adoptees. School administrators and teachers may often have incorrect assumptions, such as:

International adoptees are bilingual students and should be taught according to the instructional methodology used for bilingual children.

  • International adoptees are similar to children from recent immigrant families and are to be placed the same way academically
  • No testing can be done until these children learn enough English; no remedial services are possible until the child learns enough English
  • The only problem with international adoptees is their detrimental past: give them a year or two of a "normal" life and everything will be OK
  • ESL instruction for international adoptees should be the same as for children from immigrant families; no modification of methodology is needed

These and similar beliefs complicate the issue of an appropriate school placement, initial evaluation, and eligibility for remedial services for international adoptees even further. It becomes more and more obvious that a shared understanding of these children's needs by parents and educators is necessary as an intrinsic part of parenting school age post-institutionalized children.

School placement of international adoptees: by age or not by age?

Age-appropriate placement is one of the most controversial, emotionally charged, and contentious issues between parents and schools. At times there is pressure from a school district to keep a child with his/her age grade or to promote to the next grade in spite of the child's obvious lack of readiness. School districts have a tendency to place newly arrived internationally adopted school-aged children in a class according to their chronological age. This is the customary practice for children from immigrant families in the USA. Usually it works just fine with immigrants, but may not be the right thing for international adoptees. Sometimes a family pediatrician, when not familiar with the school system, may recommend age-appropriate placement based on the child's general health. However, age and physical soundness are only two of many factors to be considered. In this situation adoptive parents are often confused and act on their "gut feelings" rather than on the informed choice.

The outlook of schools (and some parents) for the age-appropriate classroom usually includes the following arguments:

  • The child must be with his/her peers because of social reasons: he/she has to role-model age appropriate behavior; it is difficult to get along with classmates who are two or more years younger, particularly in the middle and high school years.
  • What is the purpose of holding back from where a child ought to be chronologically? He or she may not do well that first year or two, no matter what the placement is.
  • Why artificially lower the requirements for a child who has already lowered expectations for himself/herself in an academic setting, and, after all, why not to give them a chance to catch up with their peers?
  • In addition, when a school principal insists on an age-to-grade correspondence, he or she may have in mind some financial or logistic/bureaucratic considerations that may have little to do with your child's educational needs.
Medical experts in international adoption suggest that for each three to five months of living in an orphanage, we have to subtract one month of linear growth for a child in terms of his/her height, weight, and other physical indicators of development. It is impossible, of course, to make the same exact comparison in terms of emotional/cognitive/academic growth, but the analogy is strikingly clear: life in an institution may lead to delays not only in physical growth but to delays and distortions in cognitive abilities, emotional development, and maturity with self-regulation. A post-institutionalized child of a certain chronological age may be much younger developmentally and functionally. Emotional, cognitive, and behavioral immaturity is the "trademark" of post-institutionalized children. Many of them behave like younger children, regulate their emotions and motivation like younger children, and have cognitive skills and academic knowledge like younger children. If this is the case with your child, he or she should be placed with their real, not "ideal," cohorts.

In order to create an optimal learning environment, we have to match the child's actual readiness with the level of instruction and social requirements of the school grade. Therefore, in considering an appropriate educational program for a post-institutionalized child we have to take as a reference point his/her actual developmental age and level of functioning. If the actual level of cognitive, academic, and social/emotional functioning is close to the child's chronological age, then age-appropriate school placement is warranted. However, if this level is a year or two below their chronological age, they are to be placed accordingly to ensure a positive school experience, which is the prerequisite for long term school success. Post-institutionalized internationally adopted children, due to their past history, are particularly vulnerable to stress associated with school performance. To expose them to this stress on a level that they are not able to handle may result in emotional/behavioral problems that adversely affect the whole family. It is not right to start the life of a child newly arrived in America with frustration and failure. As for the prospective difficulties with socialization in high school, one parent said: "We have to address our immediate school-related issues in order to avoid further complication in the nearest future. Our children always have a chance to skip a class to catch up with their chronological age peers. Why should we worry about their socialization issues in high school while they cannot read now, in the second grade? We will cross this 'bridge' of peer socialization when we approach it!"

School readiness issues and special education needs

In many cases the issue of readiness for an appropriate school experience is confused with the issue of eligibility for special education services. An international adoptee may not benefit from mainstream age-appropriate schooling, not because of an issue of readiness, but due to a specific learning/language disability or pervasive developmental delay. Under these circumstances delays in entering a kindergarten, being held back in the same grade, or being placed in a lower grade may lead to many negative consequences: merely retaining a child with a genuine educational disability may not help him/her at all. Too often parents and school districts alike prefer to use a notion of being "developmentally not ready" instead of receiving a classification for special education. The "wait-&-see" position is typical for many school districts in relation to testing international adoptees for special education services. We have to realize that if a child has an educationally handicapping condition and no remediation, it is, in fact, a continuation of the same educational neglect that this child was exposed to for so long. In other words, although entry to formal schooling (kindergarten) may be postponed for some solid reasons (health, severe language delay, etc.), this "readiness" option must be contingent on the availability of an extensive system of remedial services. There is no "one-size-fits-all" recommendation, but the general rule of thumb is the following: if a child is functioning more than 3 years below his/her chronological age or a child has specific identifiable disability, this child may need special education services rather than retention or other "readiness" options.

Screening or full assessment of a newly arrived international adoptee?

Probably the most effective approach to the issue of proper school placement is an accurate psycho-educational assessment of the child in his/her native language within the first two to four weeks of arrival. Most adoptive parents do a thorough medical evaluation on arrival, even if a child appears to be healthy, because they understand the need for medical rehabilitation or prevention. In regards to psychological, educational, and language assessments, the situation is quite different. Though experience shows that properly done assessments are extremely important for your child's overall adjustment, emotional well-being, and future educational progress, these are still exceptions rather than the rule. There are several reasons for that. One is that too often adoptive parents rely on a physician's "clean bill of health" and assume that a physically healthy child should not have any problems in school. Another is that even when the adoptive parents truly understand the importance of an assessment, school districts assume a "wait-and-see" attitude, rejecting a request for evaluation "until the child learns more English." To make things even more complicated, there are no clearly stated requirements or procedures regarding school-related screening or full assessment of internationally adopted children. Who can provide these evaluations (what are the professionals' qualifications)? When does an evaluation have to be done? What kind of evaluation is necessary? What methods and procedures are to be used? The lack of such guidelines makes it difficult for parents to insist that schools honor their requests. This topic is too important to limit it to a brief talk now, and I hope to continue this discussion in the future. For those parents who need this information immediately, I have compiled a set of rules and guidelines based on the best available practices in the initial assessment and screening of internationally adopted children. This information is available at: http://www.bgcenter.com and at http://www.bgcenterSchool.org. An adoptive parent can bring this information to the school district to request a timely and meaningful assessment, which will lead to proper school placement and remedial services when needed.

There are three basic types of school-related evaluations:

  • Screening is the initial evaluation of a child and his/her medical/educational records to aid early detection of any possible school-related issues. Screening can focus your decision-making process about school placement It may lead to a full assessment or a specialized evaluation, but by itself it is a relatively short and inexpensive procedure with limited goals and scope. Many internationally adopted children need just screening
  • Full assessment is a comprehensive, detailed, and focused evaluation with a range of goals and a wide assortment of clinical instruments and procedures. Full assessment often takes several sessions to complete and results in a clinical report
  • Specialized evaluation is a domain-specific examination, concentrating on a specified function such as speech and language, fine-motor skills, auditory processing, etc. It is normally requested after a screening or full assessment in order to clarify a particular issue

The general rule regarding the above types of evaluations is this: if a child has a "red flag" in his/her developmental history (potentially threatening medical diagnoses, alarming descriptions of functioning (e.g.: "delay in psychological and language development"), such notations as "oligophrenia" or "speech impairment/delay," or a history of residency in a specialized orphanage and attendance in a special school - then the full or specialized assessment is a must. Any delays with such an assessment may result in narrowing the window of opportunity for remediation and a further consolidation of deficits. If a child does not have "red flags" in his/her documentation and you or your pediatrician do not suspect any potential difficulties in school, a screening will be sufficient to root out hidden troubles and to establish a baseline for the child's current level of functioning. It may bring you peace of mind and prevent many unexpected predicaments in the future.

Be pro-active in requesting screening or a full evaluation for your child. Investigate your school district's recourses in providing proper psycho-educational and language assessment in your child's native language. Write a letter to your school requesting bilingual language and psycho-educational evaluations. Be aware of the incorrect assumptions your school may have in regards to international adoptees and the school's usual policies of placing children according to their chronological age. Prepare to educate educators: provide them with copies of articles and Internet links related to international adoption and post-adoption educational issues. When the results of evaluation/screening are available for your examination, try to distinguish between "readiness" options and special education needs for your child. Based on the above information, try to determine the most optimal school placement for your child. Discuss your findings with your school authorities and a specialist in the psycho-educational evaluation of internationally adopted children. A consultation and screening with a psycho-educational professional specializing in international adoption would be the best thing to do if such specialist is available. Most important, educate and prepare yourself.

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