What’s it like to be adopted?

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Talking to a group of young people working to promote greater understanding of the needs of adopted children in school

“Everyone has met or knows someone who’s been involved in an adoption – even if they’re not actually aware of it”, says 16-year-old Jake.

“People are fascinated by it but often too scared to ask questions”, adds Claire, a 22-year-old law graduate.

A challenging time

We’re sitting in a classroom in London’s leafy Bloomsbury to talk about a new initiative which aims to improve the experience of adopted children at school and in the world at large. For adopted children, the impact of a difficult start in life can reverberate long after they join a permanent family. The majority of them enter the care system because of neglect and abuse and many will have experienced trauma, loss and separation. This can mean that some adopted children find school challenging both socially and academically.

Enter The Adoptables, a peer network of teenage and twenty-something adoptees for which Claire and Jake are ambassadors. Run by children’s charity Coram and funded by the Queen’s Trust, the Adoptables enables its members to act as advocates for adoption and for the views and needs of other adopted children. “As far as school’s concerned, it’s about educating the teachers as much as the other pupils”, says Jake. “I found out I was adopted while I was at primary school”, he adds. “My parents arranged for me to have the day off so that they could spend some time with me to talk things through. Obviously, I was really pleased to have a day at home. But when I went back to school the teachers had told the other kids why I’d been away. I’m sure they meant well but they didn’t seem to realise that they’d taken something extremely personal to me and made it public”.

Educating the teachers

Sadly, Jake’s experience is not an isolated one. A survey by the charity Adoption UK reveals that almost 65 per cent of parents believe their child’s school or teacher doesn’t understand the impact of their child’s early life experiences on their ability to engage in education. “If teachers feel prepared and supported they can ensure the rest of the school understands more about what it means to be adopted”, says Jake. “We work with teachers of  students at Key Stage 3 (aged 11 to 14) to address issues that can come up in school and can be particularly sensitive or challenging for adopted people”.

Claire takes up the theme: “This could be friendships, relationships or family. There are also subjects that form part of the curriculum that can be potentially upsetting for young adoptees. Certain lessons that we’ve all had can be awkward for someone with a complex family history. The classic one is the lesson about family trees. Or a study of genetics is another example. I had a science lesson when I was told to bring a photograph of my parents to explain where genetic characteristics came from. I explained at the end of the class that it would be difficult, in a number of ways, for me to complete this homework. Like lots of adopted people, I look nothing like my parents. They’re fair haired and blue eyed and I’m not. But, even so, I wasn’t allowed to be excused from the homework”.

A sensitive approach

“There are also certain scenarios that could be potential flash points for young adoptees in school”, continues Jake. “One situation we’ve heard of involved a young person being singled out for having a cuddly toy in school. Not only is this deemed age-inappropriate, having it in the classroom breaks school rules. Of course, for an adopted person the toy could be hugely significant. Experiencing loss in our early lives can create feelings of anxiety and insecurity that can be triggered by later situations. This object could be the one thing that has stayed with the child throughout his life. Or perhaps a link to his birth family. So we’re asking other young people and teachers to be aware of these things”.

When Jake and Claire host Q&A sessions in schools, children are allowed to present handwritten submissions. This allows them to ask questions anonymously. “One of the biggest issues – and not just in schools – is people’s curiosity but their inability to find the right words and ask questions in a way an adopted person would find sensitive”, explains Claire. “People have asked me ‘when are you going to find your real parents?’ Which is something I find offensive, because I don’t view my biological parents as my real parents. My adopted parents are my real parents”.

For Claire, it was the absence of labelling that was key to a positive experience of education. “My school gave me a lot of leeway in terms of telling my own story and how, or when, I revealed I was adopted. I was told, at the start of Year 7, that how this information was shared was up to me and that was fantastic. No person’s individual character should ever be overshadowed by a label”.

National Adoption Week 2016

17 to 23 October 2016
The theme of this year’s National Adoption Week is  based around the hashtag #SupportAdoption.

As in previous years, the need to find families for some of society’s most vulnerable children will be at the heart of the event. It will also aim to encompass all aspects of adoption, to demystify and clarify the adoption process, reflect the challenges of adoptive parenting, share individual stories, and showcase and signpost to best practice.

National Adoption Week 2016 runs from 17 to 23 October. For more information, visit:
first4adoption.org.uk

For more information on the Adoptables, go to:
www.coram.org.uk/theadoptables

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Adoption (adoption week)
First For Adoption

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