…helping foster or late-adopted children to succeedBy Ann M. Jernberg, Ph.D. The Theraplay Institute
The teacher who has a foster of older adopted child in her classroom often finds herself facing problems no other child has presented. Whereas other children relate to her directly, these children may look away, act aloof, or only pretend to listen. Whereas others choose their relationships selectively, these children may relate to friends and strangers indiscriminately alike. Whereas other children’s behavior is normal and predictable, the behavior of these children may be bizarre in the extreme.
Although having a quite different quality from that which we find in "delinquents", truancy, lying and stealing are not out of character for foster and late-adopted children. Where other children are responsible for keeping up their grades, doing their homework and completing their assignments, these children often are not responsible or, if they are, their responsible behavior is pseudo-responsible only.
More meaningful than all these alarming behaviors, however, and often the reason for their happening in the first place, is the fact that the older adopted and foster children are emotionally far less mature than their chronological age, school grade placement, or intellectual functioning would indicate. This means that a teacher with a room full of nine-year-olds may find herself suddenly dealing with a child who is emotionally pre-school or less. Why are late-adopted and foster children so different and so difficult? These children would have developed just like everyone else in their peer group were it not that they have been subjected to one significant life experience that their classmates never had: while their classmates were snuggling close to and engaged, responsive, committed parent whom they knew they could count on for the rest of their childhood years, these unfortunate children were whisked away from their parents—parents who very likely, were unavailable, unreliable, alcoholic, neglectful, abusive, and non-engaged. They were then placed in one or in a series of foster homes. All this time physically, and perhaps even intellectually, however, their development had stopped dead in its tracks.
There is only one way we know of to help their emotional clock to begin to run again: it is through first recognizing that deep inside them there is a starving baby longing to be held and rocked, crying to be cuddled. Second, in as many ways as we can, giving him or her what that baby inside needs and, finally, having the patience to wait while that baby, at its own pace, grows to become emotionally the school-age child he eventually will be.
The following are guidelines for teachers of foster or late-adopted children:
How will you know when you as a teacher have made the failure-to-attach child just a little more willing to attach? You’ll know by the eager greeting when he or she sees you, you’ll know by the direct eye contact he or she make with you, and you’ll know because his or her voice tells you he or she is genuinely pleased to be spending time getting to know you.
Above all else, you’ll know because you yourself will find it fun to be with him or her, new qualities in yourself, and a newfound joy that may well add pleasure to your work.