Friday, January 30, 2015

Why the school assignment to bring a baby picture to class can be traumatizing to foster and adopted kids

Things have been going really well with Christopher lately. December was a bit rough because of all the excitement surrounding the holidays but he has settled down nicely in January. As long as the routine stays status quo, then I could anticipate that Christopher's behavior would be manageable.

Of course, the key phrase in that sentence is "status quo" and in life, you just have to expect the unexpected sometimes. I learned that lesson the other day when I received an email from Christopher's teacher requesting the following:

"Please send in a baby picture of your child in an envelope or baggie by 1/27/15. It is for a writing activity and will be returned."

Please send in a baby picture.

Sounds like an innocuous request right? What kid doesn't have adorable baby pictures? It would seem like the hardest part of this project would be to find only one adorable photo out of the thousands you have to send in.

Not always so.

In our case, Christopher came to live with me at the age of 3-3/4. I have one baby photo of him because his birth mother gave it to his social worker before she lost parental rights. She had wanted Christopher to know where he came from and I do respect that. Someday I will show him this photo...but it will not be forced by a school assignment when Christopher is too young and still too emotionally vulnerable to be able to handle it. Not to mention, in the photo he is in the arms of his birth father--a man he hasn't seen since he was 18 months old. How would Christopher write about THAT? He doesn't even know this man. 

This assignment is forcing Christopher to address his early childhood trauma, his loss of his birth parents and it's making him explain things to his classmates that he doesn't have the tools to do. Also, the kids in his class really don't have the emotional maturity to handle the message. That's an awful lot for a first grader with PTSD due to early childhood trauma to take on by himself.

Not knowing what to do about this issue, I posted it to my Facebook page to see if any of my school teacher friends had any insights. A few did respond.

K wrote:
The personal time line will come up a couple of times in MA Curriculum Frameworks and this is exactly why teachers push back. As you struggle with this, understand other families with adopted children - some from equally as scary situations but in other parts of the world - are also struggling with this assignment. The point of the exercise right now is to understand we all come from someplace and have roots from which we grow. I have seen parents do things like, "This is a picture from when I was born, but these are pictures from my home...."

R wrote:
We normally give the option of doing a "fantasy" or fake family such as the Simpsons.

S wrote:
I think growth and maturity will lend a hand on his acceptance of being "different" but I think a good teacher would embrace this as a moment of learning and acceptance in the classroom. Good luck on this journey. You are a terrific person and a great Mom, you'll own this. Xo

I was starting to feel a little bit better abut this assignment because it seems like other teachers have handled it well. But then a fellow adoptive mom posted this same exact question to a listserv I am on for parents of kids adopted from foster care (nice to know I'm not alone). There has been a firestorm of responses because it's a difficult assignment for all our families. Here are just a few of the responses I saw there.

You are wise to be concerned about this. My daughter made the mistake (in 4th grade) of openly disclosing to kids in her class that she was adopted, including some of the sad truth of why the state put her into foster care, the whole 9 yards -- after which many of the kids who'd previously befriended her started to avoid her and/or publicly tease her. Her teacher, an adoptive parent himself, explained to me that at that age, the thing a kid worries about more than anything is not being safe and secure with their parents, and so because of that fear would avoid anyone/anything that could make them worry more about losing their parent(s). "If it could happen to them, maybe it could happen to me."

Yikes! The last thing I want is for my child to risk being bullied and harassed because he was adopted. The poor kid doesn't want to feel different...he wants to have friends and just be "normal" like everyone else.

Another response from a mental health crisis counselor scared me as well:

I was called to a school on an MCI (mobile crisis) call for a kid who was 'out of control'. She ended up being hospitalized. What triggered it? No surprises.

Apparently all the kids had to bring in baby pictures, hang them on the wall and everyone had to guess who everyone was. The girl didn't have one, so with the parent and teacher talking, it was agreed that she was able to bring in one of when she was older. She brought one from when she was adopted at 8yrs of age. The kids made fun her because she didn't have a baby picture.

The issue was, her classmates were not okay with it. They asked tons of questions and when she said she didn't have one, they made fun of her. Kids are not as sensitive to others' feelings like adults are.

Some children, DX with PTSD, these type of projects can open a box that shouldn't be opened in front of a classroom of their peers and only should be opened with a trained professional that deals with trauma.

Suddenly this "innocent" assignment doesn't appear to be so innocent after all does it? In the scenario above, the teacher clearly handled it poorly by not intervening and explaining why this child did not have any baby pictures. That said though, I think it's asking a lot of the teacher to understand early childhood trauma. Teachers are teachers...not trained mental health professionals and they are extremely busy just trying to teach 25 kids. They already have their hands full and then some.

This is all new territory for me but I figure the best thing to do in this scenario would be to enlist the assistance of the school and work as a team. So with that in mind, I've emailed both the teacher and the school psychologist to ask their help. I haven't heard back yet from either yet but we are in day 4 of snow day-cation (thank you Blizzard Juno!) so I suspect they won't be back online until Monday. The photo is due on Monday however and since I can't send a baby photo into school with Christopher, I may send a picture of him with his extended (adoptive) family, along with a note on why I'm doing this. The teacher can choose to do whatever she likes with the assignment I guess at that point but I do want to have the school psychologist at least aware in case the teacher chooses to move forward with some sort of birth story.

This is a tough assignment for any family that does not come from traditional circumstances. In Christopher's case, he's adopted from foster care but there are kids adopted from overseas with tragic histories who would have trouble with this. And what if your family was traditional but you lost all your photos in a fire? Or the hard drive where you stored your digital photos crashed and you lost everything. These can all happen and what then? The kid will still feel different and that's just not right.

Considering my town has a large DCF office, I suspect this isn't the first time Christopher's teacher has had to address this issue and based on what I've been reading on the MA foster adoption listserv, it won't be the last. We'll see what happens on Monday I guess.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

I can't believe it's been over a month since I last wrote. The holidays seriously flew by! Between a crazy busy work project that my team needed to complete by December 21st and my attempt to compete with Martha Stewart in all things holiday-inspired, I needed to prioritize my to-do list and blogging didn't make the cut unfortunately. I have missed sharing our story however and am happy to be baaaack!

This year I've been working on a high profile technology project that will be going live in a few weeks. We had a big deadline to meet right before Christmas so that meant some long days. There was one weekend that I worked until 1 in the morning after working until 11pm the week nights before that. I definitely burned the midnight oil there for a bit but am happy to report that the deadline has been met and life is going to be a lot quieter now going forward. Phew.

In addition to work, Christopher also celebrated his 7th birthday in early December and I threw him a fun little party at Fuddrucker's with 6 of his friends. I decided to get all Suzy Homemaker on the event and make my own birthday cake complete with fondant frosting. The theme was to be Minecraft and I found cake decorating ideas on Pinterest for inspiration

I spent way more money buying the cake pan, fondant and food dye than I would have if I just bought the kiddo an actual cake. And I definitely spent way more time (hours) making and constructing the cake. But in the end I loved the way it turned out. It's definitely not a professional looking cake but hey, I do the best I can.

Just as we were about to leave for the event though, I found out that I was not the only one who liked this cake. Apparently the dog liked it too. When I was in the other room organizing the goody bags to give out, Christopher started screaming. I come back into the kitchen only to find out that ... the dog has eaten the cake. The cake I labored over for hours! BAD DOG!!

People asked me afterwards if the dog got sick from all the sugar and chocolate and to that I say no but I did notice the next day he was pooping green. That freaked me out a bit until I remembered that he ate the kiddo's birthday cake. 

You'd think that I'd learn never to let my dog near treats again but I'm apparently a slow learner. A week later Christopher came home from school with a gingerbread house project that he made in his class. It was super cute and Christopher was so proud of it. I put it into the dining room and pulled the chairs away from the table, thinking that would keep the dog off the table since he's just a little guy. On that front, I was wrong because later on I discovered the gingerbread house on the floor and the dog, yep, eating it. BAD DOG!! Once again though he did not get sick. Lucky me since I certainly wouldn't have wanted to clean that mess up off of my rugs.

The kiddo was heartbroken so we went to Trader Joe's and got a new gingerbread house kit and invited his friend Grace to come over and have a gingerbread house baking party with us. It was fun and the latest creation turned out well. I finally learned to close the door to the dining room so the dog couldn't get in there but the down side to that is that now we can't see it unless we go into the dining room.

I also hosted friends for our annual fondue and cookie baking party. Once again, a super fun day! I made my usual Linzer cookies which turned out sooooo yummy.

Last but not least, I ran my favorite 5K right before Christmas, the Jingle Bell Run, which is a super fun time. Everyone dresses up for the race and afterwards it's a big party with food and drink. I got to see a bunch of running friends I haven't seen in eons and enjoyed the holiday attire as well.

Christmas finally arrived and Christopher who was completely wrapped up in the magic of the holidays, was thrilled with everything Santa brought him. He really enjoyed the day and I loved hosting with a tasty Christmas dinner as well.

After Christmas I finally had some down time and immediately once the adrenaline was gone so was my ability to fight off any sort of infection and I got sick. I've spent the last week battling a really nasty cold and ended up working from home two days earlier this week so I wouldn't get anyone else sick. Everyone I know is sick so it doesn't surprise me that I got sick too. Better now than when all those activities were happening at least.

Now that the holidays are over, Christopher's a lot calmer too, which helps. The kiddo was reeeally wound up all month and that made life a bit challenging. Now he's less stimulated and more relaxed and that makes my life infinitely easier.

So now that I made it through the crazy busy work project and a whirlwind of holiday activities, it's time to slow life down a bit. Later today I go to my friend Kate's house for a post-new year's get together and it will be nice to have someone other than me hosting for a bit. Let her clean her house top to bottom for a change! Haha. No but seriously it's been a great season even if I did go a bit over the top at times. I'm not sure that I would have changed anything if I had the chance to get a do-over so that clearly says something.

On that happy note, merry Christmas (or whatever holiday you celebrate) and happy new year from the kiddo and myself!