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.


  1. As a former teacher of 20 years, and while reading your blog, wherein you stated, "This is not the first time the teacher has needed to address this," I would change this assignment. Your solution to send a current photo is perfect, but my teacher friends would've responded to you despite snow; they check their work emails at home. That's what the job entails.

  2. Hi Janine. Thanks for your note. Sorry I didn't update the blog after the entry but yes, the teacher did respond before Monday. It did take a few days though. She told me that whatever I wanted to do was fine, so I ended up sending in a picture of Christopher as a toddler that I had received from his former foster mom. I asked him if he remembered this photo being taken and he said he did not, so I figured the memory would not be traumatic for him. I will say, the school psychologist still has not responded to my email though and I would like to follow up with her again because I'm not sure Christopher's getting the sessions with her that she said we'd be getting.