School Success = Family Success
by Debbie Riley, M.S. Executive
Director of The Center for
Adoption Support & Education
For many foster and adoptive parents helping their child be successful in school, not only means giving them a stable and loving home, but also finding out the child's school history and special education needs.
It's common sense that children who meet with success at school are more likely to develop sold self-esteem, make positive choices about their behavior, and look forward to their future. School success and positive family relationships often have a reciprocal relationship. However, school presents unique and difficult challenges for children adopted from the child welfare system.
Most people today acknowledge that children in foster care are considered to have "special needs." Often that includes learning, emotional or physical disabilities. In addition, new research is confirming that early trauma and deprivation can affect brain growth and function, impacting potential for learning. Children may have inappropriate behaviors in reaction to the experiences that brought them in to care, or to the common emotions of loss and grief, anger, and uncertainty that stem from being moved from family to family. Those behaviors can be difficult to manage in a school environment.
For some children, lacking a permanent family may mean multiple school placements, making it difficult for teachers to monitor their progress over time. It can be easy for children to fall between the cracks; important time may be lost without critical special education services. Adoptive parents may be unaware of their children's history of school performance, which is so important in identifying learning problems and consequently obtaining special education services. Even if they have raised the children as foster children for some years, they may not understand the complex special education system, or they may be financially over whelmed about a necessary course of action.
To improve out comes of adoption, post-adoption support must, at the very least, assist families in obtaining knowledge and skills to advocate for their children's needs at school. Mental health professional working with adoptive families can help by monitoring both academic and social progress at school, enhancing home-school communication, and assisting parents to help educators understand the individual needs of the child.
What Parents Are Requesting
"We knew when Matthew was our foster child that he had long-term special education needs," Irene explains, "but some disabilities do not reveal themselves right away." Matthew's need were extensive, including ADHD, neurological and visual disabilities, and medical problems, with resulting learning disabilities. He also had a family history of mood disorders, and had a psychiatric hospitalization at the age of 7. Irene feels that their social worker made a "good faith effort" to prepare them for the kinds of services that Matthew would need as he grew up. She feels lucky that she and her husband received excellent training to parent a child with special needs.
However, after adoption, much of that support, both financial and otherwise, was greatly reduced or eliminated altogether. On their own it has taken an enormous amount of time, money and energy to research appropriate programs, determine needs, deal with insurance coverage, obtain screenings, and find specialist. Over several years, Irene and her husband drew on the internet, community resources, a therapist at C.A.S.E., and most importantly, their own perseverance, to become strong advocates for Matthew. They had obtained many services for him through the public school system as well as private practitioners. She describes the process this way: "we were eaten alive. We've had one uphill battle after the other, and I think a lot of people would simply fall by the wayside."
Falling by the wayside has serious implications in adoption. It may mean high family stress, school failure, and possibly even adoptions that are never finalized because families fell overwhelmed. Many parents realize that the need for assistance with their children's special needs will continue long past adoption, and may actually get more challenging as the children grow up. When they learn that post-adoption services are not available to help with school issues, it may cause second thoughts about adoption.
"I never considered not adopting Matthew," says Irene, but she acknowledges that one social worker warned her early on that it would be better to keep him in foster care, where more services and financial supports to address children's special needs. "Wouldn't it be better to provide ongoing support to address children's special needs, rather than have a failed adoption - or no adoption at all?" she wonders.
In a broad review of post-adoption needs and programs, noted researcher Richard Barth and colleagues at the University of North Carolina found that "School problems are consistently rated as the most significant concern for adoptive families." Parents ask frequently for support to help them understand and access the special education system.
In surveys of adoptive parents across the country, school is named as a common family stressor. Irene found that her ability to maintain her job was threatened by frequent school conference and the threat of suspension. "You have layers of stress - the kid, other children in the family, your job, your marriage. It's enormous."
These requests for assistance for help their children succeed in school must not be ignored by social workers and adoption professionals working to ensure permanency and well-being of adoptive families. Irene's wish list: psychologists who would complete full evaluations of children with plans for adoption, so parents would have both knowledge about their children as well as valuable data to present to schools; lists of babysitters in the community who are capable of caring for children with complex special needs; a stipend or system to allow specialists to attend school meetings when requesting services; and very importantly, counseling for parents weathering the stresses of raising the children. She suggested that perhaps a pro bono system of professionals and service providers could be set up to provide such services, with a group such as C.A.S.E. being the umbrella under which they are maintained and referred.
Making School Successful: Tasks for Parents
Adoptive parents are often adept at seeking resources and obtaining services, having navigated both the child welfare and legal systems to become parents in the first place. These skills translate well to tackling the rules and regulations of the special education system.
To obtain appropriate special education services, all parents need to feel that they are parents with the educators who are making decisions about their children's needs. Parents are experts on how their children's needs are impacting their lives. They need to become knowledgeable about their children's identified disabilities, basics of the federal law (IDEA) that provides for special education services, and details about required meetings, evaluations and procedures that apply to their situation.
After placement in a special education program, a important component of ensuring success is that parents remain a consistent monitor of their children's progress. (Is this program helping him? Does his Individual Education Plan - the IEP- have appropriate goals and objectives that will clearly measure his progress?) Parents also need to be cognizant of how to include behavior goals and results of a Functional Behavior Assessments in the IEP, regulations regarding suspension of students in special education, and additional services that may be available to address emotional issues.
Making School Successful: Tasks for Child Welfare
To begin a program of support for parents, social workers can provide parents with resources to assist them in becoming effective educational advocates. "The Internet is a godsend," notes Irene. Most states have Parent Information Centers which provide free information and consultation about special education. Originally based on Virginia's Parent Education and Advocacy Training Center (PEATC), you can find what your state offers by going to the Web site at www.peatc.org or calling 1-800-869-6782. Organizations providing information and help specifically about various disabilities can be found through the Internet or your local library, (example: the Learning Disabilities Association of America or the American Speech Language-Hearing Association). Specific information about specific education rights can be found at www.wrightslaw.com.
So, where do post-adoption services need to go?
A multidisciplinary approach, combining child welfare, special educators, and mental health practitioners is most effective. Additional opportunities for building post - adoption support for parents challenged by school concerns are:
- Offering educational and support programs to parents challenged by school issues; recruiting parents who are knowledgeable about the local school district's policies and programs to assist parents who are just starting the process
- Strengthening relationships with school counselors and administrators, perhaps on a case-by-case basis or through collaborative programs (they can benefit by a greater understanding of adoption and the special needs of children in foster care)
- Providing training to child welfare staff to increase their abilities to attend school meetings and attain appropriate services.
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