The teacher's story:

My question concerns Michael, an eight-year old boy who is now in the third grade. When I first encountered Michael, I learned that he had suffered years of neglect at the hands of his parents. He and his younger brother lived in unspeakable conditions and were often at the point of malnutrition. His troubles manifested themselves in such behavior as hitting his classmates and gorging himself in the school cafeteria.

Recently some things have begun to change. I have been delighted with the enthusiasm Michael occasionally shows about learning since Child Protective Services took him and his brother into custody and placed him with a foster family. Apparently his new home provides a loving, nurturing environment for the boys, and the foster family has made a motion for adoption.

Everything isn't wonderful, though. Michael still has a hard time sitting and concentrating, but what concerns me most is that he continues to be teased by classmates and has not yet made friends. I'm wondering if we can make things go more smoothly for him now that he has a good home. Can we help him grow into an emotionally stable and socially healthy child?

Dr. Brodkin responds:

Be cheered by Michael's progress. Things don't always turn around rapidly for a child who has had such a sad beginning. It's wonderful that you see any change at all so soon after Michael moved to his new home. Don't be discouraged if Michael's progress seems slow now. The likelihood of an ultimately successful adoption — along with emotional support from you and the school — bode well for him.

Be realistic about the road ahead. Two uphill challenges remain for Michael — overcoming the psychological trauma of his past and negotiating the legal hurdles of adoption. We know that kids who are adopted, even in mid-childhood, have a greater likelihood of overcoming early emotional wounds than those who remain in foster care. But biological parents have considerable legal weight in most states, making involuntary termination of their rights hard to obtain. Settling all of this can take years, keeping the children uncertain and anxious. Not surprisingly, they may continue to have a hard time with academics and social behavior.

Reach out to Michael's new family. The school can make Michael's success even greater by working closely with the foster parents, seeing to it that they are kept fully informed, and making them welcome in the school. As Michael's teacher, you should involve the foster parents in planning ways to encourage Michael's improving academic performance — by some special acknowledgment of his achievements, for example, or using museums and other community resources to pursue topics of interest. Encourage ongoing counseling for Michael, as well as for his foster family.

Dr. Coleman responds:

As educators, we sometimes have a tendency to be so overjoyed when a troubled child shows improvements that we often overlook remaining problems. Here are some thoughts about alleviating the behavior problems and the peer stresses you mention:

Remember developmental stages. Although Michael's home situation certainly has a bearing on his behavior, I would advise you to take into account some classic developmental factors.

  • As an eight-year-old, Michael is sure to be energetic and may have a hard time sitting still and concentrating, even under "normal" circumstances.

  • This is also the age when children can be cliquish. They often think in terms of "them against us." They tease each other, sometimes unmercifully.

To create the kind of supportive classroom Michael needs, you must address the issues with all your students, not just Michael.

Heal via the curriculum. One of the most powerful tools you have is a well-planned lesson. I suggest developing curricular units on the following topics and related questions:

  • Friends: What makes a good friend? How does one make and keep friends? Do children from different cultures and countries make friends the same way? Have students explore these questions by reading literature, writing stories, composing plays, creating murals, and so on.

  • Family: Chances are Michael's family is just one of many different family configurations represented in your classroom. You might launch a curriculum unit on families with such questions as these: What makes up a family? How many different kinds of families can we identify? How do families today differ from families in the past? Activities for this unit could include a study of animal families and cultural family patterns, a Family Day to which parents and other important adults are invited, and exploration of your classroom and school as a family.

Draw on other adults. For a stabilizing influence, Michael and his classmates could benefit from an intergenerational program that will allow them to interact with older people beyond their own families. You might arrange for your class to visit a nursing home or senior center on a regular basis so the kids can talk with residents, read to them, and entertain them. Kids and seniors can launch joint projects such as forming a choir or creating a public art exhibit. You could also schedule a Grandparents Day celebration to which students could invite a wide variety of older relatives and friends for refreshments and reading.

Recommended Books:

Jill Krementz. How It Feels to Be Adopted. Knopf, 1982.

Maxine Rosenberg. Growing Up Adopted. Bradbury Press, 1989.

"Helping a Foster Child Heal" is adapted from the January/February 1996 issue of Instructor magazine, and is written by Dr. Adele Brodkin and her colleague, Melba Coleman, Ed.D.