Identifying Learning Problems in Adopted Children

Identifying Learning Problems in Adopted Children

When you made the choice to adopt a child, you took a leap of faith at least one bound beyond that taken by other parents. And, if your child is challenged by learning or attention problems, your parenting path may now seem strewn with “speed bumps” caused by these overlapping issues.

Learning disabilities (LD) and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) are certainly not unique to adopted children. But as an overlay to adoption, they present unique challenges – and questions. For example, where does your child’s pre-adoption history fit into the mix, along with genetics and her current environment? And how can you begin to interpret her personality or learning style when so much of her history is missing or incomplete?

Still, remember this: as the care-giving parent, you know your child best. Many highly capable adoptive parents who encounter LD and/or AD/HD for the first time often doubt their own parenting abilities until they understand the complexities of these disorders. Combine your intimate knowledge of your child with the information that follows. This may help you better identify, understand, and manage any learning difficulties your child has.

High Rates of AD/HD and LD Among Adopted Children

The Barker Foundation, the nation’s first cooperative adoption agency, conducted a 1996 survey with the parents of 500 adopted children. Thirty percent of these children had some type of learning or attention problem. A 1991 New Jersey study by Brodzinsky and Steiger also looked at the high numbers of adoptees in special education. Adopted children made up about 5 to 7 percent of the children studied with neurological, perceptual, or emotional problems. Yet, they represented only 1 to 2 percent of the general population of children.

Could these kinds of numbers partly reflect a hawk-like vigilance common to caring adoptive parents, who are likely to follow up on any apparent problem? Possibly. Another reason may be that adopted children tend to have “externalized,” or more visible, types of psychological problems. These might show up, for example, in the hyperactive and impulsive behavior often seen in AD/HD. Because parents find such behaviors more challenging, they often seek professional help sooner.

Potential Contributors to Learning Problems in Adoptees

Studies like those cited above have led researchers to further speculate about the causes of learning and emotional challenges in adopted children. Any of the following factors may contribute:

Your child’s pre-adoption history:

  • Poor prenatal care, including drug or alcohol exposure
  • Complications at birth
  • Malnutrition, neglect, abuse, or time spent in foster care or an orphanage
  • Genetics

Your child's post-adoption history:

  • Trouble learning a second language if adopted as an older child from a different country or culture
  • Anxiety caused by dealing with having been adopted and the concept of birth parents having “given her away”
  • Insecurity due to being a different race or simply having a different physical appearance than her adoptive parentsAttachment problems, which are believed to result from a lack of reliable protection and nurturance early in life. This condition, which may disproportionately affect adopted children, interferes with a child’s ability to form secure emotional bonds with her adoptive parents.

Early experiences that can lead to attachment disorder may also have a profound impact on a child’s learning. That’s because the brain pathways responsible for social perceptions, emotion, and empathy are the same ones that regulate communication and organization of memory. Higher levels of certain brain chemicals caused by chronic stress or trauma can damage a part of the brain called the hippocampus, making it hard to create and retain memories needed for learning.

Of course there are several factors other than adoption that may contribute to learning problems. Genetics may play a crucial role, particularly when it comes to AD/HD; there is a five-fold increase in the incidence of AD/HD among first-degree relatives. And don’t overlook a broad range of other potential factors, including your child’s current school situation, home, or social life.

Sorting Through the Complexity of Adoption Issues

It may be a challenge to sort out how all of these things affect your child’s learning and development. You may want to start with some basic questions, such as these:

Your child’s pre-adoption history:

  • Do you know the birth parents’histories? If so, try to find out if there is a history of alcohol or drug abuse.
  • Do you know if anyone in the child’s birth family has a learning disability or AD/HD?
  • Do you know if anyone in the child’s birth family has a significant mental health disorder?
  • What else can you learn about your child’s pre-adoption history?

Your Child's Post-adoption history:

  • Does your child seem plagued by anxiety? Does she have physical tics or obsessions? Does she talk about adoption in an anxious way or refuse to talk about it at all?
  • Is your child very fearful, intolerant of physical closeness, or lacking in empathy? These can be signs of attachment problems.
  • Was your child adopted at an older age and required to learn a second language in her adoptive home and country? Has this posed a problem for her?
  • Is there a discrepancy between your child’s apparent intellect and effort and her academic performance? If so, it’s possible the core problem is a learning disability. If no specific learning disability is found, it’s possible the core problem may be AD/HD (hyperactivity is not always present)     

Answering these questions may help you begin to identify your child’s main challenge and provide helpful information if you go ahead with a professional assessment. From time to time, also try to determine which issue – adoption or learning – is having a greater impact on your child. But remember that dealing with adoption may be the burning issue for your child, even when it remains a quiet, internal process. Following are some other approaches that may help you b

Helping your Child Cope With Anxiety

Fears about the future are not uncommon in adopted children, particularly in those who were older when they were adopted. For this and other reasons, an adopted child may find times of transition trying. That’s because the routines and structures that provide a sense of security are suspended. Fear can emerge around major changes like adjusting to a new teacher, or smaller ones like moving from one activity to another during the day.

An adopted child with a learning disability may worry that her birth parents placed her for adoption because she’s “stupid.” Intensifying things even more, children often become aware of these two differences – adoption and learning problems – at about the same time, at around age 6 or 7. Anxiety about all of this can further interfere with learning. As one first-grader put it, “The worry takes up too much of my brain, and then I can’t think.”

Here are a few ways you can help reduce your child’s anxiety:

  • Ease transitions, such as the beginning of the school year, by taking your child to tour her new classroom and meet her new teacher.
  • Focus less on academics early in the school year and more on your child building relationships with her teacher and peers.
  • Alert the teacher to times and places that might trigger painful memories in your child. Provide information about patterns observed at home. Share bits of your child’s history (from before and after adoption) that you think the teacher may find helpful.
  • Encourage your child to succeed, and show satisfaction with her progress. Balance this with realism so she doesn’t get the message that perfection is a prerequisite for being allowed to stay with her “forever family.” You may have invested a lot to create this family. Don’t let that overburden you or your child with unreasonably high expectations.
  • Let your child know that you understand learning isn’t easy, but that you value and love her for who she is; tell her specific things you appreciate about her often.
  • Celebrate small achievements and redefine success as “doing your best,” rather than getting the highest grade.

Helping a Child with Attention Problems

If your child struggles with attention problems, you can try a few management strategies that will help you both a great deal. Establishing solid, clear communication with your child early on will help her both at school and at home.

Seeking Educational Evaluations

How will you know if your child needs extra help in school? First of all, trust your instincts. If you feel something isn’t quite right, it won’t hurt to seek advice. Early intervention is best. And having the problem identified may help you to stop taking things personally, while helping your child to become less frustrated. The first step may involve a pre-referral process through your public school. If additional assessment is needed, you can request either a school or private assessment. You may find referrals to private resources through community adoption support networks, your adoption agency, or a local mental health agency. If possible, find a trusted person who is knowledgeable about both assessment and adoption.

Keep Your Chin Up

By now, you know that the parenting path isn’t always easy. Yours may have a few more twists and turns than most. And you may find it frustrating that usual sources of support – family and friends – lack sensitivity or understanding about adoption and LD or AD/HD. But a wealth of resources awaits you, including support groups for adoptive parents or for parents of kids with learning problems. Once your child has received a diagnosis, you can make progress in obtaining the support she needs, whether that’s special education services or accommodations, tutoring, medical care, counseling, or a combination of these interventions. Even though there are some “speed bumps” in your path, just knowing where they are will allow you and your child to develop skills to navigate them safely. Just slow down, keep your destination in mind, and enjoy the journey.


  • When Adoption and Learning-Attention Difficulties Overlap: The Impact on the Adoptive Family.
    Allen, R. Barker Foundation, 1996.
  • ADHD and Conduct Disorder in Adopted Children
    by Barbara D. Ingersoll, PhD, ADHD Report/Russell A. Barkley & Associates (August 1998)
  • Assessment “Blues” and Adoption
    by Janina Nadaner

Article shared with permission by EMK Press