Troublesome Family-based School Assignments

Troublesome Family-based School Assignments

Several common school assignments can make foster and adoptive children feel sad, left out, and uncomfortable. Children may lack the information for some projects like the “Family Tree,” “Family History,” and “Bring-a-Baby Picture.” Basing lessons on a traditional family model not only excludes these students, but may also trigger strong grief reactions.

Teachers are generally not aware of the impact of these projects on foster and adoptive children, unless the subject is brought to their attention. Fortunately, these assignments can be easily modified to work for children in all different types of family configurations, by broadening the scope of the assignment and offering students wider choices.

Parents/ guardians are advised to ask the teacher about any upcoming family-based projects at the start of the school year, or when a child starts a new school. The outline below lists some common assignments and the corresponding challenges they present, as well as solu- tions to make them more inclusive.

“Bring a Baby/Family Picture” Assignments or “Bring Photos at Each Age from Birth”

Problem: An adopted or foster child may not have baby or family photos.

a) This assignment emphasizes an issue that is already painful for children.

b) It puts the child in the difficult position of explaining to other kids why he or she doesn’t have baby or family pictures.

Solution: Present the assignment as a choice. Bring pictures of:

a) The child as a baby or any younger age.

b) Of the child on various holidays or doing various activities. c) Important people in the child’s life.

Family Tree Assignments

Problem: The standard format does not allow for foster, adoptive, birth, or step parents and siblings.

Solution: Rather than avoiding the family tree assignment, parents and educators can use it as a tool to teach children about the many varieties of family structures. Offer a choice of the following formats like:

  1. a)  The Rooted Family Tree, where the roots represent the birth family, the child is the trunk, and the foster, adoptive, and/or step family members fill in the branches.

  2. b)  The Caring (or Loving) Tree, where the child can fill the branches or leaves with all sorts of important people in his or her life.

  3. c)  The Family Wheel Diagram, where the child is in the middle and the outer rings of the circle represent the birth, foster, adoptive, and step family relationships.

  4. d)  The Family Houses Diagram, which uses houses instead of trees to show connections between birth, foster, adoptive, and step family members.

Autobiographies and Family History Assignments

Problem: Many foster and adopted children lack information about their early years, or the information is painful and private.

Solution: Offer students a choice to write about:

a) My life.

b) When I was younger.

c) My summer vacation.

d) A special event or person in my life.

Create a Timeline of the Student’s Life

Problem: Some children have little or no information about their milestones. Other chil- dren may wonder if they need to include private information like foster care moves.

Solution: Do not require that the timeline begin from the child’s birth, just that it cover a period of time. Alternatively, allow children to create a timeline for a historical or fictional character.

Superstar, VIP, Student-of-the-Week Projects

Problem: Having students share information about themselves is intended to be a fun activity that helps students get acquainted. But it can be uncomfortable for children who have limited access to pictures and information about their early years. Some children may also have painful memories of their early childhood.

Solution: Instructors can provide students with a list of many alternatives for the information to be shared, including more innocuous choices such as interests, hobbies, sports, or pets.

Tell About Your Name

Problem: Some children will not know why their birth parents chose their name, and may even have gone through a name change.

Solution: Call the assignment “What’s in a Name?” and let students choose between writ- ing about their own name or interviewing a friend or relative about their name.

Write About Your Birth

Problem: This assignment can be fun for children being raised by their biological parents, who can interview their parents about and learn interesting details of their birth. This project is difficult or impossible for many foster and adopted children to complete.

Solution: Ideally, eliminate this assignment altogether, as the questions tend to be intru- sive even for families formed by birth.

Assignments revolving around family and personal history can prove troublesome for many types of students. Increasing numbers of families differ from the “traditional” configuration in one or more ways: single-parent and step families, same-sex parents, transracial families, foster and adoptive families, and kinship caregivers. By modifying assignments, teachers will be exposing all of their students to positive messages about adoption, diversity, and respect for all types of people and families.

Christine Mitchell is also the author of Welcome Home, Forever Child: A Celebration of Children Adopted as Toddlers, Preschoolers, and Beyond; Family Day: Celebrating Ethan’s Adoption Anniversary; A Foster-Adoption Story: Angela and Michael’s Journey, co-authored with Regina M. Kupecky, MSW. This article originally appeared in Fostering Families Today magazine.