Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Adoption and education

(First my obligatory disclaimer... or two. 1. I am not a trained special education teacher nor I am a trained therapist, but I have a lot of experience with both these things and have done a ridiculous amount of research. I suppose this gives me just enough knowledge to be dangerous. Use your own judgement when following my advice. 2. This post is written for the homeschooler. I know many children who have been adopted go to public school and fare just fine. That's great (and you can read that sentence without any irony because I really mean it.) Just remember, when I write about homeschooling it does not automatically assume I am saying the negative about other types of school. There, that should head off any comments right off the bat, huh?)

Over the past several years, I have updated everyone on H.'s academic advancement. (If you missed them, here they are:  6 months home and 7 months home.) After those, in looking back through the hundreds of posts I've written in the ensuing years, I haven't updated in a purposeful way. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, there just wasn't that much to say. We had worked diligently and for much of the next year and a half we couldn't see a whole lot of discernible progress. I wasn't too worried, though, because of reason number two for not updating. That would be, we weren't doing a whole lot of straight academics, but really were just continuing preschool. If I was going to experiment educationally with my daughter, I wanted a longer period of time to elapse before sharing what was happening.

I have my own pet theories, which are not entirely made up but based on what I have learned about children and development and trauma and neuroscience and play, plus my own experiences raising and educating a bunch of children. Those theories boil down to something like this. Our children who have joined our families by adoption come to us with a  very mixed bag of experiences. While some of those experiences may have been positive, there is also a great deal of loss and trauma and at least, for some of my children some really horrible parts of their past as well. When you compare this with a child growing up in a stable, nurturing home, the differences are pretty huge.

In order for a child to learn optimally, there need to be certain things in place. First, there must be trust. Without trust, the child plunges into fear and no one can really learn anything when in a fearful state. Second, the foundations for later academic learning must be built. This usually happens during baby and toddlerhood for most children. The child is constantly investigating his or her surrounding environment... touching, tasting, hitting, throwing, dropping... to see what happens. The parent is constantly naming the things in the child's environment and explaining what is happening. The child is surrounded by print in their language and is beginning to become familiar with what it looks like. Numbers are used in a concrete way; to count things in the child's world. The child's small successes are heralded and when the child fails, is immediately encouraged to try again.

Now look at a child living in a less optimal environment. First, if there is no single caregiver, there can be no sense of trust. Fear is a constant companion, whether recognized as such or not, and the child focuses on learning behaviors which give a feeling a safety. These are not always behaviors that will help the child grow in the long run. Often a child in an orphanage is kept in a very limited environment. Sometimes this is a crib for hours on end or, as in K.'s case, the two blank cement rooms of his orphanage. There is little to explore and there is no one to give language to what he is doing. There is no print... in any language. The early lessons that little squiggles on a page can have meaning do come. Also, the vocabulary the child builds is cursory at best and probably involves more commands than anything. More complex sentences, ideas, and words are never heard by the child.

If this child is adopted at an older age, these deficits add up. They do learn some things because children are natural learners and they will take in what's available, but it is not much. If you imagine a child's early learning as building a mental scaffolding to hang later language on, the deprived child has scaffolding that looks like something that would not be approved by the inspector on a building site. It is a hodge-podge of this and that, thrown together in a random fashion. It is not structurally stable and to try to build a real building on this base would be foolish. The building would not stand in the long run.

If I imagine my child to have a sketchy mental scaffolding, then before I can ever hope to teach them something, I need to go back and do some rebuilding. In order to do this, I need to provide experiences that mimic what I would do with a much younger child. The brain is much more plastic than researchers had believed and I think we can use this plasticity in conjunction we a second chance at being a small child to build a better scaffolding.

So what I have done with H. in these past two years is to let her play and explore and discover and converse. We have spent a lot of time reading stories. She needs to hear her new language before she can ever hope to become fluent in reading it. I just finished reading Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryann Wolf. In it she confirms my ideas that the combination of vocabulary, awareness of the sounds of the language, memory, and pattern identification are necessary to create a good reader. So we play with words. We rhyme, we talk about the beginning sounds of things, we talk about words that mean the same thing, we name things. We talk and read and read and talk. Her reading has improved. She can sound out most simple, short-vowel phonetic words; she can read quite a few sight words; she can sound out some words that are not phonetically simple. We have a long way to go before she is reading fluently, but I see a lot of progress. The biggest thing is that I find her every so often trying to sound out words that she comes across in the course of her day. This tells me that she has learned two very important lessons. The first is that words surround us and they have something to communicate. It is worth figuring out what they say because you might want to know their message. The second is that she has a sense that she can figure the words out. The squiggles have turned into letters which have turned into words which hold the promise of meaning and she now has the code for figuring out that meaning. With my other children, I knew we were close to real reading when they started to read words around them. Reading became personal at that point and worth the effort.

This is long, even for me, but here is there is a reward for those who have managed to make it this far. Now I am going to talk about H. and math. Math for the past two years has been a huge hurdle for H. She came to us knowing how to write and count to 10, but any knowledge about what those numbers meant wasn't there. It was something you did by rote. By the end of last year, after a lot of playing with numbers and manipulatives of all sorts, H. could identify the numerals 1 - 5, but 6 and up were a complete bafflement to her and I despaired of ever having her learn them. We took the summer off and only talked about numbers when they came up in real life, which, if you really think about it, is quite often. It was with a little trepidation that we began math again this year. Well, her math scaffolding may still be a bit shaky, but it is strong enough to build on. Do you want to hear her really, really good news? Not only can she identify all the numerals up to 10 now, she can count and identify numerals up to 100. Yes, you read that correctly. 100. But wait, it gets even better. Not only can she count to 100 by ones, but she can skip count by 5's and by 10's. That is still looking at the 100 chart, but she can find the right numeral and say its name. She can almost do the 10's by memory.

There is so much more I could say about the idea of rebuilding a mental scaffolding, but I've gone on too long already. For the moment, I just want to sit and relish the idea that H. can name numbers past five. Last year, if you had asked me if she would ever learn to do this, I'm not sure I would have said she could.

Soli Deo Gloria

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