Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Adoption and learning

When I find myself writing the same things to different people more than a few times, I realize it's time to write a blog post. Not only will it save me repeating myself, but the topic must be of a more general interest, and could be useful to a wider audience. I believe I wrote on a similar topic before, but I now have a few more years of experience to add.

It is a very common occurrence that among older children who are adopted academic learning when first home is not easy. This is true for a wide range of children, both for those who have delays of one kind or another and for those children who considered intellectually and developmentally on track. Here are a few of the behaviors that parents have observed in their children: slow to grasp new concepts; extreme jaggedness in functioning; emotionally young; working memory issues; and working below the academic level expected. I've had children on all different levels of functioning, from severely intellectually delayed all the way to gifted, display all of these behaviors. As you might expect, I also have a few opinions as to why they (the behaviors) are there and what to do.

First, the why. Our children coming home at older ages have not had the best start in life. Even my child who came from a fairly stable and loving family environment also experienced trauma to a degree most of us do not understand. Others of my children experienced neglect. Still others, far too many different care givers over a short period of time. The changes and losses all of these children experienced are big, even if the child appears to be resilient. The combination of loss, trauma, and neglect is hard on developing brains. Trauma has been shown to rewired the brain. Neglect, even if benign, can stop a brain from developing to its full potential.

Having G. and L. growing up in the midst of raising my other children who come from hard places is a constant reminder of what the others missed. From Day 1, G. and L. were in a safe and nurturing place. From nearly Day 1, they had books read to them and language spoken to them. When they cried, someone was always available to pick them up. (I think B. and J. wore grooves around the kitchen table walking with a crying baby.) As they got older, they had toys to play with; they were allowed to try things, taste things. touch things, pour things, even break things. They had freedom to explore their world and were purposefully given interesting things to look at, play with, and experiment with. Their world was steady. The same favorite people were around consistently. They heard the same language every day.

My children from hard places? This is what they didn't have. Some may have had these experiences at times, but there was also great upheaval. Special people changed, sometimes without warning. Books were rare. For some, toys were rare as well. There was a lot of energy spent in surviving with not a lot left over for playing or exploring. Then, they had to change families, languages, and cultures. What made sense in one world, did not make sense in another. In a sense, we took brains already compromised and compromised them a bit more with further global change.

Have you ever spent time in a different culture and a different language? (Sometimes I think a month of immersion in a foreign culture, all on your own, should be a requirement for international adoption. It would give a sense of empathy that can sometimes be lacking.) If you ever have, then you know how exhausting it is. You know that having to do something such as go to the post office is so taxing that you can only plan on doing that one thing that day. You know that sometimes the fatigue of it all can just make you want to sit and cry for no reason. Your emotional and intellectual margin is very, very thin. Sometimes it might be non-existent. Remember those feelings, and then ponder how you would have fared had someone started throwing math problems in your barely second language at you. Probably your initial reaction would be to throw them right back.

So when a new child enters a family, is it any surprise that he or she is not working at full capacity? Would you? I know I wouldn't.

Thus, we see a child who is battling two extreme experiences at once. First their hard backgrounds have compromised their brains to some extent, and then we add the stress of navigating a new culture, language, and family. Given this scenario, what surprises me more than anything is when children acclimate well. And some of the do. With very little fanfare, they learn their new language, fall in love with their new family, and move forward. Some do not fare this well, and it takes much longer for them to find their footing in their new lives.

There is the why. Now what about the how?

Well, in my opinion, the last thing we should do is choose their grade based on their age, hand them a stack of textbooks, and tell them to go to work. (And for the sake of my bigger argument, I will leave aside my thoughts on this type of education in general.) The best thing to do is to get into your cardboard time machine, and let your new child experience what they missed in their earlier years. Get out the little kid toys and let them play. Play with them if they don't know how to create an imaginary world to explore and inhabit (if you are not blessed with built-in master players to show the new people the ropes). Give them sensory experiences... clay, water, sand. Physical experiences... running, jumping, crawling, balancing, hopping, skipping, rolling, spinning, rocking. And be sure they can actually do these types of physical activities. If they can't, now you know where you need to start. Just as a toddler begins with crawling and then walking before we put a phonics book in front of him, this is what you need to do with your new child, as well. Read books. Many, many books. Look at the pictures. Talk about the pictures. Point out writing that is present everywhere. Narrate your life... just as you would for a toddler. Count things. Over and over count them. The number of stairs, the scoops of dog food, the plates on the table, the toys on the shelf. Do all of this before you even get out the pencil and paper and expect these number and letters you are going to talk about to make sense.

Because, in truth, you do not know what they missed. You do not know what gaps occurred in their early childhood because the time that they would have naturally done something was short-circuited by loss or fear or hurt. It won't take five years to create a child ready and primed to learn. An older child will pass through these stages faster than a younger one. But without the opportunity to pass through the earlier stages, the foundation for later, more academic and theoretical learning, will be faulty. At some point, when things get harder and the lessons more abstract, the foundation will crumble.

You have the time. Really, you do. Just because someone, somewhere decreed that childhood and the education of childhood ends at 18 does not mean we have to play along. If a child goes to college at 20 instead of 18, what difference is that going to make in the long run? If a child doesn't go to college and chooses another path for his or her life, is the world going to end? If a child doesn't really learn to read fluently until the age of 14 (or 15 or 16) because they were busy making up for the earlier losses and missed chances in their life, what difference will that make when they are 30? Do not worry about the future. Worry about the now. Give your child what they need now. Not what you think they need, because that is what everyone else's child is doing, but what your specific child needs. Maybe your child has been so hurt that you spend a year just holding them and nurturing them as you would a baby. You have given that child a gift that cannot be measured. The academics can always be made up later... there aren't actually that many of them, when you come right down to it.

Do not buy into the academic shoulds of the world. Focus on the needs. Focus on the relationships. If you do this, you will never fail your child.

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