Are you accidentally upsetting your adopted students?

Even with the best of intentions, you could be making children who have been adopted feel othered, says Sara Herriott

adopted child

Earlier this year, I got into a Twitter spat over a post extolling the virtues of an end-of-term activity where children “adopted” a jelly baby.

This included an official adoption certificate for said jelly babies. 

The original tweet received a lot of positive responses but it also received a few irate ones from adoptees, who felt that this trivialised adoption, was irresponsible and could be damaging to adopted children.


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Every single respondee in every adoption forum I put this to also found it deeply offensive. 

I know, of course, that the intention was just to have fun at the end of term and no harm was ever intended.  But as an adoptee myself, I know only too well the myriad (accidental) upsetting things that children can be faced with at school.

I encountered plenty of them, from being asked to bring in old baby photos, to constructing a family tree and making Mother’s Day cards. Not to mention teachers assuming any bad behaviour was due to adoption. 

I said nothing, because this was in a day and age where we pretended adoption had not happened and, those that knew, told me how lucky I was. 

I was from the “baby scoop” era of the 1960s. Mine was a tale of being given up due to the stigma of illegitimacy, not the horrific set of circumstances that many of today’s adopted children have had to face in early infancy, but it still haunted me that my mother was out there somewhere. 

A variety of backgrounds

We live in a world where our classrooms – wherever they are – will have children from a variety of backgrounds: adopted, fostered, “looked after”, special guardianships, children who have been conceived by egg donor, sperm donor, surrogacy and so on.

As a teacher, you are likely to encounter a number of children from these backgrounds and may not even know who they are. 

And so you may like to consider the activities and attitudes in your class that could cause an adopted child to feel marginalised and upset:

  • Allowing children to use “you’re adopted” as banter. I’ve heard this said quite often as a joke. Treat it the same way as you would children calling each other “gay”.

  • Trivialising adoption for cute class activities. This can be deeply hurtful and should be avoided at all costs. 

  • Making Mothers’ Day or Fathers’ Day cards. It’s simply not something we have to do. We are not a branch of Hallmark. It does not make it better if you say, “Oh, you can make one for Uncle Bob.” It makes it worse. 

  • Baby photo activities. I once had a child who was distraught at the request to bring in a photo of early school days for a leavers’ photo presentation because his family had been so poor before they moved to England they had no photos of him. 

  • Teaching genetics and inheritance. Be aware that this can be a minefield. Make your lessons scientifically accurate and impersonal. 

  • Personal family trees. Again, fraught with difficulty and best avoided. An adopted child might not want to be seen as a product of nurture. Nature is important to many adoptees. This could also be the opposite in some cases. 

  • Telling children that their temperament is inherited. I came across a truly awful lesson on Twitter based on Mr Men, where the teacher encouraged children to say that the offspring of a Mr and Miss character had inherited “the ability to hug and love” the same teacher also ticked that the shoes were inherited from the dad. It’s silly, potentially damaging, and scientifically wrong. Imagine knowing your birth mother or father was violent and thinking you might be too because of an inaccurate science lesson. I’d recommend using animal rather than human examples. 

  • Telling children how lucky they are to be adopted. Your intention to make children feel good about themselves can easily backfire here. Children know that in order to have been “lucky”, they would have had to have been unlucky in the first place. I do not know an adoptee that does not carry guilt around with them. If they are sad, acknowledge that their feelings are valid. 

  • Suggesting gratitude. This could be equally damaging. A common thread in adoption forums is the anger at being made to feel grateful, despite the success or otherwise of the adoption/foster placement. 

As in so many situations in life, it’s not easy to appreciate how others feel unless you have experienced what they have experienced. If in doubt, consult someone who has. 

Sara Herriott is a deputy head of a primary school in Herefordshire, adult adoptee who has also sat on adoption panels and worked as an intermediary for adopted adults seeking reunion

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