With summer officially over, and another school year in full swing, our attention has turned from recreation to education. Time once again for “Back to School” night, where we hear about the assignments our children will be working on in class and at home. However, when it comes to the subject of adoption and family diversity awareness, most school administrators and teachers still have a lot to learn. Having gone through hours of diversity training, they believe they are sensitive to such issues. However, the focus of these sessions is usually limited to race, religion, language and economic differences to name a few, leaving a large training gap on family structure and differences.
Families are changing from the traditional two parent biological family. Today’s parents can be single, gay or lesbian, or even grandparents, and families can be blended, foster or adoptive. We need to help educators gain a developmental perspective and understanding of these family differences to help create an atmosphere of equality and acceptance for all children.
Judging by the continued use of certain class projects, many teachers have a long way to go. Asking students to construct time lines and family trees in elementary school, or “analyze physical attributes of families” to discover genetic links, a common middle school assignment, are the most well known offenders. Not meant to be mean-spirited or exclusive, they continue largely out of habit. Such projects do not necessarily need to be eliminated, but restructured to be more inclusive. For example, teachers assigning a genetic links project could instruct students to use their own family, a friend’s family or a famous family, thereby eliminating any awkwardness for students who are not genetically linked to their parents. Providing children options on how to complete assignments enables them to choose what they want to share about their lives, rather than reveal information they fear may cause them to feel “different”, or be bullied or teased. Teachers who are open to such variations can help build confidence and self-esteem, which is critical to these children.
Before you rush to the phone frustrated that your children came home in tears over a project, sit and talk with them. Find out what they are upset about and if they want your help in handling it. Some children, particularly those in elementary school, welcome your help with classroom matters; children in middle school and high school might be more self-conscious and not want you to “make waves.” Follow their lead when it comes to approaching teachers. If you do decide to contact teachers, be clear that you want to discuss how the assignments have affected your child, not their teaching ability.
If your child really doesn’t want you to contact the teacher, consider approaching the school and suggesting that they hold training on family diversity or family differences and their impact in the classroom. Don’t be discouraged if the school doesn’t seem open to your recommendation — many schools are only open to overtures from parents after actual instances of teasing or insensitivity occur. But, if issues continue to arise, continue to make suggestions. Keep in mind, however, that there is a limit to what parents alone can do to affect school environments. However, we hope that together, by advocating for fundamental changes in thinking and curriculum, we can make classrooms places where our children are protected from what amounts to thoughtless remarks and class assignments. Remember, when it comes to this subject, you’re the experts.