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A Back to School Heads Up From an Adoptive Mom

A trauma-informed primer and invitation.

Key points

  • Many adoptive and foster parents are treasure-troves of information, understanding boots on the ground trauma-informed care.
  • Parents and teachers must partner together to meet the unique needs and challenges of adoptive and foster children.
  • Both idealists at heart, adoptive/foster parents and teachers are dedicated and want the best for the children.
Photo courtesy of Ben Wicks (Unsplash)
Source: Photo courtesy of Ben Wicks (Unsplash)

It’s that time of year again. As the summer ends and we begin to prepare to send our kids back to school, some of us are beginning to dread another year of needing to explain our children’s antics and behaviors. We fret about the inevitability of the end of the honeymoon period as the winds change and motivation wanes. As educators, we adoptive parents are idealists at heart. We scramble for hope and silver linings. But trauma can be a stalwart little bugger.

Trauma-informed care is a hot topic as it should be. As Bruce Perry, Bessel Van Der Kolk, and the ACE’s study have all demonstrated. It’s important to approach folks with a sense of curiosity. To ask “what happened to you” before passing judgment or jumping to conclusions. We’ve come to understand how trauma rewires the brain, how it affects children's thought processes, cognition, and patterns of behavior. We’ve learned that behaviors are messages, and we’re grateful to educators for partnering with us in this herculean effort.

Many adoptive and foster parents have inherited the trauma from their children’s pasts and are treasure-troves of information as we share our kids with the world.

Our children are survivors. As an adoptive mom, I did not anticipate how our lives would change with the adoption of our son, who languished in a Chinese orphanage for 28 months and almost died of starvation. I would never have expected how his neglect and malnutrition would impact his subsequent relationships, learning, or motivation until we were knee-deep in the trenches. In full-on trauma mode, learning as we bumped along. It. Was. Hard.

Early interventions and assessments were limited in their help, offering a patchwork of diagnoses to treat symptoms. This is common. Kids with trauma histories are often diagnosed with ADHD, conduct and autism spectrum disorders, learning disabilities, and mood disorders because their brains are stuck in survival mode. The cortisol and stress hormones coursing through their brains render our kids extremely hypervigilant and emotionally labile. They can tend to seek comfort by trying to control their environments. This can be present in many different ways.

When our son was in 4K, he acted as if his hands didn’t work and flopped like a rag doll as I tried to help him get his jacket, hat, and mittens on in the morning. For a time, I believed his lack of muscle tone had a physical etiology (initially, it did). I felt like a crazy woman when his teachers indicated that he had zero such issues at school. His resistance and heel-dragging were saved exclusively for me, behind the closed doors of our home.

When he began elementary school, our son would eat his lunch on the bus before the school day began and tell his teachers I sent him to school without one. He’d steal lunches when the other kids weren’t looking and scour their lockers for treats. Thankfully his teachers and I devised a plan to address this once we got wise to the problem. But the problems morphed.

By third grade, I began to find things in my son’s bedroom that he had stolen from other kids. Books he had heisted from his teacher’s class library, and on one occasion, an empty bottle of Hershey Syrup stashed under his bed.

One day, I received a call from the principal, sharing that our son would have an in-school suspension for kicking another kid on the playground and urinating in the school water fountain.

Without fail, each year, concerns would roll in about the class disruption, noisemaking, and chaos our son would create in the classroom, accompanied by a lack of motivation or responsibility for learning. It didn’t take long for teachers to begin to see through the superficial charm our son began the year with. By May, the staff was just done. I understood their frustration. We want to believe in our kids, but it’s hard when they thwart growth.

Much of the literature in trauma-informed care and child development is centered around parent reform. It’s focused on educating parents on how to be better caregivers and circumvent situations that cause trauma. But for those of us who inherited children with histories of abuse or neglect. Our children come to us with brains wired for chaos, highly adept at recreating the traumas they’ve found comfort in their earliest months and years. Healing requires collaboration.

Some kids heal more quickly than others. But these kiddos take their toll on families and systems. They burn out caregivers and exhaust resources. Trauma is the gift that keeps giving—until the cycle changes and people partner together to commit to healing.

I am grateful we had an amazing team of teachers, educators, and professionals who listened to us when our son was young. Who resisted the urge to blame and partnered with us to help him gain a sense of responsibility for his learning. The seeds of growth were sown early, and we now see the benefit of these partnerships as our son prepares for high school.

We’re far from perfect. We learn every year what works and what doesn’t. We still have setbacks. The saying “it takes a village” sounds cliché, but it’s true. I do not doubt that this partnering “village” helped our son heal. It also helped me maintain my sanity and paved the way for continued growth in the years ahead.

Prisons are full of people suffering from the effects of unhealed multigenerational trauma. Folks who didn’t benefit from early intervention or a village of dedicated folks to help them heal. It behooves us all to extend an ear of curiosity, eyes of wonder, and hearts of compassion to understand the traumas faced by children and families everywhere. Our collective well-being and our future depend on it.


Perry, Bruce and Oprah Winfrey. What Happened to You. Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing. Macmillan. 2021.

Popova, Maria. The Science of How our Minds and Our Bodies Converge in the Healing of Trauma (a conversation with Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk). Brain Pickings.…

Centers for Disease Control (CDC). About the CDC / Kaiser ACE Study.…

An Educator’s Guide to Reactive Attachment Disorder. RAD Advovcates.…

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