Special Needs of Adopted Children in Schools

Adopted and foster children may have special needs at school based upon their unique life experiences of loss, abandonment, neglect, and trauma. Their experiences may impact them in the following ways:

Grief and Loss

Many of these issues arise when the child is 7 or 8 years old and developmentally move from concrete to abstract thinking thus understanding the meaning of their history: adoption and foster care, loss issues, feelings of rejection, etc.

Educational Implications:

The child may spend so much time in class focusing on these issues that they are not focused on learning. Frequently peers may be inquisitive and ask questions that can be difficult to answer and bring up difficult emotions.

Identity issues

The child may feel concerned or self-conscious about looking different than their adoptive or foster parents (often is accentuated when a child enters school).

Educational Implications:

Difficult questions from peers, wanting to “fit in,” and not knowing how to answer questions, i.e. why they look different from their parents, why didn’t their “real” parents want them, etc., typically creates stress for the child.

Emotional Challenges

The Center for Adoption: Support and Education identifies six common areas that cause distress for adopted students.
* Difference – my family is different from other families

* Reason for Adoption – Why was I adopted?

* Missing Information – I don’t know what my birth parents look like, I don’t even have a picture

* Identity – Who am I, Am I like my adoptive parents or birth parents?

* Loyalty – I know things were bad with my birth family but I still love my grandmother, I have questions about my birth family but am afraid to ask

* Permanence- I will move again

Educational Implications:

A child’s emotional wellbeing impacts their ability to cope with various stressors which impact their ability to function and be successful in the classroom.

Health problems, growth delays, sensory integration difficulties, and developmental delays

These may be caused by early trauma, abuse and neglect, early deprivation, interrupted attachments, prenatal substance exposure, and altered brain development. They create various conditions that can impair a child’s ability to learn.

Educational Implications:

Studies show that many adopted children (especially children adopted from foster care) are often about a year behind in academic capabilities (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2006). Additionally, they are more likely to have changed schools, been retained in a grade, attend lower-performing schools and be placed in special education. Often there are gaps in their learning foundations due to their changing schools and missing new material.

Social Issues

The adopted and foster child may not feel “safe” to talk about or even reveal their history. Parents may choose not to disclose adoption. Unless the classroom is an “adoption-friendly” atmosphere, the child may experience discomfort and/or shame.

Educational Implications:

Children who have moved frequently often have attachment or loss issues and may struggle with trusting others. They may have difficulty in their interpersonal skills which will create difficulties in their peer relationships.

Behavior Problems

All of the above-discussed issues can contribute to behavior problems in school. If the child is not coping well, feels different, struggling with academics, is feeling embarrassed, does not have a sense of belonging and has had an unstable home life, etc. their ability to be able to attend to and present their best effort is diminished.  Children who have experienced significant trauma in early life may have neurological and hormonal differences that cause them to be in a state of elevated stress. When they feel challenged or afraid, strong defensive actions can be triggered easily. They often lack the capacity to control their emotions and behaviors.

Additionally, parents who relinquish their parental rights may be more likely to have a learning disability. The child may have experienced a harmful prenatal environment which may have included exposure to drugs, alcohol or tobacco, poor nutrition, and the lack of prenatal care. Frequently, their caregiver was abusive or neglectful which may have caused emotional & neurological damage.

With all this being stated it is understandable that adopted and foster children are going to be more likely to struggle both academically, socially and behaviorally at school. They are more likely to have a learning disability.

The Federal government has assured that children would have the legal right to free and appropriate programs of special education and related services.  Two federal laws have mandated these services: The  Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal law that protects persons with disabilities from discrimination in the operations of public businesses and governments, and IDEIA – Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act 2004.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act 2004 (IDEIA) contains four parts:

it outlines IDEIA’s purpose and defines terms used within the document

explains the requirements for public school children from age three to age 21

details requirements for families with infants and toddlers, birth to age two

discusses resources and national initiatives to improve special education

Additionally, IDEIA outlines procedural safeguards that must be followed and sets forth appropriate disciplinary measures for students with disabilities.


Every year, under the federal law known as IDEIA, millions of children with disabilities receive special services designed to meet their unique needs. These services can be very important in helping children and youth with disabilities develop, learn, and succeed in school and other settings. The importance of early intervention cannot be minimalized.   Early intervention assessment, evaluation, and programs can help children to bridge the gaps and have lifelong impacts.


IDEIA is the Federal law requiring public schools to provide special education services. IDEIA lists 13 different disability categories under which 3 through 21-year-olds may be eligible for services. For a child to be eligible for services, the disability must affect the child’s educational performance. Under IDEIA, a child may not be identified as a “child with a disability” just because he or she speaks a language other than English and does not speak or understand English well. A child may not be identified as having a disability just because he or she has not had enough instruction in math or reading.  Learning disabilities (LDs) affect the brain’s ability to receive, process, store, respond to and communicate information. LDs are a group of disorders, not a single disorder.  This does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.


The disability categories listed in IDEIA are:


A child ages 3-9 who is experiencing developmental delays in one or more of the following areas:

*       physical development,

*       cognitive development,

*       communication development,

*       social or emotional development, or

*       adaptive development

and who, because of the developmental delays needs special education and related services.


The other recognized disabilities are:

*       Autism

*       Deaf-Blindness

*       Emotional Disturbance

*       Hearing Impairment (including deafness)

*       Mental Retardation

*       Multiple Disabilities

*       Orthopedic impairment

*       Other Health Impairment

*       Specific Learning Disability

*       Speech or Language Impairment

*       Traumatic Brain Injury

*       Visual impairment (including blindness)


An additional federal law requires schools to provided services to students with a disability.  Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a civil rights statute. It prohibits discrimination based on disability. The 504 states a child must have a medical diagnosis of disability, a physical or mental medical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life event. Then the evaluating team determines whether there is an impairment (verified by the medical diagnosis) and if that impairment substantially limits a major life function.

Children may be evaluated by a team at the school to see if they qualify for special education services

Children may be provided specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, including instruction conducted in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals and institutions, and other settings, including instruction in physical education.

In Alabama, before a child is evaluated for special education eligibility, general education strategies should be implemented by the BBSST (Building-Based Student Support Team) for 8 weeks (pg. 15 Special Education in Alabama Special Education). The two purposes of the evaluation are:

*       to see if the child has a disability, as defined by IDEIA,

*       to learn in more detail what his or her special needs are

If a child qualifies for Special Education services, the child will receive specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents, that meet the unique needs of the child with the disability, including instruction conducted in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals and institutions, and in other settings, and instruction in physical education.


may include tools and procedures that provide equal access to instruction and assessments for students with disabilities.  They are designed to “level the playing field” for students with disabilities,

Individualized Education Plans (IEP) are the plans developed to assure that the child is obtaining their educational goals. They include written statements about what the child needs. The child’s IEP describes any modifications to the child’s regular education classes. The IEP is written by a team of teachers, school personnel, child (if deemed appropriate), the child’s legal guardian & acting parental guardian (if applicable). It is typically written for one school year. If the child is over the age of 14 the plan will include a transition goal.

504 Plans are written for students that have a record of physical or mental impairment (permanent or temporary) that substantially limits one or more major life activity. In comparison to IDEIA (for IEP’s), Section 504 provides less direction to schools about the required evaluation process, who must be involved in the process, consent procedures, evaluation documentation, and timelines (Pg. 90 of A Right Not a Favor – ADAP book).


It is important as professionals that we are aware of the Disability Act and IDEIA so we can advocate for children that need special services to assure their success at school. If it is believed that a violation has occurred there are specific channels to assure compliance. It is important that concerns and issues are communicated as they occur. Below is listed the procedure for filing a complaint:

*       State Complaint: A written complaint that can be filed by any organization or individual, when a school district within the state has violated requirements regarding the delivery of S.E. services.

*       Due Process Complaint: A written complaint filed by a parent or a school district relating to the identification, evaluation, educational placement or provision of a free, appropriate, public education to a student with a disability. Due process complaints must be filed within two years of the matter in dispute.

*       Due Process Hearing: A formal, quasi-legal procedure before an impartial hearing officer or administrative law judge (or panel of judges) who is not an employee of the state educational agency or school district. Both the parents and the school district present arguments and evidence.



IDEIA Special Education News Sunday, August 18. 2013   specialednews.com

National Center for Learning Disabilities

Schoettle, M. (2003) A Manual for Teachers and Counselors SAFE at School. Center for Adoption Support and Education. pp27-40

Celebrate Adoptions INC. (1999) An Educators Guide to Adoption

Families Adopting In Response (2001) pp69-111,118

Adoptive Families (2001) http://www.adoptivefamilies.com/pdf/Adoption_School.pdf

Pickar, J. L. (1986) “Children’s Understanding of Parenthood.” Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan,

Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute (2006) Adoption in the Schools: A Lot to Learn, Retrieved August 4, 2008 http://www.adoptioninstitute.org/publications/2006_09_Adoption_in_the_Schools_FullReport.pdf

North American Council on Adoptable Children (2002) Adoption in the Schools, Retrieved August 1, 2008 from http://www.nacac.org/parentgroups/schools.pdf

Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (2004) The ABCs of IEPS [brochure] University of Alabama, AL

National Institute of Mental Health (2008) Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Retrieved on August 7, 2008 from (http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/adhd/introduction.shtml

Ng, N., Wood, L. (2001) Adoption and the Schools. Families Adopting In Response.