Boris Gindis, Ph.D. 
Article Title
Cognitive, Language, and Educational Issues of Children Adopted from Overseas Orphanages. Part I 
Posted Date

The cultural aspect of international adoption.

The purpose of this article is to share available research findings and clinical experiences about language, cognitive, and academic issues on internationally adopted post-institutionalized children in the specific cultural context of North America (USA and Canada). For the sake of simplicity I refer to school age internationally adopted post-institutionalized children as “international adoptees” or internationally adopted (IA) children, with the understanding that these children:

    • Were born outside North America to different racial groups and in various social/cultural environments;
    • Subsequently resided in non-family settings such as orphanages;
    • Have been adopted by United States and Canadian citizens and brought to these countries to live with their new families;
    • Were pre-school and school age (5 years and older) at the time of adoption;

The cultural aspect of international adoption is a complex, inadequately researched, and emotionally charged matter. There are some general components of this issue common among immigrants, refugees, and minority groups and there are some facets of this issue that are specific to international adoptees only. While the word “culture” and its offshoots have mostly positive connotations (with few exceptions such as “prison culture” or “gang culture”), in the context of international adoption there are clearly identifiable positive and negative components in this complex notion. Thus, for foreign-born adoptees of school age, the notion of their cultural background is strongly linked to their experiences of past abuse, deprivation, and neglect. It is a controversial component of their struggle for identity in their new motherland. It is a part of their thoughts about the adoption itself and their relation to their biological family and their loyalty to new parents and siblings. Cultural identification means different things at different ages of adoption. The complexity of this issue is reflected in the notions of “multiculturality”, “interculturality”, and “transculturality” elaborated by Robbins, Chatterjee, & Canda, (1998) in relation to their multidimensional transactional model of bicultural identity.

The cultural aspect of international adoption is mostly concentrated around the issue of personal identity (Friedlander, 1999) while other issues are rarely considered. In this article I concentrate on the psycho-educational and remedial components of the cultural aspect of international adoptions. From this perspective the most productive theoretical conceptualization of post-institutionalized internationally adopted children’s cognitive and social/adaptive functioning can be found in works of L. Vygotsky and R. Feuerstein. Vygotsky has made the distinction between two axes of development: natural and social/cultural. Along the natural axes, cognitive and social/adaptive functions vary on a continuum from delayed to advanced functions. At the same time, the cultural axis also has a range of progression from primitive to highly developed functions.

It was Vygotsky’s idea that delays, distortions, and abnormalities in human development may have natural and cultural causes or a combination of both. Thus, children with normal or even highly developed natural abilities, such as spontaneous attention, simple memorization, practical problem solving, phonetic hearing, or imitative behavior, may nevertheless remain deprived of the important symbolic tools offered by their culture as a result of educational neglect and cultural deprivation. These children, according to Vygotsky, display a syndrome of cultural “primitivity” (this was a term Vygotsky used in his time – BG). Vygotsky (1993) wrote that it is important to distinguish the true sources of the impairment, because the external representation of the impaired performance might be quite similar in cases of severe cultural “primitivity” and of organic-based deficiency (Vygotsky used the unfortunate term “defect” for the latter – BG). As an example Vygotsky discussed the case of a bilingual nine-year old Tartar girl (a nationality within the Russian Federation - BG) who was considered mentally retarded until it was discovered that the girl had never experienced a normal process of language development in either of her two languages, Tartar or Russian. She acquired these languages as the means of immediate communication, but no one had mediated to her the meaning of language as a tool of reasoning. Being asked: “How do a tree and a log differ?” the child answered: “I have not seen a tree, I swear I haven’t seen one.” When shown a linden tree that stood under the window, she answered: “This is a linden” (Vygotsky, 1993, p.46).

Vygotsky commented that from the point of view of primitive logic the child was right; no one has ever seen “a tree,” all we have seen are lindens, chestnuts, ash, and so on. “A tree” is a product of cultural development, when a word becomes not only a substitute for concrete objects, but a source of generalizations. A culturally “primitive” child may not be intact in relation to the natural development of his/her psychological functions. Cultural “primitivity” may be combined with organic “defects” such as mental retardation or sensory impairments. For example, if no special effort is made and remedial education is not offered, deaf children will display many signs of culturally primitive behavior. It is important, however, to remember that underdevelopment of natural functions may be compensated for by acquisition of cultural tools, while even superior development of natural functions cannot guarantee the establishment of higher mental functions that employ cultural tools-mediators (Kozulin, 2003). Thus, mentally retarded individuals with good phonetic hearing and superior imitation abilities may easily acquire basic elements of a foreign language in its communicative function, skillfully using entire blocks of learned speech in familiar contexts. The problem is revealed when comprehension of the verbal meanings and reflection upon them go beyond immediate situation-embedded communication. Here these individuals reveal their impairment, because they cannot operate with language as an organized system of meanings (Kozulin, 2003).

Unfortunately, after Vygotsky the cultural aspect of impaired performance has been neglected: cross-cultural studies have been focused on normative behavior and cognition while the performance of children with special needs has been interpreted on an individual level without the involvement of cultural categories (Gindis, 1999-B). It was Feuerstein who placed the concept of cultural difference and cultural deprivation at the very center of his theory of retarded performance. Feuerstein (1990) tried to differentiate between two categories of immigrant children arriving in Israel in the 1950s and 1960s who demonstrated poor results on standard psychometric tests. According to Feuerstein, the first group’s problem stemmed from their differences from Western culture, including the culture of psychological testing. These children, however, had good general learning skills mediated to them in their original culture and thus had positive prospects for overcoming their initial difficulties and succeeding in adapting to the formal educational system of the new culture. Feuerstein attributed the high learning potential of this culturally different group to the sufficient experience of mediated learning received by these children in their original community. Feuerstein defined the second group as culturally deprived. The cognitive and educational problems of these children originated not so much in their cultural distance from the formal educational culture as in their low learning potential. Feuerstein suggested that the absence of adequate mediated learning experience in their original culture resulted in the lowered learning potential of this group: the challenge of adaptation to a new culture clearly revealed the low learning potential of this group (Feuerstein & Gross, 1997). Although there is a parallel between Vygotsky’s notion of cultural primitivity and Feuerstein’s notion of cultural deprivation, Vygotsky placed particular emphasis on the child’s appropriation of symbolic tools as a criterion of cultural development, whereas Feuerstein focused predominantly on the quality of mediation provided to a child (Gindis, 1999b). Kozulin (1998) suggested that these two aspects, psychological tools and mediated learning, could be integrated into one matrix.

Matrix of interactions between symbolic tools and mediated learning experience, suggested by Kozulin (1998)

A. Mediated learning – adequate. Higher level symbolic tools available and internalized as psychological tools B. Mediated learning – adequate. Higher level symbolic tools unavailable.
C. Higher level symbolic tools available but fail to be internalized as psychological tools. Mediated learning is adequate in activities that do not require higher level symbolic tools. D. Mediated learning insufficient. Higher level symbolic tools unavailable.

Currently accumulated research data suggest that although international adoptees can be found in all four categories, the majority of internationally adopted post-institutionalized children belong in cells C and D of Kozulin’s table. A relatively small number of international adoptees representing field A produces highly celebrated success stories that are to be researched further (Gummar, Bruce, & Grotevant, 2000; Judge, 2003). Field D encompasses what is known as “institutional privation,” resulting in significant educational, cognitive, and social/adaptive problems of international adoptees (Kaler & Freeman, 1994; Ames, 1997; Fisher, Ames, Chisholm, & Savoie, 1997; Rutter, 1998, 1999; Connor, Rutter, Beckett, Keaveney, & Kreppner, 2000; MacLean, 2003). Field B is not characteristic for most IA children: mediated learning is the most sparse commodity in institutions (Dubrovina, 1991, Gindis, 2001; Zaretsky, et al. 2002). Field C corresponds to the situation most typical for institutionalized children, particularly from Eastern Europe: the required symbolic tools were present in the child’s original culture but failed to be internalized as inner psychological tools (Gindis, 1998, 2000). In this case the main problem is how to turn the symbolic tools already familiar to a child into inner psychological tools.

Culturally deprived children failed to receive appropriate mediation of their native culture and as a result had to rely almost exclusively on their natural cognitive functions and spontaneous learning skills. The specificity of the mediation experience (or rather the lack thereof) in children reared in orphanages is to be further investigated, but its insufficient and distorted nature very likely constitutes the core of cognitive and socially deficient functioning in many post-institutionalized children (Kaler & Freeman, 1994; Groze & Ileana, 1996; Fisher, Ames, Chisholm & Savoie, 1997; Connor & Rutter, 1999; MacLean, 2003). Internationally adopted post-institutionalized children with intact psycho-neurological functioning could be either culturally different (as are many children from recent immigrant families) or culturally deprived. The question is how to distinguish the culturally different children from the culturally deprived when the standard test performance of both groups is equally low.

Feuerstein (1990) proposed the degree of a child’s cognitive modifiability as a differentiating parameter. Children who demonstrated greater responsiveness to short-term learning of the cognitive principles embedded in the test material (administered in a “dynamic assessment” format – BG) were presumed to do this on the basis of previous mediated learning experience acquired in their native culture. These children therefore should be classified as culturally different and may rather quickly become integrated into a new school culture. Those children who demonstrate poor responsiveness to short-term learning, and thus lower cognitive modifiability, are most probably suffering from cultural deprivation. Referring to the matrix presented above, Kozulin (2000) argued that children’s modifiability also depends on the type of psychological tools available to them. Here the issue of appropriate school placement and long-term remediation is crucial. It is very likely that these children will experience significant difficulties in acquiring the specific knowledge essential in their new cultural context. In this aspect, they are students with special needs, even though their nervous systems may be intact (Gindis, 2003).

The unity of psychological tools and the mediating of learning experience plays an exceptionally important role in remedial education. "Symbolic tools have a rich educational potential, but they remain ineffective if there is no human mediator to facilitate their appropriation by the learner. By the same token, human mediation that does not involve sophisticated symbolic tools would not help the learner to master more complex forms of reasoning and problem solving" (Kozulin, 2003, p.35). The theoretical integration of the Vygotskian concept of psychological tools with Feuerstein’s notion of mediated learning experience served as a basis for the intervention programs for internationally adopted post-institutionalized children discussed in succeeding paragraphs.

Dr. Boris Gindis is a prominent child psychologist specializing in psycho-educational issues of older internationally adopted children. He is the chief psychologist at the Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment and Remediation, a lead instructor at Bgcenter Online School, the author of many publications on international adoption issues and frequent presenter at conferences and workshops. This is the 1st abstract from the article, published in full initially in the Journal of Cognitive Education and Psychology, Volume 4, Number 3, February 2005. 
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