Boris Gindis, Ph.D. 
Article Title
Educational Classification for Your Internationally Adopted child: How Important Is It? 
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I wrote articles and spoke about school issues of internationally adopted children many times because schooling is the major activity of a child between 5 and 18: it affects all other aspects of their psychological functioning. Success or failure at school are critical not only for the future achievements of a child, they are a validation (or a lack of it) of self worth, the basis for a peer group selection and acceptance in it. School activities are on the background of emotional and behavioral stability in the family. No wonder that parents of IA children do everything they can to get help at school for their struggling children, and this, unfortunately, is not a straightforward process.

In order to secure a set of consistent and effective remedial services and an appropriate educational environment for your child in school, you have to obtain an "educational classification" for your child. What is the meaning of the notion of educational classification? First and foremost: it is a designation of educational handicapping condition and a description of the specific educational needs of your child.

There is a difference between “educational classification” and “medical diagnosis.”

A medical diagnosis is made by a medical doctor or a licensed psychologist. It is a determination of physical and/or mental health condition that must be listed in professional documents, such as DSM-lV-TR. An example of such diagnosis could be: Autism, Anxiety, ADHD, etc. In some cases diagnosis is a life-long condition (e.g.: autism), in some it can be a temporary condition (e.g.: articulation disorder).

An educational classification is a determination of current educational needs and could be changed as needed. In my practice, I had cases when within several years I had to amend classification due to child's changing needs for remediation or when the initial goals were achieved. It is important to know that educational classifications are limited in number (13 all in all) and are listed in the major educational law, called IDEA. These classifications are broad in scope, are rather vaguely defined, and are assigned by your school-based educational personnel.

In my experience, most often used educational classifications given to IA children are:

  • Learning Disabled (LD)
  • Speech/Language Impaired (SLI)
  • Other Health Impaired (OHI)
  • Emotionally Disturbed (ED)

Learning Disability classification is the most difficult to obtain. The current version of IDEA (2004) does not allow the so called “IQ-achievement discrepancy formula” as the base for LD designation (which was the dominant way to determine LD before that). The reason for this is that many children were found to have test discrepancy as the result of poor instruction and were inappropriately placed in LD programs. The new approach is called: "Responsiveness-to-Intervention" model (RTI). The idea is that a teacher must apply a series of targeted instructional and intervention techniques, which must be documented and shown to be unsuccessful before a child can become eligible for LD classification.

It is my opinion, both "IQ-achievement discrepancy" and "Responsiveness-to-Intervention" models are not beneficial for the IA children, but each in a different way. As some states continue to use an "IQ-achievement discrepancy" definition, it remains a serious problem for IA children because they can do rather poorly on IQ tests for years after adoption and, therefore, may not qualify for LD under that formula. RTI approach, on the other hand, may lead to delay with receiving remedial services while different approaches are tried. In such cases it’s imperative to establish a certain deadline for determining if each method of teaching is effective.

Another big hurdle in obtaining LD classification is the notorious “environmental, cultural and economic disadvantage” issue in determining learning disability. Indeed, the IDEA clearly excludes "environmental, cultural and economic disadvantage" as causes of specific learning disabilities. Because of this exclusion, schools define an orphanage as a “disadvantaged environment” that has caused the child's delays. The school may argue that the child is not really disabled (just lived in a less-than-optimum environment) and is, therefore, not eligible for an LD classification. The school can then refuse special education services to internationally adopted post-institutionalized children regardless of the strong possibility that their issues are not related to orphanage environment, but originated much earlier.

In general, it is NOT wise to use “orphanage background” argument as you major request for special education services. It is better to concentrate on your child’s specific issues.

The best way to address this is to show that your child's difficulties are due to genuine medical (organic, neurological, etc.) causes and leave the issue of an environment alone as irrelevant. Negative environmental and cultural factors were present, but they were secondary to the medical conditions determined by a professional medical, psychological, and field-specific specialized assessment.

The most effective approach, however, is to consider other educational classifications that do not have this notorious ‘exclusion’ cause, such as Other Health Impaired, Speech Impaired, Emotionally Disturbed.

Other Health Impaired is, probably, the fastest growing educational classification among IA children in school, mostly due to its relation to ADHD diagnosis and because it is the easiest one to qualify for. The task of getting a child classified as OHI under the IDEA is to prove that the child has a condition which adversely affects his educational performance.

Since a good number of IA children either have a genuine ADHD or ADHD-like behavior due to immature self-regulation, a formal diagnosis by a family physician is often sufficient to school child evaluation team to agree for an OHI classification. Do note, however, that the presence of a diagnosed ADHD by itself is not sufficient to receive a special education classification: the condition must be such that it negatively impacts the child's educational performance.

Another reason of its popularity is that the OHI classification is so broad that it encompasses many of the goals that would give the latitude to include the LD-related goals. In practice, OHI designation gives the child the biggest safety net of all the labels one can get at public school.

Emotionally Disturbed - the advantage of having this classification over others is in availability of specialized related services, provided by agencies other than public schools. For example, ED classification allows to consider a residential treatment center for placement of a disabled child. As with LD classification, the label “socially maladjusted” may create confusion: it is not easy to differentiate between a person who is socially unfit from one who is emotionally disturbed.

Speech Impaired is the second in rank of educational classifications, sought after by adoptive parents and received by international adoptees. If an evaluation in the first language was not done, it is very difficult to receive this classification even when your ESL teacher may testify that the child’s progress is too slow in comparison with other ESL students. The school still may argue that this is the second language learning process. The only effective way to deal with this is to prove that there is no first and second language any longer and there is no so-called “bilingual issue.” There is only one language in use and any problems with it must be addressed without waiting any longer.

In general, no matter what the classified disability is, practically all special education classifications could provide a child with an array of supportive services. Thus, a child who has any educational classification, may have goals and objectives in his or her IEP that target reading, math and any other areas that were identified as educational needs for him.

Related links to other places where I discuss the same subject.

Dr. Boris Gindis is a child psychologist specializing in developmental and psycho-educational issues of older internationally adopted children. He is chief psychologist at the Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment and Remediation, the lead instructor at Bgcenter Online School, the author of many publications on international adoption issues and frequent presenter at conferences and workshops. 
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