Boris Gindis, Ph.D. 
Article Title
Frustrated Child at School and What Can Be Done About It 
Posted Date

“We adopted our son at the age of 8 and he is with us a little less than three years now. After a few months of a good start in the school, he definitely started experience deep frustration that converted this immature but lovely, friendly, and seemingly happy child into a raging, violent person. But during summer he returns to his “normal” pleasant demeanor. What was wrong and what is to be done?”
From the message of a patient.

During a telephone conference with this parent I found a rather typical case of internationally adopted child whose major source of emotional disturbance was his negative school experience. With some variations, it’s not a rare case when children get by at school and bring all the problems home making parents think about “attachment issues,” “oppositional/defiant behavior,” or just wondering what’s wrong with their son or daughter.

Sometime even professionals fall into the same trap believing that school is not an issue for a child if the teaches do not complain. For ex., the following announcement was posted on one of the discussion groups in search of a therapist: “The child is an 11 year old boy adopted from Russia at age 8. He was raised by his biological alcoholic grandmother until age 5 when he was put in an orphanage. He is currently having difficulties academically, socially and emotionally. His adoptive parents report that he is happy, attached to them and them to him, but needs tools to deal with his difficulties.”

Sounds familiar? The child has academic and resulting social and emotional problems adding up to other traumatic experiences he has had in his past, but these are not the school environment and a lack of learning progress at fault and in need of being modified, but the tools to cope with consequences that are needed to get things right after the school. It’s wrong: prevention of any problem is always more effective than its correction.

What we all have to realize is that schooling is the “leading activity” for a child between the ages 6 to 18. All school related experiences present the cognitive and emotional background of child’s development. School is the place where children learn not only academic subjects, but also social and self-regulatory skills. If the major activity is blocked or associated with frustration and emotional pain, no normal development is possible. Schooling is like a job for adults. Imagine that you are failing your job and do not quite understand what’s required of you and how to achieve it, you hate it, you are ostracized by your co-workers who, as you suspect, make fun of you behind your back or, sometime, right into your face. You wait for the end of the working hours to escape, unable to change your circumstances. Exactly the same may take place with your child at school: he is not motivated to do anything any longer, hates the school, feels isolated from his peers whom he desperately wants to be with, and his self-esteem is seriously undermined.

Do not comfort yourself hearing positive remarks from the teacher and underestimating peer pressure: international adoptees are the subject to bulling, teasing and isolation due to their school failure and their overall “difference”. Unlike children from immigrant families, the majority of school-age internationally adopted post-institutionalized children are not ready for the mainstream educational experience on arrival. There are many reasons for this, described in several of my publications, see: School Readiness and School Placement of a Newly Adopted Post-institutionalized Child , Children Left Behind. International Adoptees In Our Schools and others.

Many internationally adopted children are not ready for a mainstream schooling cognitively: they missed certain stages of cognitive development associated with early childhood traumatic experiences; academically: a substandard education in the country of origin and the need to compensate for the lack of language and cultural experience are unavoidable; and, especially important, emotionally: international adoptees are more vulnerable to stress, more prone to frustration, and less capable of self-regulating their behavior than their peers at large. They are more fragile in their ability to withstand stress related to school performance, and they are less self-sufficient in overcoming the emotional strain, which is a part of competing in the school environment. At times they are not willing or even able to express their pain and terror.Emotional fragility constitutes a serious educational impediment for them. School difficulties turn into major frustrations, silent blaming of the adoptive parents for what had happened to them. This leads to deviations in behavior, depressive feelings, anger, and acting out behavior; in other words, this becomes a mental health issue. Reducing school pressure and helping the child to overcome school difficulties via incremental but steady progress (which is not the same as giving them a slack) usually has a therapeutic effect, positively affecting social, emotional, and overall adaptive functioning.

What can be done?

First and foremost, the adoptive parents need to manage the adjustment of their children to schooling from the very beginning, without waiting for the first signs of problems to surface.

1. Determine your child’s needs with a comprehensive psychological assessment performed by a professional who is experienced with internationally adopted post-institutionalized children. That will be the baseline of your child’s current developmental status against which to measure his/her progress in the next months.

2. Based on this assessment a comprehensive remedial plan is to be developed that should include, but not limited to the following components:

  • Educational classification (a designation of existing educational handicapping condition(s), according to current special education legislation), if needed.
  • Appropriate school placement (a rational for general versus special, public versus private, specialized versus mainstreamed, etc. placement).
  • Defined level of instruction in relation to core academic subjects.
  • Proper teaching and remedial methodology (a specific teaching/remedial methodology aimed at individual educational needs).
  • School-based supportive services (specific services with a students:teacher ratio, frequency, and group size).
  • Classroom accommodations (specific to disability and needs).
  • Test taking modifications (specific to disability).
  • Promotional criteria (based on the current and expected level of functioning).
  • Extended school year (ESY) option, if needed.
  • Behavior modification program, designed for specific targeted behaviors, if needed.
  • Disability manifestation determination clause, if needed.
  • Information and support for school personnel (regarding internationally adopted children and the specificity of their educational needs).
The steps described above and taken at the beginning of your child’s school placement will help prevent a lot of problems later. You may still need a therapist to deal with post-adoption issues, but an additional trauma caused by an American school system will at least not be one of them.
Dr. Boris Gindis is a 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. 
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