Medical experts in international adoption suggest that for each three to five months of living in an orphanage, we have to subtract one month of linear growth for a child in terms of his/her height, weight, and other physical indicators of development. It is impossible, of course, to make the same exact comparison in terms of emotional/cognitive/academic growth, but the analogy is strikingly clear: life in an institution may lead to delays not only in physical growth but to delays and distortions in cognitive abilities, emotional development, and maturity with self-regulation.
A post-institutionalized child of a certain chronological age may be much younger developmentally and functionally. Emotional, cognitive, and behavioral immaturity is the "trademark" of post-institutionalized children. Many of them behave like younger children, regulate their emotions and motivation like younger children, and have cognitive skills and academic knowledge like younger children. If this is the case with your child, he or she should be placed with their real, not "ideal," cohorts. In order to create an optimal learning environment, we have to match the child's actual readiness with the level of instruction and social requirements of the school grade. Therefore, in considering an appropriate educational program for a post-institutionalized child we have to take as a reference point his/her actual developmental age and level of functioning. If the actual level of cognitive, academic, and social/emotional functioning is close to the child's chronological age, then age-appropriate school placement is warranted. However, if this level is a year or two below their chronological age, they are to be placed accordingly to ensure a positive school experience, which is the prerequisite for long term school success.
Post-institutionalized internationally adopted children, due to their past history, are particularly vulnerable to stress associated with school performance. To expose them to this stress on a level that they are not able to handle may result in emotional/behavioral problems that adversely affect the whole family. It is not right to start the life of a child newly arrived in America with frustration and failure. As for the prospective difficulties with socialization in high school, one parent said: "We have to address our immediate school-related issues in order to avoid further complication in the nearest future. Our children always have a chance to skip a class to catch up with their chronological age peers. Why should we worry about their socialization issues in high school while they cannot read now, in the second grade? We will cross this 'bridge' of peer socialization when we approach it!"
School readiness issues and special education needs
In many cases the issue of readiness for an appropriate school experience is confused with the issue of eligibility for special education services. An international adoptee may not benefit from mainstream age-appropriate schooling, not because of an issue of readiness, but due to a specific learning/language disability or pervasive developmental delay. Under these circumstances delays in entering a kindergarten, being held back in the same grade, or being placed in a lower grade may lead to many negative consequences: merely retaining a child with a genuine educational disability may not help him/her at all. Too often parents and school districts alike prefer to use a notion of being "developmentally not ready" instead of receiving a classification for special education. The "wait-&-see" position is typical for many school districts in relation to testing international adoptees for special education services.
We have to realize that if a child has an educationally handicapping condition and no remediation, it is, in fact, a continuation of the same educational neglect that this child was exposed to for so long. In other words, although entry to formal schooling (kindergarten) may be postponed for some solid reasons (health, severe language delay, etc.), this "readiness" option must be contingent on the availability of an extensive system of remedial services. There is no "one-size-fits-all" recommendation, but the general rule of thumb is the following: if a child is functioning more than 3 years below his/her chronological age or a child has specific identifiable disability, this child may need special education services rather than retention or other "readiness" options.
Screening or full assessment of a newly arrived international adoptee?
Probably the most effective approach to the issue of proper school placement is an accurate psycho-educational assessment of the child in his/her native language within the first two to four weeks of arrival. Most adoptive parents do a thorough medical evaluation on arrival, even if a child appears to be healthy, because they understand the need for medical rehabilitation or prevention. In regards to psychological, educational, and language assessments, the situation is quite different.
Though experience shows that properly done assessments are extremely important for your child's overall adjustment, emotional well-being, and future educational progress, these are still exceptions rather than the rule. There are several reasons for that. One is that too often adoptive parents rely on a physician's "clean bill of health" and assume that a physically healthy child should not have any problems in school. Another is that even when the adoptive parents truly understand the importance of an assessment, school districts assume a "wait-and-see" attitude, rejecting a request for evaluation "until the child learns more English." To make things even more complicated, there are no clearly stated requirements or procedures regarding school-related screening or full assessment of internationally adopted children.
Who can provide these evaluations (what are the professionals' qualifications)? When does an evaluation have to be done? What kind of evaluation is necessary? What methods and procedures are to be used? The lack of such guidelines makes it difficult for parents to insist that schools honor their requests. This topic is too important to limit it to a brief talk now, and I hope to continue this discussion in the future. For those parents who need this information immediately, I have compiled a set of rules and guidelines based on the best available practices in the initial assessment and screening of internationally adopted children. This information is available at: http://www.bgcenter.com and at http://www.bgcenterSchool.org An adoptive parent can bring this information to the school district to request a timely and meaningful assessment, which will lead to proper school placement and remedial services when needed. There are three basic types of school-related evaluations: