intercountry adoption

Primary school experiences of intercountry adoptee children in Australia: the lasting affect of pre-adoption experiences

The movie “Lion” is a snapshot into the life of Saroo Brierley who was born in India and adopted by a Tasmanian couple. As a young adult he searches for and finds, against all odds, his birth mother and sister.

The story had its poignant moments for me personally as the mother of three adoptive children and resonated with many people all over the world. But I could not help noticing the movie was silent on the part that interested me most, the middle part where Saroo grows up in a different country, adjusting to a new language and culture.

My personal experiences as a classroom teacher, teacher educator in the fields of Educational Psychology and Inclusive Education, and mother, led me to focus my research on the primary school experiences of intercountry adoptees from adoptive parents and children’s perspectives.

I wanted to look at how well our schools cater for this group of children and what, if anything, should change to improve their educational experiences?

My personal experiences

Because of my teaching experience, I had no problems initiating discussions with teachers about my children’s needs as adoptive children. I felt comfortable meeting with teachers to provide information and to talk about potential school issues.

Other adoptive parents often shared with me their families’ experiences at school. Many of these were positive, but some were very negative and quite distressing. Some parents shared that advocating for their children is something they feel comfortable doing. Others find this difficult and at times frustrating, especially having to convince teachers that there may be issues associated with their children’s pre-adoption and adoption experience which need to be considered.

What I researched

I researched the primary school experiences of intercountry adoptees from adoptive parents and children’s perspectives. Apart from wanting to find out what their actual experiences were, I also wanted to find out how their pre-adoption experiences may have had a lasting effect on their schooling.

The purpose of this research was to work out ways of supporting children who needed additional help at school as a result of their adoptive experiences, and to help educators understand why they needed this support.

How I conducted the research

I conducted my research in two stages.  Firstly, I ran four focus groups (25 participants) around Queensland, made up of adoption and adoption support workers, or adoptive parents of primary school children.  This first stage helped me establish the direction for my study and the questions I needed to ask adoptive families in order to delve a little deeper into the issues.

The next stage involved a multicase study of 10 adoptive families. I interviewed parents, then their children about their school experiences. Parents provided supporting documents, and children drew pictures of their experiences either on paper or on an iPad and gave verbal or written descriptions of these.  Together, all of these materials provided valuable data to help determine the children’s vastly different school experiences and what made them positive or negative. It also showed me how, for some of the children, pre-adoption experiences involving significant trauma, including abandonment or neglect from lengthy periods of time spent in institutions or various care arrangements, had ongoing effects on them at home and at school after their adoption.

Intercountry adoptees in Australian schools

Intercountry adoptees accounted for just under a third of all adoptions by Australian families in 2015-16, and represent a very small minority group in Australian schools.

This group of children is subsequently under-represented in educational research, teacher education and professional development.

Not surprisingly, school personnel lack knowledge, expertise or personal experience in relation to the potential impact of attachment disruption and complex trauma on these children’s development, and how this might affect their school experience. Lion does provide some insight into the effects that attachment disruption (losing birth family and friends) and complex trauma (experiencing abuse or neglect) can have.

International research identifies the unique potential educational challenges for intercountry adoptees and calls for further training of teachers, particularly through preservice teacher education.

Until recently, no empirical research has identified the needs of adoptive children in Australian schools. Nor is there an evidence-based model for managing and supporting these children at school.

What is school in Australia like for intercountry adoptees?

My research with adoptive parents, support workers and adopted children found that intercountry adoptees’ school experiences were mostly positive, with the majority of young adoptees (adopted between 0-2 years of age) adjusting well and experiencing success upon transitioning to school.

This was particularly the case when teachers and principals communicated well with parents and were supportive of the children’s needs.

However, my study identified difficulties experienced by a number of children across various areas and stages of development. Even children adopted at a young age required teacher understanding and support in relation to their adoption experience.

This was particularly evident when certain curriculum units, novel studies with adoption themes, and class discussions or presentations about families and personal histories, raised sensitive issues in the social context of the classroom.

Some children experienced more than the usual separation anxiety associated with leaving their parents to attend school and worried about the permanency of their adoptive family when away from them on school camps.

Several parents indicated that at times they found it necessary to impress upon teachers that this showed another layer of concern not generally experienced by non-adopted children.

Intercountry adoptees are also not exempt from racial discrimination or bullying by virtue of the fact that many are adopted by “white” parents. This was less prevalent in multicultural schools where children developed inter-racial friendships and “difference” was the norm.

Who needs the most support and when?

My research found that greater support is needed for children adopted closer to school age when pre-adoption and traumatic early life experiences continue to impact on them at home and at school. Physical, behavioural, social and emotional responses to trauma and early deprivation were clearly evident in a number of these children.

These findings are particularly relevant in light of the changing trends in Intercountry Adoption, which show that a higher proportion of children adopted internationally are no longer infants, but closer to school age.

Not everybody understands that adoption is a life-long journey, rather than a one-off event that happens and then everything is rosy. Even children adopted at a few weeks of age can have lasting experiences of grief and loss as they grow and develop.  This often comes with a growing awareness and increased knowledge about their adoption experience, birth country and families.

Feelings of grief and loss can be triggered by common school activities

Some children (who were abandoned, for example) have little or no information about their backgrounds and some have to come to terms with not even knowing their actual birth date. More often than not, feelings of grief and loss can be triggered by class discussions about families and personal histories. This sometimes happens as a result of various curriculum topics and tasks (such as family trees, autobiographies, the “Stolen Generation”), not to mention all those terribly inaccurate children’s movies with adoption themes (such as Stuart Little, Meet the Robinsons, etc) when they enter into children’s classroom conversations.

Children who were adopted closer to school age, may need a lot more care, support and understanding. One unique experience for most older children, is the rapid loss of their first language and slow development of their new language, which means there is a period of time when they may have difficulty communicating at all, let alone access school textbooks and assessment requirements.

More teacher training and collaboration is needed

Often, principals and teachers do not know how to provide appropriate support.  This is because there is very little understanding or teacher training about the impact of attachment disruption (separation from birth families, friends, country) or the ongoing effects of trauma (including grief and loss), which these children have all experienced.

Also, they are not typical EAL/D (English as an additional language or dialect) students, and the usual approaches to second language learning in schools are not always helpful.

While the number of international adoptees in school is relatively small overall, the number of older children is greater than the number of babies adopted by Australian families. This means that our schools need to get better at supporting them.

The adoptive family is a significant protective factor for these children, as parents are well-educated and generally seek opportunities to learn about and support their children’s needs. They appreciate and generally look for effective communication and understanding from teachers and principals.

Additional support for these children should be made available on a needs basis. Greater collaboration between Departments of Education, post-adoption support workers and other professionals [for example, paediatricians, language or behavioural specialists, occupational therapists] would be welcomed by families whose children need this.

Applying school policies in flexible ways to meet the unique needs of each child, and more professional development for teachers in the area of trauma-informed practices in schools would greatly assist these children.  Such training would also help teachers to support children from a range of other backgrounds, such as children in care or refugees.

Future directions

My research findings provide impetus for future action. My recommendations urge greater collaboration and consultation between adoption, post-adoption, education and other relevant professionals to provide support to those children and families who need it.

Professional development and training for teachers, preservice teachers and other relevant personnel is necessary, particularly in relation to trauma-informed practices in schools, and appropriate language intervention for second-first-language learners.


Tracey Sempowicz has 25 years teaching and middle management experience in Queensland secondary schools. She has taught preservice teachers since 2008 at the Queensland University of Technology. Her doctoral thesis examined the School experiences of intercountry adoptees: Perspectives of parents and children. Her research interests include the impact of attachment disruption and trauma on child development.