It's Adoption Awareness Month. How Can Teachers Be Respectful and Inclusive in the Classroom?

Family holding hands of adopted child

iStock | Motortion

by: Libby Otto

November 05, 2019

This November marks the 24th year of celebrating National Adoption Awareness Month—an annual reminder that it is important for all of us to raise our awareness about adoption and adoptees. There are approximately 5 million adoptees living in the United States today. Ensuring that your classroom and school are inclusive and respectful of adoptees and their unique experiences is crucial.

Words Matter: Positive Adoption Language (PAL) and Inclusivity

Educators know that words matter. You understand the harm that is caused by joking about different identities. When talking about adoption and adoptees, using accurate and positive language is important for creating brave spaces for all students. Reflect on whether the following vocabulary is used in your classroom. Make it a teachable moment when students use inaccurate language around adoption and adoptees by providing them with more appropriate wording. Suggest replacing:


Real parent/sibling/family with Birth or Biological parent/sibling/family

Ask, “Is that your biological sibling?” instead of “Is she your real sister?”


Adopted child with Child

Say, “Sally is their child” instead of “Sally is their adopted child.”


Own child with Child

Say, “Sally is their child” instead of “Sally is their child, but they don’t have a child of their own.”


Gave up/Gave away with Placed

Say, “Sally placed her child for adoption” instead of “Sally gave up her child for adoption.”


Parent with Parent or Guardian, Family or Guardian

Say, “Your parent or guardian should sign this form” instead of “Your parent should sign this form.” 


Asking and Answering Questions

Curiosity is the foundation of learning. While questions are important to the learning process, it’s important to be mindful that adoptees are not always comfortable with questions about their adoption stories and experiences. Students will often ask other students questions such as: “Why were you adopted? Is that your real mom? Why don’t you and your brother look alike?” Even questions that seem harmless, such as “Where are you from?” can be extremely difficult for adoptees to answer. When appropriate, and keeping the adoptee’s feelings at the forefront, it may be crucial to intervene and facilitate these conversations, as well as teach students to be sensitive when asking personal questions. Having students analyze the intent versus the impact of their questions is an effective way to open this discussion.

Revising and Replacing Classroom Activities

At the beginning of the school year, semester or trimester, there’s an important emphasis on creating a sense of community. Many educators do this with ice breakers. A common ice breaker is sharing your name and your name story. While many in your class may know their name story, this can become complicated for adoptees, especially those with multiple names. Instead of asking students to share their name story, consider asking students to share one thing they have accomplished that they are proud of or the name of someone who they admire most. Taking the focus off names can help to create a braver space for your students.

Asking students to diagram their genetics in Punnett squares or fill out family trees can also cause confusion and discomfort, leaving adoptees feeling either singled out or excluded. Would your student choose to write about their biological family or their family? What if they don’t know their biological family? To accommodate increasingly diverse family situations, you can ask students to write their name in the middle of the paper, and in “bubbles” around their name, write the names of the people who have a significant connection to their lives. This approach allows students to choose who to include in their family structure without the constraints of a traditional family tree.

Representation and Narratives

The expanding research on literature that provides students with “windows, mirrors and sliding doors” to explore identity and life experiences shows the importance of diverse representation and individual voices. This may be a good time to assess your classroom library and reading lists, paying close attention to who is represented, how they are represented and who is crafting the narrative. Adoption stories are often written by those who are involved in the adoption process rather than by the adoptees themselves. While the experience of authors such as biological parents or parents of the adoptee can be meaningful, try to find stories that are written by adoptees since they can best describe the complexities of their adoption experience. Look out for common and hurtful narratives about adoption such as: the adoptee is lucky to have been adopted; the parents should be praised for “saving” a child through adoption; or the adoptee should be grateful for being adopted. You can use ADL’s guidelines to assess books for representation.

Every adoption story and experience is different. Factors such as adoptions being closed or open, domestic or transnational, same-race or transracial can affect an individual adoptee’s experience and perspective. Paying attention to these intersections, as well as narratives, questions, classroom activities and representations of adoptees, will help you to create a learning environment that is inclusive, safe and brave for adoptees and their classmates.