We were told that the children were in second and third grade, and that they attended English Medium School.
English Medium School
We were given progress report cards from their preschool/kindergarten year at the English Medium School (2010-2011), but there were no other formal records for the following school years for some unknown reason. While we were disappointed that the report cards were not current, the teacher's comments for both children regarding behavior and demeanor were spot-on accurate and gave incredible insight into their behavior once we got them home! The teacher described their typical responses to discipline along with strengths and weaknesses. These short remarks were the most informative pieces of information that we received on the children throughout the whole adoption process. We were relieved to know that some behaviors we were seeing were "normal" for them and not just a reaction to being in a new environment.
S also attended Gujarati school which was held at the ashram. For some reason, A was not included in Gujarati school. I am not sure if Gujarati school was cultural or academic. The children tell us that instead of Gujarati school, A did chores around the ashram. A was the only school-aged boy out of around 100 children, so Gujarati school may have been geared toward girls. We may never know... but let's just say that A was trained well in floor sweeping and mopping, tub and toilet scrubbing, and laundry folding. If all else fails, he will make a fabulous custodian.
I spent the month of December assessing where the children were academically. Rather than second or third grade, they were at a Pre-K/Kindergarten level. While they could count to 100 aloud in English, they did not understand the numerical values. They had no concept of time, money, how to add or subtract, how to count by 5's and 10's, etc. They could recite the English alphabet aloud, but they thought ellemenopee was one letter (haha!), could not visually identify all of the letters, and did not know all of the letter sounds. While they obviously could not read in English, it also appeared that they were illiterate in Gujarati and Hindi as well. They both have beautiful handwriting that is age-appropriate and are wonderful artists! They knew a considerable amount of English vocabulary (names of animals, foods, and body parts) which eased their transition into our family.
After visiting their new sister's school for a Christmas party, they started begging daily to start school in America. Our placing agent recommended that they start school as soon as possible for the structure and routine of it, after all, they had attended school for several years in India and loved it! After many weeks of being at home with them with no break, traditional school started sounding very enticing! I was starting to feel a little bit trapped like I would never have a free moment to myself again. I called the public school system to find out what special services they might be eligible for such as English as a Second Language, speech, physical therapy, occupational therapy. I also wanted to know if they placed children into grades based on their to age or academic level. They said that they would place according to academic level. It would make no sense to place them in a 4th or 5th grade classroom when they could not read. I also had a great conversation with the school psychologist who strongly recommended placing them in the public school system right away to provide them with an "English-rich environment" which would lead to quicker and greater success. We met with a panel of school officials which included the assistant principal of the school, teachers, the county's curriculum coordinator and ESOL representative, the county's psychologist, and the school's speech pathologist. We also had a second meeting with a panel of kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade teachers. Both meetings went very well. The children made a wonderful impression, and the educators were very enthusiastic about our children. They determined that the children should be placed in a 1st or 2nd grade classroom setting. Due to their age, they felt that kindergarten would be too young for them. While they were willing to offer ESOL, they did not want to place any labels on the children for other special services until they were placed in the school system for awhile.
The day after our initial school meeting, we had our appointment at UAB's International Adoption Clinic in Birmingham. UAB strongly recommends that children stay home from school for at least six months to ensure the strongest bonding and attaching possible, although they do recognize that this is not possible for all family situations. Often times children can confuse being sent to school as being abandoned again to another institution, they can bond with teachers and/or students rather than the parents, or older children can triangulate--pit teachers against parents or vice versa by telling lies about the other side as a survival mechanism. This was not the news that I wanted to hear at the time because traditional school with a daily break was sounding like the easiest solution. However, we were committed to make the right decision for our family, whatever that might be.
I spent the next few weeks consulting other home schooling moms, researching curriculum options, and calling different private schools in town. I was confused about what to do. The breakthrough came when I called a wonderful church with a Christian school that has a heart for adoption and foster care. The members of this church have been a great support to us during our adoption process over the last two years. They offered us the option for A and S to attend special classes at their school (P.E., Music, and Art) along with lunch and recess three days a week. Plus they permitted us to order school curriculum through them! This solution allowed A and S to feel like they were attending "real" school, gave them an outlet for socialization, enabled me to have several breaks during the week to run errands or burn off steam at the gym, and solved the endless search for the perfect curriculum. What a huge blessing!
After six short weeks of home schooling and attending special classes at WCS, I am seeing many positive benefits of our decision.
1) Educational Foundation... Starting their American education from the very beginning of kindergarten, I am able to personally discover their academic strong points and areas of weakness as both an educator and a parent. I am able to see how they react to being pushed academically and am learning more about their personalities. I am seeing where the "holes" are in their education and can spend more time teaching in those areas to give them a solid foundation of learning and understanding.
2) Memories... Pictures and topics trigger the children's memories! When they remember an event in their life (both good and bad), they are able to tell it to me immediately. I am finding out about foods they have tasted, holidays they have celebrated, field trips they have taken, birds and flowers in their homeland, sorrows that they have experienced... If they were in a traditional school setting, I would not be hearing these stories and learning about their past. In all likelihood, neither would the teacher. There would not be enough time for another teacher to hear all of these stories in a traditional school setting.
3) English-rich environment... There is no way that a public school would provide a richer language environment than what I am able to give my children. We talk ALL DAY LONG. They ask, "This what?" repeatedly. I am able to explain and demonstrate what this is and what that is ALL DAY LONG. I am able to restate their broken-English phrases into complete sentences so that they can hear the English and repeat it ALL DAY LONG. I can teach new vocabulary as we encounter new things throughout the day just by living life. A traditional school setting simply cannot provide this one-on-one attention despite best efforts.
4) American Family Life... As a result of being institutionalized for nine years, our children had no concept of family or real life outside four concrete walls. Having them home with me during the days has enabled me to show them what a family looks like and how it functions. We are learning a lot about love and respect, sharing, and that fairness does not necessarily mean equality (what's fair and right for one child is not necessarily fair and right for another---hard lesson to learn when things are usually divided equally in orphanages). We're learning about basic American manners and etiquette. We're learning appropriate ways to show affection because they were not given affection or shown the proper way to do that. We're also learning about life, in general. Our children were very sheltered and are naive. They did not know that babies came from mother's bellies and that mommies make milk for their babies. They have asked when were they in MY tummy? They have asked when Willow, our DOG, was in my tummy? They have asked if our biological daughters are from India, too? They thought that babies came from police stations and ashrams. They do not understand the concept of different countries and different ethnicities. I don't think they know the real difference between a male and female. They thought that elevators, cell phones, and Kitchenaid mixers were magic. Their minds are blown on a daily basis as they learn about life in America. In some respects, their minds are as much of a blank canvas as a newborn baby. Because of that, it's important to me to be the primary person pouring knowledge and nurture into them as opposed to a teacher who is not family or other school children who may not be as "innocent" as my little ones. They are like hungry sponges that soak up anything and everything they hear... For example, within a few measures of a song on the radio, they'll start humming along and trying to mimic the words. I am finding that I have to re-evaluate what we're listening to while driving down the road because I don't want the new words coming out of their mouths to be garbage. With them home with me during the day, they can learn about grocery stores, gas stations, libraries, restaurants, doctor appointments, etc...things they've never experienced before.
5) Socialization... At WPS, I am able to observe the children interacting with their peers (1st grade classroom). Another little girl in the classroom has been home from India for one year, so she may give the children a sense of comfort and familiarity. I am slowly getting sneak-peaks of a variety of interactions. I have seen them slowly opening up with new friends over lunch, I have seen them acting shy on the playground, and I have seen them volunteering answers in a classroom setting on topics that they comically know very little about (counting money). Their courage has amazed me. I have also heard cute stories such as how they tried to microwave their turkey sandwiches at school because they saw other children using the microwave. I have been so impressed with the support and encouragement that they are receiving from their young classmates! They are greeted and fare-welled warmly everyday. When they attempt new things at school, so many children say, "Good job, Ajay! Good job, Smita!" It is really precious!
6) Challenges... There's no doubt that we've got some learning and behavioral challenges on our hands. One child is a mental and physical mystery, but we were expecting it, so it doesn't come as a surprise. We have learning issues that could be a symptom of sleep apnea resulting from enlarged tonsils and adenoids, deprived oxygen to the brain, ADHD, chronic fear, hypervigilance, or a combination. I'm cautious to label this early in the game, after all, they've only been in America for three months. Karyn Purvis in The Connected Child mentions how a child may know his complete ABC's great one day, but then the next day he may only know ABC and D. After being reminded by another friend who recently attended Purvis' Empowered To Connect seminar about "Felt Safety," we are working really hard to disarm the primitive brain's fear response. "If a child feels threatened, hungry, or tired, her primitive brain jumps in and takes over. Physically located in areas of the brain such as the amygdala, this primitive brain constantly monitors basic survival needs and behaves like a guard on patrol. When the primitive brain is on duty, more advanced areas of the brain--particularly those that handle higher learning, reasoning, and logic--get shut down. Helping a child feel safe relaxes and disarms the primitive part of her brain. We purposefully soothe and disengage the primitive brain so it won't bully the child into poor behavior... When fear is in control, a child cannot grasp discussions, sermon, or lectures, complex reasoning, logic, or stories, philosophical discussions or abstract concepts, solving puzzles, or mathematics." The primitive brain gives the child a fight, flight or freeze response. As we work on disarming the primitive brain by building trust, reducing stress, alerting to upcoming activities, making the day predictable, giving appropriate choices to share control, preventing sensory overload, not cornering the child (this was a mistake I was making), and honoring their emotions, we are seeing great improvements in learning. Thank you, Karyn Purvis. I'm also very thankful for awesome adoptive moms who are there to remind me of what I've learned and to encourage me in this journey of loving children from hard places. It takes a village.
7) Successes... In three months, the children have learned the letters of the alphabet, the sounds of the letters, and to identify vowels. They are learning phonics and can read blends and three letter words. They can visually identify and write their numbers to 100 and add numbers 1 through 10. They are learning to tell time and count money (pennies, nickles, and dimes). They have learned about patterns, rhyming words, shapes, and colors. They initiate all conversation in English and are starting to speak in complete sentences! They are starting to use pronouns instead of speaking in third person. They have made it halfway through the kindergarten curriculum in six weeks! I am very encouraged!