New school, new name

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Author: 
Karen Zgonc
Source: 
Focus on Adoption magazine

Amelia moved in with her adoptive family, changed her name, and changed schools this past November.

In the middle of Grade 9, Amelia found herself in a new school, with new friends, a new adoptive family and a new last name. Change is common for youth in care, so this was not the first time she found herself in a new school or home, but, of course, this time it was much different.

Amelia already knew that changing schools mid-year was easier than starting at the beginning of the year. She learned that other students reach out to get to know the new students in the middle of the year. At the beginning of the school year, students are busy catching up with old friends from the summer and are too busy to notice the new kid. This is when new kids can feel the most isolated. Drawing comfort from her previous experience of changing schools mid-year, Amelia was more at ease coming mid-semester to this new school.

Easing the transition

  • Start and keep an open and honest conversation with your child about their comfort and fears when transitioning to a new school.
  • Have a “cover story.” Rehearse what you and your child are comfortable saying when questioned about their situation.
  • Some kids use humour to deal with odd questions. For example, “How can she be your mom? She’s white.” “Oh my God! You’re right! I hadn’t noticed.”
  • Give the principal and counselor good information about adoption and adoption sensitive language. Bring up any curriculum issues or extra support they may need.
  • Take your child to visit the school and meet the counselor before classes start.
  • Be realistic and have realistic expectations. Anne Melcombe, Wendy’s Wonderful Kids recruiter says,“My goal with new foster kids was to get them to go to school most days, to get them to stay in school all day, and to get them to try to do at least some of the work on most days. This applies for the first couple of months at least. Attaching is very hard work and occupies the child’s mind two hours a day, seven days a week. Don’t expect them to be able to get high grades in school during this time – they can catch up on schoolwork later if necessary, but if they don’t get the groundwork of attachment underway, that is a lot harder to catch up on.”

It was also important to Amelia to manage the school change with her old friends. Most students from her former school didn’t know that she was in foster care or that she was being adopted. The few times that she brought it up with other students she got “weird questions” followed by negative assumptions. She has continued to keep in touch with her old school freinds via Facebook, but has not yet brought these friends to visit her new home. They don’t necessarily know her whole story, but she keeps in touch and keeps her former social networks online.

The hardest part of changing schools this time was managing the name change. Amelia was told to tell teachers and administrators that the first week she would have to use her former surname in order for all records and grades to be transferred, but she would then be switching to her new name.

When filling in the space for “name” on assignments, out of habit she would automatically write her old name, erase and then have to remember how to spell her new name (not an easy one!). Some of her Facebook friends noticed her name change, but Amelia would casually brush off questions or change topics. Within a month or so, the transition to a new name became a thing of the past.

Amelia’s mom spent the time (and worries!) to make the transition between schools easier. She contacted the school ahead of time and spoke with the vice principal and guidance counsellor about her story. There were a few intrusive questions, but she was able to deflect details and reassure the school that Amelia is an honour student and had never had behavioural issues at school (a common stereotype of kids in care).

She also made sure that she and Amelia discussed potential concerns like socialization and bullying, but Amelia’s confidence helped ease her worries. As the mom of a teen adoptee, there were times when she had to be more open about her family’s story – for example, with neighbours curious about a new teen child--but Amelia always felt comfortable with her mom’s level of sharing.

When asked for her advice to other youth who may find themselves in a similar situation, Amelia says that the best advice is to “be yourself.” She continues to find support with the few friends with whom she has shared her adoption and through AFABC’s Speak-Out Youth group. Amelia is entering Grade 10 this fall with no fears and is only “hoping for good teachers.”