Equity & Diversity

Five Ways Schools Stigmatize Same-Sex and Heterosexual Adoptive Families

By Evie Blad — August 07, 2015 4 min read
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Adoptive parents sometimes feel overlooked or stigmatized by schools, they say. And those actions can threaten to jeopardize efforts to engage parents and to make sure students feel safe and supported in the classroom.

And as a growing number of same-sex couples adopt children and enroll them in schools, the needs of adoptive families often overlap with similar concerns of same-sex couples and their children. And many adopted students are from different racial or ethnic groups than their parents, adding another layer for schools to consider.

What can educators do to ensure that all families and students feel welcome at school?

While schools and parent advocates may be aware of these concerns, there’s very little research exploring the relationships between schools and families that aren’t heterosexual parents with biologically related children, Abbie Goldberg, an associate professor at Clark University, said Friday. Goldberg presented her research as part of a panel discussion at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention.

“These families can experience both implicit and explicit forms of stigma in the school setting,” she said.

To get more clarity about these parent-school relationships, Goldberg surveyed 35 gay couples, 40 lesbian couples, and 45 heterosexual couples, all with adopted children enrolled in public and private preschools.

Of the responding couples, 20 lesbian percent of lesbian respondents, 4 percent of gay respondents, and 26 percent of heterosexual respondents reported difficulties with their child’s school related to their adopted status. Of the same-sex couples, 25 percent lesbian respondents and 12 percent of gay respondents reported some challenge with their child’s school related to their sexual orientation.

Here are some of the experiences that troubled them.

Teachers portray adoption as “rescuing a child.”

“We will need to do some major education about how adoption isn’t ‘rescuing a child,’” one lesbian mother said. Adopted parents want to be seen as parents, not heroes. And portraying adoption in this way can make a child feel damaged.

Schools overlook the effects of adoption.

Some adopted children experience emotional affects or trauma related to separation from their biological parents or initial placement in interim care, such as an orphanage or foster home. Research shows that, with any child, stressful or destabilizing experiences can have effects in the classroom.

Teachers make assumptions or attribute everything to adoption status.

On the other hand, it’s also harmful when schools assume every problem with academic performance or children’s behavior is related to their adoptive status, parents said. Some even reported that teachers lept to conclusions about their children, like assuming that their birth mothers used drugs while they were pregnant.

“I found out that once his old preschool found out he was adopted, all of the sudden they started having problems with him,” one heterosexual mother reported.

Classroom materials and projects fail to acknowledge all family compositions.

Gay and lesbian parents reported books in their children’s classrooms largely focused on heterosexual couples, Goldberg said. And one lesbian mother reported her child was hurt when she was not allowed to make two mother’s day gifts in class. Teachers: Want to diversify your classroom’s books? Here’s a list of children’s books about adoption. Goldberg recommends this list of LGBT-inclusive children’s books. And, while you’re at it, here’s a list of children’s books with main characters who aren’t white.

Educators aren’t always mindful of microaggressions.

A microaggression is an action or statement, that “unintentionally oppresses a person from a marginalized group,” said Emily Crain, a presenter from the University of Massachusetts who also spoke during Goldberg’s session.

In a separate study, Crain and her fellow researchers talked to children of same-sex parents, who reported that such actions can stack up over time and make them feel unwelcomed.

One little girl told researchers that a teacher asked if one of her moms was her grandma. “I’m like, ‘does she look that old?!’” the girl said on a video Crain played during the session.

Goldberg said participants in her study reported similarly careless conversations, such as teachers’ regular admonitions to students to “go home and tell your mom and dad” about something they learned in class.

Some parents also reported teachers weren’t comfortable when their children discussed adoption or birth parents in class.

Over time, these actions can project an idea that “adoptive families are less real, less valid, less close than biologically related families,” she said.

What do you think? What should schools do to engage and support students from all families?

Read more about LGBT parents and parent engagement:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.