Families & the Community

Report: Adopted Children Show Problem Behaviors, Despite Parental Income

By Lillian Mongeau — October 14, 2015 2 min read
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An Oct. 7 report by a researcher for the Institute for Family Studies, a think tank dedicated to “strengthening marriage and family life,” used national education data to look at the school behavior of adopted children and found positive behavior to be lacking.

Report author Nicholas Zill, a retired psychologist and researcher, wrote that he analyzed the behavior data found in the National Center for Education Statistics longitudinal study of 19,000 children begun in 1998. Of the 19,000 children, 160 had been adopted, which Zill wrote was enough for “some reasonably robust estimates of its effects, at least in the early grades.”

What Zill found was that adopted children behave worse and do worse in school in kindergarten and 1st grade—an outcome, he wrote, which was not the fault of adoptive parents, who tend to be well-off and especially interested in their children’s welfare. [According to the ChildTrends databank: Adopted children are “less likely to live below the poverty level (12 and 18 percent, respectively), and more likely to live in families with incomes more than four times the poverty level (37 and 30 percent, respectively).”] Rather, Zill writes, it could be the result of poor attachment to the child’s biological parents, early traumatic experiences, or genetics.

Though this seems to be Zill’s primary conclustion, he doesn’t attempt to prove any of these theories, but sticks tightly to the numbers. For example, when adjusted for differences across groups in age, parental education level, gender and ethnicty, adopted kindergartners were ranked by teachers in the 66th percentile for problem behavior, while children from two-parent homes were ranked in the 45th percentile. (The 50th percentile is considered average here.)

Similar discrepencies were found on measures of early learning, with adopted children demonstrating fewer early reading skills (44th percentile in kindergarten) than their peers living with two birth parents (52nd percentile in kindergarten). A similar pattern held for math skills.

Children in single-parent, step-parent, and foster family homes performed similarly to adopted children with two parents at home. Zill does not specify parent gender for any of his categories, so it’s hard to say if “birth parents” would include, for example, two moms, one of whome is bilogically related to the child and both of whom became parents upon their child’s birth.

Zill is careful to add that his findings shouldn’t dissuade people from adopting:

None of the findings presented here is meant to minimize the tremendous contribution that adoptive parents make to the children they take in or to society in general. Many adopted children do reasonably well in school and enjoy lives that are far better than they would have experienced had they not been adopted. And they do so at less cost and burden to the public than if the children were raised in foster homes or institutions.

While the Institute for Family Studies describes itself as non-partisan, others have insisted that it leans right and could have a political agenda. It’s hard for me to say for certain whether that’s true. It’s also unclear exactly what the family life of the 160 adopted children in this profile is like.

Still, it’s an interesting finding that’s not entirely out of sync with other existing research. Child Trends, a think tank focused on data about children, also found a higher incidence of poor behavior and ADD/ADHD among adopted children in its 2007 survey of adoptive parents.

“Behavior/conduct problems and ADD/ADHD are also reported more often for adopted children (15 and 26 percent, respectively) than for children overall (4 and 10 percent, respectively),” according to the Child Trends report. “And in terms of ‘school engagement’ adopted children as a group are less likely to be doing well than are all children (69 and 81 percent, respectively).”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.