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Why the “adopted kids do bad in school” study is wrong

Why the "adopted kids do bad in school" study is wrongLast week the Atlantic Monthly published an article titled “The Adoption Paradox” based on a similarly titled report from The Blog of the Institute of Family Studies. The gist of the report can be summed up in this paragraph from the Atlantic:

As measured by their teachers, young adoptive children were more likely than biological ones to get angry easily and to fight with other students. If a 50 percent score represents an average level of this type of “problem behavior,” adopted kindergarteners were higher than average, at 64 percent, while children with two biological parents were at 44 percent. Children in single-parent, step, and foster families all had fewer behavioral issues than adopted kindergarteners, at 58 percent, although this difference was not significant. A similar pattern (63 percent versus 43 percent) emerged for adopted and biological first graders. For his research, Zill examined a longitudinal study of 19,000 students that was conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics beginning in 1998. Zill is the former head of the Child and Family Study Area at Westat, a social-science research corporation.

This is a clinically insignificant report that never should have seen the light of day and here is why.

  • Zill did examine a longitudinal study of 19,000 students but that included only 160 adoptees, hardly a compelling sample size to make a gross generalization about all adopted children.
  • The study looked at teacher report, not at all an objective way of measuring children’s behavior.
  • Zill buries the lede by saving any discussion of neglect, abuse and attachment for the very end of his report. Instead he focuses on the savior narrative of “good” adoptive parents (in fact, if you click a “share” button the Atlantic article, the title changes to “Adopted Children Do Worse In School, Despite Having Better Parents, equating “well educated” and “affluent” with “better”).

These kinds of reports and articles are harmful to adopted people and they need to stop.

  • Adoptive parents and adoptive parenting tends to drive the narrative about adoption. In this report and the accompanying article, adoption is about how “good” parents can’t make damaged children “better.” Heck, the article begins with the line, “Being adopted is one of the best things that can happen to a kid.” This ignores the incredibly complicated experience of children who join families via adoption and puts the heroism straight on the adoptive parents.
  • I know nothing about these 160 children who were adopted except that they were adopted. I know nothing about their teachers. I am curious about whether or not the teachers knew which children were adopted. I am curious how many of these children were children of color in mostly white schools. Generally I’m curious about how reliable these teacher reports are since we’re using them to make sweeping generalizations about all adopted kids.
  • As I said before, these articles bury the lede. We know for certain that trauma impacts a child’s learning and experience (read this article from PBS: Giving traumatized kids a head start in healing)  and we know that many of our children have experienced trauma before arriving to our family (even those adopted at birth). This does not make them damaged goods that adoption ought to heal; this makes them survivors who need special trauma-informed support and care.

There’s also this (hold on to your hats):

Because the educational attainments of adoptive parents are exceptionally high, the genetic endowment of most children available for adoption is likely to be less favorable to intellectual accomplishment than the endowments of their adoptive parents. No matter how much intellectual stimulation and encouragement the parents provide the child, they may not be able to overcome the limitations of the child’s genetic heritage.

Whoa. Did this guy just say that adopted kids are stupider than kids raised with their birth families? Did he seriously just say that? Because it sure sounds like he did. First off, educational attainment has a whole lot to do with access, which means money and we already know that adoptive parents tend to have money. But where did he find this information that “the genetic endowment of most children available for adoption is likely to be less favorable to intellectual accomplishment?” Answer: He didn’t because it doesn’t exist. He just made it up!

So here he had the opportunity to write a compelling article that says, “Hey, kids who are adopted may have some needs that we’re missing and we ought to look at that. We ought to look at the research we have about trauma-informed care and we need to look more closely about how we’re failing some kids.” And instead he wrote an article about how adopted parents ought to keep 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,” he writes) but just don’t get your hopes up too high, “to be realistic about what adoption can and cannot accomplish.”

See how he takes this study all about kids and makes it all about the adoptive parents?

Now who is this Nicholas Zill who penned this report anyway? That bears looking into. First of all he’s a psychologist and data researcher, which means he likes to dig around in data that already exists and pull more info from it. He takes these broad surveys and draws conclusions from them that espouse a certain point of view.  The Institute for Family Studies is a conservative think tank “dedicated to strengthening marriage and family life, and advancing the well-being of children, through research and public education.” This is important to know because all research reports have a bias and biases can lead to shoddy research (you look for what you want to find and ignore what you don’t want to see). Now this isn’t always true but when we’re making blanket statements about say, smart adoptive parents and the limited “genetic endowment” of adoptees, it might be important to know that the Institute has a whole lot of biases. (Just look at this report about Red State Families where Zill and his co-author confidently states that the reason Utah has more stable marriages than other Red States is in part that it has “relatively low proportions of minorities … whose families are less stable on average than white and Asian families” with no context for that statement whatsoever.)

This adoptive parent-centric attitude is also apparent in The (equally conservative) Family Research Counsel’s Report, Adoption Works Well: A Synthesis of the Literature, which uses much of Zill’s earlier research. “On the whole,” says that report. “[Adoptive] parents are very satisfied with their adopted children.”

Ugh, that language!

Ultimately the only value of this report is understanding that this is the kind of prejudice that adoptees face every single day — that they are an investment and need to make good for their adoptive parents; that adoptive parents are saints for taking in these sinners; that birth families are just a big old mess without the “genetic endowment” of adoptive parents.

(This last one kills me in part because one can assume that some of those kids in that big old survey they’re citing are growing up in homes that look an awful lot like the homes that the adopted kids left. I mean, statistically speaking, right? And they’re doing great — better than the adopted kids. So what does that say?)

It’s unfortunate that when we say “adoption” we generalize a whole population of unique individuals with unique histories, experiences, challenges and strengths. It’s unfortunate that reports like this one get media play and make it harder for our children to be seen as those unique individuals.

I’m sure tired of it. Aren’t you?

At this moment, in this place

clocktree-insideEarly in grad school one of my professors said that our job as counselors means being the healthiest person we can be at that moment in that place with our clients. He said, “You may be the healthiest person they interact with that week.”

I began thinking about this in other contexts. Like I began saying to myself, “Right now in this moment, in this place be the healthiest person you can be in this conversation with tech support.” Or “Right now at this moment, in this place the healthiest person you can be while you try to get your child to see reason about cleaning her room.”

I liked this because it felt do-able; I didn’t have to be the healthiest person I could be all of the time, because that felt overwhelming. I took it one bit at a time, one moment, one place at a time.

Change is hard and sometimes so daunting that we can’t see the way to do it. We vow to stop yelling at our kids then they drop the carton of eggs on your just mopped kitchen floor. Instead of giving up and yelling, we can try saying, “What would a non-yelling person do right now? In my healthiest most non-yelling version of my self, what would I do instead?” If we forget and yell anyway, we can give ourselves time to think back and write ourselves an imaginary do-over then we can do that better thing next time.

When we’re arguing with someone (a boss, a friend, a partner) and we feel ourselves becoming overwhelmed with anger or fear we can tell ourselves, “I can be the healthiest person I can be in this conversation and what do I imagine this healthiest person would say? Would that person argue back? Or would she choose not to engage? Would she try to change this person’s point of view or accept our differences? Would she allow herself to listen to this or would she walk away?”

What would our aspirationally healthy selves do and say if we gave them room to do and say it?

Step One: Make the Leap

jumpingfish-insideWhen I was eighteen I dropped out of  Ohio State and spent the next few years working and trying to get my head on straight. While I was in school I skipped a lot of classes, skipped a lot of homework and generally wasted my money by sleeping through my 9am classes. When I went back to school at Portland State University I was super committed and ratcheted my GPA up by actually showing up to class and doing my homework.

I was very proud of myself.

Towards the end of my junior year I saw a notice in the school paper that the new University Studies program was looking for Peer Mentors, which was a scholarship position for juniors and seniors. Portland State was radically changing their curriculum to be more integrated and cross-discipline and the Peer Mentors would work one-on-one with professors to help incoming students in the Freshman Inquiry classes. To qualify, we had to have a certain GPA, get references from professors and offer a writing sample.

I wanted to apply but I was nervous. Even though my grades were much improved I still felt like the college slacker I’d once been and I was sure they’d see right through me. But what the heck, I thought, it won’t cost me anything but time to apply. I took a leap of faith and I got the position.

Twenty-one of us (plus an alternate) met that first day at orientation and I was positively gleeful. I’d finally proved that I had what it took to be a successful college student! I’d overcome my lackluster college (and high school) career where my bad attitude was more important to me than turning papers in on time to arrive here, in a scholarship position that would look great on my curriculum vitae. I felt like a big shot.

It was only later that I found out that exactly 22 people applied to be Peer Mentors, which meant that every single person who bothered to fill out the application got the job.

At first I was grouchy about this. I wanted to know I was a Peer Mentor because I’d beat out a bunch of other over-achievers. I wanted to believe that I’d been the best woman for the job and not just the default applicant.

But then I got to thinking. I wondered how many people were more qualified but talked themselves out of applying. Maybe the gauntlet we had to run was applying anyway — in spite of the fear and insecurity.

That made me think about how many other opportunities I’d probably missed out on by thinking there were surely a bunch of other people who had a better shot than I did. How many other things could I have done just by being brave enough to show up?

With this in mind, I started sending my writing work out. I got rejections, sure,  but I also got a few acceptances. (My first published piece was a poem that showed up in an obscure literary magazine published by Eastern Washington University. I was thrilled. So was my mom.) Then a few more and then a few more. And so on and so on.

This is my message to you: If there’s something that you want to accomplish but you’re scared to try, recognize that the fear is your biggest hurdle. That fear will stop a whole bunch of other people and narrow your playing field but you shouldn’t let it stop you. In fact, that fear is your friend because it’s going to winnow down the competition and make more room for you to do the thing you dream of doing.

What the heck, right? Just show up. Who knows what might happen?

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