Adoption - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education



Adoption, which involves the legal transfer of parental rights and responsibilities from birth parents to adoptive parents, is a worldwide phenomenon with a long history. In recent years, over 120,000 children have been adopted annually in the United States (National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, 2004). The adopted child, adoptive parents, and birth parents constitute the adoption triad: three persons who are profoundly affected by this process. Most adoptive placements are made by public child welfare agencies or licensed private adoption agencies. Attorneys also facilitate independent adoptions when children are placed with adoptive parents directly by birth parents.

Throughout many countries in which adoption is practiced, there are variations in the age when children are adopted, and the type of adoption. In the United States, children can be placed in adoptive homes as infants or not until they reach adolescence. Transracial adoptions involve the placement of children of one race or ethnicity with a family of a different racial or ethnic background; and in international adoptions, children from one country are placed with families in other countries. In some countries (e.g., the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands) some children who are placed internationally also are in transracial adoptive families. Adoptions also vary in their degree of openness—the amount of information or contact to be shared between birth and adoptive parents. Confidential adoptions have no contact; mediated adoptions feature the sharing of nonidentifying information through a third party (typically an attorney or adoption agency; and fully disclosed adoptions occur when identifying information is shared and often includes in-person meetings.

In the past forty years, adoption has become more widely known and accepted, due in part to the increasing numbers of children of many ages in need of permanent families who can provide a nurturing, safe, and supportive home. The increase also has been due to the recognition by adoption practitioners that good homes can be found among families of different races/ethnicities, income levels, marital statuses, ages, nationalities, etc. As a result, many more individuals have a connection to adoption. Although 2-4 percent of children in the United States are adopted, 65 percent of the population in the United States is touched by adoption, as a relative, friend, or member of the adoption triad (Evan B. Donaldson Institute, 2002).


Adoption and Children’s Development

One important question that gets asked about adoptees is whether they develop more positively than they would have in foster care, institutions or with their birth families. Coping with the loss of the birth parent can be an important theme for adopted children. However, research shows that children who are adopted tend to have a better emotional and behavioral adjustment than do children who remain in foster care, in institutions, or with birth families who continue to have serious problems that impair parenting. For example, adoption in infancy can greatly minimize the many problems in learning, social relationships, and emotional development among children who were prenatally exposed to drugs (Barth, Freundlich, and Brodzinsky, 2000). Thus, adoption can be an appropriate solution for children whose birth families fail to provide sufficient nurturance and safety.

Another question posed about adopted children is how they fare in comparison to nonadopted children in families that more closely resemble their adoptive families. Adopted children tend to receive more mental health services, in part, because adoptive parents are more likely to seek out support services than are nonadoptive parents. Most research indicates that adopted children also tend to have more adjustment problems than nonadopted children. These problems include school adjustment and learning problems, impulsive, hyperactive, or rulebreaking behavior, and drug use. However, for most adopted children, these problems fall within what is considered a normal range of functioning.


Parenting the Preschool Adopted Child

Once the child has been placed in the family, parents ideally begin the process of creating a care-giving environment that promotes a healthy and stable parent- child bond. Security in attachment is facilitated when parents are emotionally attuned to the needs of their child and when there is a good match between parental expectations and the child’s characteristics and behavior. Research generally has found little difference in the quality of attachment between infant-placed adopted children and their mothers compared with nonadopted mother-infant dyads.

The advent of language and symbolic thought during the toddler and the preschool years paves the way for adoptive parents to begin the process of sharing adoption information with their child. Unfortunately, there is often a great deal of confusion and anxiety among adoptive parents as they begin this process. Whereas previously the primary foci of the couple were on integrating the child into the family and fostering a strong and secure parent-child bond, there is now a growing recognition of the importance of initiating a process of family differentiation. This is the developmental period in which most parents are advised by adoption professionals in the United States to begin to talk to their children about adoption. Children might be told of their connection to two families—one that is familiar and the source of their emotional security; the other that is unknown but the source of their biological origins. During this phase of family life, parents face numerous uncertainties about what information to share, when to share it, and in what ways the discussion about adoption will have an impact on their child. Some parents consciously decide not to tell their children about the adoption, a decision believed by many adoption and mental health professions to increase the psychological risk for these youngsters should they find out at some later date that their parents chose not to reveal information about the nature of their adoptive family relationships.

Although disclosing adoption information during the preschool years does not appear to undermine children’s psychological adjustment or to disrupt parent-child attachment, it also does not lead to much genuine understanding about adoption, which can be confusing to parents who might overestimate their child’s adoption knowledge. Once the telling process begins, parents typically report a growing curiosity on the part of children about birth and reproduction. Children usually begin to label themselves as adopted and quickly learn their “adoption story” at least in some rudimentary form. However, for many adoptees, this early adoption knowledge is superficial as it is not until 5-7 years of age that most children begin to clearly differentiate between birth and adoption as alternative ways of entering a family (Brodzinsky, Singer, and Braff, 1984).


Factors that BufferAdoptive Families

Although the challenges faced by adoptive parents in the early period of family life cycle are greater, on average, compared with those faced by nonadoptive parent, there are also a number of factors that help buffer the adoptive couple from these unique stressors, leading to quite positive outcomes in postplacement child, parent, and family adjustment. Adoptive couples usually are older than nonadoptive couples when they first become parents, and they are more likely to be settled into their careers and to be more financially secure. They also have been married longer before becoming parents than nonadoptive couples, which may be associated with greater marital sensitivity, communication, and stress management. The adoptive couple is likely to feel a powerful sense of fulfillment with the arrival of a child, which in turn may serve as a protective factor.

Moreover, the need to work with adoption agencies in order to become parents has a beneficial impact on adoptive parents in that they often have more formal preparation for the transition to parenthood than nonadoptive couples. Over the past two decades, adoption-related services and counseling have evolved to address the enduring and changing needs that adoptive families have. Innovative models, such as Generations of Hope (Eheart and Hopping, 2001), demonstrate how the planned creation of a community of foster and adoptive families and senior citizens, with support services integrated into the community, can provide critical supports for families adopting from foster care. Some agencies facilitating transracial adoptions now require prospective parents to undertake an experiential examination of race/ethnicity prejudice and its potential impact on transracial adoptive families. Medical clinics featuring coordinated medical care for children adopted from institutions in other countries now operate in several major cities. Additional examples of innovative and promising practices can be found on The National Adoption Clearinghouse Web site (

Early childhood professionals also have a critical role to play in helping children and parents in adoptive families. Because of the diversity among adoptive families in talking about adoption and living as an adoptive family, it is important for early childhood professionals to provide an open and safe atmosphere for parents to share information about the family’s adoption-related choices. With knowledge about the choices made by adoptive families of children in their class, teachers can help proactively and reactively. Proactively, teachers can plan activities, discussion and experiences designed to promote children’s understanding of the typical variations in families. Reactively, teachers must be prepared to use “teachable moments” as foundations for additional learning, whether these moments arise from peers’ naive questions, teasing, or adults’ comments. The ultimate goal would be for teachers to provide experiences in which all children and members of their families feel respected and supported for their choices in becoming a family.



Adoption provides children and families with a viable alternate path to family life, one that features similarities to and differences from biological family life. The keys to successful parenting of adopted children include good preparation, realistic expectations, effective behavior management skills, good communication, and adequate supports—all of which are common to other families, as well. Parenting adopted children poses unique challenges and complications for family life and children’s development; however, most adoptees tend to adjust as normally as do nonadopted children. Early childhood professionals can enhance their support of adoptive children and families first by developing a heightened professional awareness of adoption and its variations, and second, by incorporating this understanding in programming for and interactions with all children. See also Development, Emotional; Development, Language; Parenting Education; Race and Ethnicity in Early Childhood Education; Symbolic Languages.

Further Readings: Barth, R. P., M. Freundlich, and D. M. Brodzinsky (2000). Adoption and prenatal alcohol and drug exposure: Research, policy and practice. Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America; Brodzinsky, David M., and Jesus Palacios, eds. (2005). Psychological issues in adoption: Research and practice. Westport, CT: Praeger; Brodzinsky, D. M., and E. E. Pinderhughes (2002). Parenting and child development in adoptive families. In M. H. Bornstein, ed. Handbook of parenting: Vol. 1, 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 279-311; Brodzinsky, D. M., Singer, L. M., and Braff, a. m. (1984). Children’s understanding of adoption. Child Development 55, 869-878; Eheart, B. K., and Hopping, D. (2001). Generations of hope. Children and Youth Services Review 23 (9/10), 675-682; Evan B. Donaldson Institute (2002). National Adoption Attitudes Survey. Available online at; Grotevant, H. D., Y. Perry, and R. G. McRoy (2005). Openness in adoption: Outcomes for adolescents within their adoptive kinship networks. In D. Brodzinsky and J. Palacios, eds. Psychological issues in adoption. Westport, CT: Greenwood; Howe, D. (2002). Talking and telling. In A. Douglas and T. Philpot, ed. Adoption: Changing families, changing times. London: Routledge; Juffer, F., and M. H. Van IJzendoorn (2005). Behavior problems and mental health referrals of international adoptees: A meta-analysis. Journal of the American Medical Association 293, 2501-2515; Lee, R. M. (2003). The transracial adoption paradox: History, research, and counseling implications of cultural socialization. Counseling Psychologist 31(6), 711744; National Adoption Information Clearinghouse (2003). Adoption statistics. Available online at

Ellen E. Pinderhughes and Neda Bebiroglu