Thursday, April 16, 2009

"My Fun Time" - Older Child Adoption

I am back after a successful trip to Denver to apostille documents and send them off. We had confirmation that our agency received them and will hand deliver them now we wait yet again. How I hope that the next call is GOOD news and not another request for more documents or telling us there is some other delay!

Somewhere along the line, I think it was really last night as I entered church for choir practice, I turned a corner in my mind. I have been having a lengthy period of internal turmoil, just not feeling like my usual wild and crazy self. My heart was just so heavy to carry around for awhile, and I think I retreated a bit spiritually to regain some strength. I don't even know why I was so low, other than frustration getting to me, worries abounding, and I guess not turning things over to the One who really can handle it all.

But as I strode towards the door of our sanctuary yesterday evening, I felt more lighthearted than I have in a long time, there was a spring in my step that had been missing and a peace settled over me like a warm "as seen on TV" Snuggie :-) How long has it been since I truly felt that inner joy? Several weeks at the very least.

The trip to Denver was actually a very nice one filled with much yacking and catching up with my dear friend, as well as a visit to the Tattered Cover bookstore, which is another title for "Paradise"...I could stay in there for hours!!! It's like Barnes and Noble in the form of your comfy living room. I didn't buy anything there but was tempted by a couple of things. Now that would be my ideal job, working at a store like that...but I am afraid it would be fruitless as all income would be spent on novels.

One of the highlights of the trip was actually before I even left, when the night before the boys all asked me to wake them up to say goodbye. I told them I didn't want to because I was leaving at around 5:30 AM and they needed to sleep, but they all begged so I promised I would. The next morning, in the dark I step carefully to avoid "Lego Landmines" and climb up ladders to gently wake them up and say goodbye. Instantly 3 little heads pop up and down the ladders they each come to give me great big hugs as a send off, then they crawl sleepily back up to catch a few more winks before the alarm clock starts their day. How much better can a trip begin than that?

Today I volunteered in class with Kenny and Matthew, and Kenny was working on a writing project. It was supposed to be a letter to a friend about their best or most fun day ever. Kenny wrote to his friend, and as I read it I was amazed at how far he has come in 2 short years. A child who couldn't read or write in his own native language, who didn't even know the Cyrillic alphabet is writing letters and reading. Is he at the level of most 10 year olds? Of course not, but he is astonishingly intelligent and is gaining skills all the time. It is easy to focus on what he doesn't know as we advocate for him. After all, we are working with a system that is structured and not very flexible at accommodating kids that do not fit the norm. I blame the system for this, not the teachers. But if we examine Kenny's progress outside the template of graded public school, his academic progress blows my mind.

Kenny's letter, which I have scanned and shown below, is also very touching. I thought I would share it with you all so you can see what is possible with older adoptees...that yes it takes time, but they CAN catch up and make huge strides. We have a long way to go, of course, but there are no doubts he will get there. When considering adopting older kids it can be a daunting task to think of ALL that needs to be made up for, but if you take it day by day and step by step, you eventually see successes stacking up. One of my biggest concerns prior to adopting an older child was the language and educational barriers and wondering how hard all of this would be. Is it easy? No, not really...but it also isn't as hard as you imagine it to be as well. Purposeful parenting, being aware, seeing yourself as a teacher in every single thing you do...all of that goes a long way towards helping your child catch up. Learning happens every moment of every day, not just in the classroom.

Kenny wrote about his best day being the day we arrived in Bishkek, 2 years ago next month (Can you believe it has already been 2 years????). He read it to me as I sat next to him in those little classroom chairs, and I also was struck by his courage. What goes through a child's mind as they grab the hand of a stranger and walk out the door of the only home they have known, never to return? Do they worry if they will be safe? Do they wonder if they will even like their new family? And what recourse do they have if they don't? These older children show courage well beyond what or I would ever do. Imagine taking the hand of say...oh...a husband or wife whom you had met 5 minutes prior and walking out the door of your parent's house knowing you are helpless and vulnerable and completely at the mercy of the person whose hand you are holding. Would you want to do it? I wouldn't. And yet this is what we ask of older adoptees. I marvel at it.

Here is the original and the translation of what Kenny wrote, as you may have trouble reading it on the screen. I will type it exactly as he wrote it so you can get the ability level in grammar, punctuation and spelling, etc. Hopefully this will help give other potential adoptive parents of older kids a feel for what level they might be able to expect their child to be at a couple of years post-adoption.:

Dear William,
My fun time was when i saw mine new parents. First of all i saw mine dad i was little scard then i saw mine mom she was prettyful (interesting that he used this word as he uses the word beautiful all the time, but writing is more stilted for him by far then verbal communication). I hog(hug) mine parents They hog me, too. Next i sew Matthew and Joshua They had cars for me and They hog me. I hog Them and i had some Thing for Them They were rady (ready) i had candy for Them. Then i sai goodbye. before i leve Them and i cry. I wate (went) to a restaurant (how did he spell THAT one correctly??) i palyed (played) with matthew and Joshy i hav fun with them.

Two years. He has had not quite two years of hearing English, of learning the alphabet, of learning writing skills, of learning vocabulary. He started with nothing, he was a blank slate. That blank slate is now FILLED with so many things!!! His writing is easily 2-3 years younger than his verbal skills are. He is not at all perfect in the spoken word, but he is far more skilled with verbal language then written language and his vocabulary is filled with words many kids his own age don't use often, and he expresses himself beautifully even when discussing more abstract concepts. I know many would read his letter, look at his age and think "Wow, this kid will never make it!". I can only look at it and say "WOW, he will accomplish SO MUCH in this world!" for I see all he will become and many will only see all that he is not.

Older adoptees need time, lots of it. Joshua entered Kindergarten this year having been read to thousands upon thousands of hours, having heard English for 5 years, having had a parent help him write and draw and learn numbers and letters...5 years of input. Where will Kenny be after 5 years of input?? You can not quickly make up for 8 1/2 years, in Kenny's case, of minimal input. You have to hear language used millions of times and in millions of ways to store it up in the mental bank to be able to draw upon it. It doesn't take tons of studies to tell you that. We still have 3 more years of language input to get Kenny to what is for most kids a starting point before school...5 years of input.

Things we have done which have helped Kenny are:

1) Talking constantly and using standard or even above standard baby talk other than when necessary when they first come home to communicate about something. Even then, say it in a basic way with short sentences, then repeat it again after it is understood in a more adult format.

2) Explain, explain, explain. Stop mid sentence and ask if they know what a particular word means, then explain it in ways that make it clear what it means. this can be harder than you think and you must be very creative will feel almost as if YOU are going back to school! For example, today during reading, Kenny didn't know what the words "plaid" and "corduroy" were, so I stopped, found a girl wearing corduroy pants and showed them to him, and his teacher handed me a picture card with plaid on it to show him. Don't assume your child has picked up the meaning for a word even 2 years later at home, because their coping skills don't always allow them to stop and ask, they infer things or gloss over it to keep moving forward. I am quickly learning I am the ONLY person, yes even I would say above Dominick, who really knows the level of Kenny's vocabulary. I have been right almost 100% of the time when I stop him and ask him to explain the meaning of a certain word because I know he doesn't understand it. No one else will know your child like you do, and many will think they are more knowledgeable because of their verbals skills. Don't let it slip by, explain, explain, explain long past the point when they can communicate verbally very well. Remember that 5 years before Kindergarten of input they missed, plus who knows how many more!!

3) Read everything and anything, even if you have to stop a thousand times to explain words, then go back and reread it and ask them to explain what is happening to aid in comprehension and fill you in more on what they are actually understanding. We started with baby picture books and I made up stories to go with them. We did NOT start with Dr. Seuss as that is far too advanced and non-sensical for when a child first comes home, regardless of how funny it is. You need real language and real words at first, not the made up words in Dr. Seuss. Eventually, of course, we got to "Green Eggs and Ham" and we LOVE Sam-I-Am, but that was about a year down the road post-adoption.

4) Model language and have them correct themselves...don't just tell them how they were wrong, make them repeat it a couple of times. It helps embed it in their brain better than if you just say it correctly for them.

5) When first writing, if they spell it the way it sounds, don't worry about spelling errors, congratulate them on hearing all the sounds and getting it on paper correctly!! Spelling can come later, but they need to learn to hear each sound in a word to read well.

6) We never used cards with words written on them taped all over the house as some people do and find very helpful. Not sure why, just didn't do it and it didn't seem to matter. Maybe because we felt we were starting from scratch anyway...we had to get the idea across to Kenny that letters made sounds and stringing those sounds together makes words. Kids who come home having that concept down are a little ahead of the game from where we started, so knowing the level Kenny was at we just started at baby level and quickly moved forward.

7) Let them be have tons more to help them experience besides school and homework. Don't spend every waking moment on trying to have them catch up, it won't work anyway. Let them play, let them be your baby for awhile, let them live the childhood they didn't get to helps their brain too!

8) Don't step in and speak for them, regardless of how poor their English is. Let them use it, practice it, hear it coming out of their own mouths. If you jump over them and speak to others for them it invalidates their efforts and serves to let them feel as if they are not "good enough" to speak for themselves. You can always clarify afterwards...and have always tried not to explain what Kenny said, but to explain to Kenny what was not understood by asking him questions and letting him try to re-explain it using his own vocabulary with me supplying a word here or there.

Of course we have the added complication of Kenny's speech issues and that definitely impacts his writing and reading as he can not duplicate sounds correctly and then writes them the way he hears them coming out of his own mouth...but we found early on that at least he was getting the phonics down correctly, even if the phonics were for incorrectly made sounds he wrote exactly what he was saying so we cheered that on and then gently corrected him. As you can see from the letter, there is still some of that in evidence and will be for some time to come until his speech improves or he simply memorizes what the correct spelling is for those words.

I hope this has been helpful to those of you considering older child adoption...I hope it has provided you with some concrete expectations and ideas. But my greatest hope is that this has cast older child adoption in a better and more manageable light. There are thousands of older kids who would make wonderful additions to your family. Don't let fear stop you!!! They come with their own unique set of challenges, and yes there are the emotional issues to consider...but the media tends to highlight the sad and disruptive cases, they seldom show the Kenny's who adapt so well and find their hearts filled along with their family's hearts. I know there are readers here of this blog with older international and domestic adoptees who are thriving. Is it easy? No, and I have shared honestly about many of the difficulties. But is having an infant easy? 3 AM feedings? Screaming without language to communicate needs? If you ever feel the call to consider an older child, don't listen only to the darkest stories shared on 60 Minutes and the like, seek out the less well publicized stories of the Kenny's of the world. There are thousands more like him who could one day be your beloved daughter or son!


Joyce said...

You have brought tears to my eyes - well Kenny did. And thank you for filling in gaps of knowledge where you really understand what these little people have to go thru when meeting thier new family and starting a completely different life.
And here is hoping all the documents are so efficiently done that things will move along quickly for you all, esp for 2 little girls who really need to be part of your wonderful family.
Love Joyce and Ryan

Raynola said...

I'm glad you made it home safely and that your trip was a happy and productive one.

Cindy, it sounds like your children are wonderful. They are obviously a testament to your parenting skills and the love you extend.

I wonder, I think that your boys are probably aware of how lucky and blessed they are to have you as their mother.

I think that your tips are good for any parent, not just those of older adoptions.

God Bless

Maureen said...

I read this and had to comment: "I know many would read his letter, look at his age and think "Wow, this kid will never make it!"."

I'm with you... Kenny is amazing! You have every right to be so very proud of him. I was blown away by his letter. It is amazing what he has done after only 2 years of knowing English. Keep encouraging him because he will get there! You're totally right that the way our schools are structured are a barrier to him right now. And yet it looks to me, that despite all that, he is doing really well. Be proud and keep fighting for him!

Lori said...

That is just about the sweetest letter I've ever read. Let me tell you, I taught 3rd grade for 8 years, and though it may not be grade level, considering his background, it is FREAKING PHENOMENAL! I had 3rd graders who were born and raised right here in good old America speaking English first and only who couldn't even come close to articulating those thoughts or writing with the transitions that he put in there. That letter is definitely something to be celebrated!

Barb and Ken said...

Cindy, I read your post with tears in my eyes. Our Zach from Kaz is having such a difficult time. He is very small in stature and is being bullied and ridiculed by children in school. It is definitely affecting his self esteem. Even adults make unthinking comments in front of him. I continuously tell Zach God made people in all sizes and shapes. I try to make his many wonderful God-given abilites aware to him. He is very artistic and such a friendly warm person. He makes everyone he meets feel comfortable. I can not wait for the day Zach is comfortable with himself.

The Gobble's (Lanetta) said...

Great post.... what a great example of language therapy!!! wow!!! Great job mom!!!!

adrin said...

Nice post really. Very nice.

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