Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Learning - Older Adopted Children - Part 1

I've been thinking for a while about posting a few thoughts about learning challenges that we are experiencing with Seth and, to a much lesser degree, Lizzie.  My purpose in writing these posts is really four-fold:

1.  Writing helps me to clarify my observations and thoughts...I'm a bit of a verbal thinker in the initial stages of thinking through issues...the next stage of my processing is generally introspective and quiet...and the final stage of my thinking through an issue is typically, again, more on the verbal/dialogue side.  My writing these posts would constitute some of the first stage of my processing.  Yeah, I know - I've been told before that I can be complicated!

2.  Though I'm happy for anyone to read these posts (including family and friends who know me and my kids and who I want to understand a little more what's going on) I'm also specifically targeting adoptive parents (AP) and prospective adoptive parents (PAP) who will be adopting older children (specifically 5+).  I'm curious to know other AP who are experiencing these issues, and I'd so like to prepare PAP for what they might someday experience if they adopt older children.  There are so many ways in which PAP of older children are not well prepared for what they ultimately encounter when they bring their child(ren) home and how I would have loved knowing what I'm about to share in these days before bringing my children home.  There are many, many things that I would consider far too private about Seth to ever post on my blog; however, this is an area that I think he will be absolutely ok with - he's the kind of kid who would want to help other kids who might also be coming home from Ethiopia.

3.  I am hoping to solicit input and specific ideas from AP or experienced teachers who have experienced what we're experiencing, either with your own older child of adoption or with children in the classroom who would fit this profile.  What has worked?  Is there anything that works?  Does time help?  What doesn't work?  Help, please.

4.  I need encouragement.  I'll be frank in saying that there are many moments during every single day when I feel like I am bashing my head against a brick wall.  Although there may be lots of kids who exhibit symptoms such as Seth's, the specific underlying issues are not the same for Seth as for a child born and raised here, and so it's really terribly difficult to feel encouraged at times.

Here's a breakdown of what these posts will be about:

Part 1 (today) - after a brief introduction, I will summarize a few of the challenges we're experiencing.

Part 2 - I will share a bit of what I've heard from other adoptive parents on this topic, and throw out an idea for consideration.  I am waiting for two more parents to (hopefully) give me permission to share snippets of their responses.

Part 3 (hopefully sometime this week) - I will share a bit of research I'm doing these very days.

So...with that long introduction, here goes.

Part 1: The Challenge

I need, and would like, to preface this conversation by saying that although I will spend some time talking about some of Seth's challenges during these posts, I do so with a most tender heart towards this boy...a heart that has come to love him intensely.  He is very bright, and undoubtedly one of the most curious and observant children I've ever known.  He works hard at life and somehow excels in living life...which is an odd thing to say about someone but nonetheless true about Seth.  Even if he weren't these things, even if his learning issues challenge him for the rest of his life, even if some of these things aren't surmountable, I believe him to be an utterly remarkable child.

Let me tell you a little bit about the challenge.

One of the adoption yahoo chat forums that I participate in is comprised of members who have adopted older children.  It has often proven a source of good information for me during the months since Seth and Lizzie came home.  About two weeks ago, I posted a long situation/question on this forum, and detailed some of my observations of Seth's learning and some of the concerns I have.

So that I don't have to reinvent the wheel, I am simply going to copy below (slightly modified) what I posted on that forum.  Here it is...


I'm  wondering if there are any others out there who have experienced this:

Eleven months ago, we brought home a boy and a girl from the south-west part of Ethiopia; they were just a couple of weeks away from turning 6 and 4. My issue/question has to do with my 6-year-old son, Seth.

He is extremely bright: VERY curious; very observant; very intense; loves to work and to learn. He has really come a very long way from the days/months when he would scream for hours at a time with his grief/rage. Now eleven months in, I think he's adjusting remarkably well for a boy who has a lot of baggage to deal with. He's pretty remarkable.

When he'd been home for about 3 months, I started to teach him colours at a time that seemed obvious given what we were doing. The colour yellow happened to be the first colour we chose and we ran around the house looking for all things yellow, with great success.  After about an hour of working with the colour yellow, I needed to leave the room - for less than a minute. When I got back, I held up the yellow thing we'd just talked about a minute before and I asked Seth what colour it was. Without hesitation, and with excitement, he answered 'blue.'  I was puzzled and a little taken aback, given how quick we had observed him to be, but we just carried on.

Two days later, after testing the kids for colour-blindness and realizing that this was not the issue, I was so frustrated by his inability to retain the names of any colours that I stopped trying.  The subject was dropped entirely.

Almost three months later, over breakfast, Seth asked me what colour something was and I answered. He asked about another colour.  Within ten minutes, he had learned 10 colours (including ones like navy blue)...and has never forgotten them.  Lizzie took a wee bit longer, but not much.  I was thrilled by the turnaround, but didn't know what to make of it.

In fall, as a h/schooler, I began teaching Seth his first letters...again, my thought was that this was a very bright, capable child and he seemed ready to begin some minimal school work.  After spending a week on all things related to the letter "A", he still simply could not retain the name or sound of the letter "A".  If I gave him a sheet of paper filled with different letters, he could pick out every "A" perfectly, but when I asked him what the letter was called or what sound it made, he had NO idea.  Or, if he could name the letter correctly three times in a row, ten seconds later he could not remember it at all - he would look as if he'd never, ever learned that letter at all and as if it was entirely new to him.  It was completely bizarre.  The same thing after two weeks of working on that single letter.  My mind was boggled...I didn't know what to think.

I tried teaching several different letters in the following weeks/months, but with virtually no success in him being able to name letters...he'd be almost (but not quite) as likely to say "Q" or "R" or something else as he would name it correctly as an "A" or a "B."

In order to avoid him becoming frustrated (he's very intense and tries very hard at this stuff...he wasn't playing around with learning his letters), I stopped trying to teach him any letters by about Christmas time. Instead, amongst other things, we began to focus on my reading out loud to him, and I used my fingers to follow along with the words so that he could learn the relevance of the letters on the page. If I missed a line or paragraph on a page (tracing with my finger), he quickly began to point out that I'd forgotten to read part of the page to him.  He seems now to fully understand the connection between letters and what I'm saying out loud as I read the story.

When he recently asked to start learning letters again, we tried for a few days and had very similar results as last fall. So I have stopped again, not wanting him to be frustrated (or me, for that matter - it feels like I'm bashing my head against a brick wall). He IS pretty consistently able to remember the name of the letter "A" now, but most of the others that I tried to teach him last fall are usually un-identifiable for him.  Oddly, there is one letter that I have taught Lizzie (my 4-year-old) but never Seth (the letter "E"); when I recently asked Lizzie what the letter was and she couldn't remember it, Seth happened to walk by and say "Lizzie, that's the letter 'E'."  Huh??

I simply don't know what the issue is - I can't define it. It's very random. Extremely perplexing.  He's so bright, but simply cannot retain the names or sounds of letters, or the names of numbers (though he can count almost to 100). I don't think he's dyslexic.

He suffered severe malnutrition in his earlier life - he was a 22 pound 5-year-old (who now weighs 49 pounds, but is still small in stature despite having grown a foot). He is extremely active and athletic and has progressed soo much developmentally in the past 11 months. I don't know if his issues are related to the severe malnutrition or maybe an iodine deficiency, or if he simply needs more time and his brain will 'come around' (sorry I don't know how to word that). The fact that he learned his colours so fast after the earlier inability gives me hope that he 'only' needs time. But my gut tells me that he needs something more.

I'm wondering if anyone has any ideas out there. Have you experienced this?  What IS this? Is this going to get better? Any ideas or help or suggestions would be so helpful.

Many thanks in advance, and my apologies for the long post.


PS. I should add that Seth's little sister (4) had similar issues in fall when she desperately wanted to learn her colours and letters, though her issues were less pronounced. About two months ago, she asked to learn her letters (I've not been trying at all because she's only 4 - she's driving the bus on this one) and she can now name 16-18 capital letters pretty accurately.  I have talked to/emailed with several parents of children who were brought home at age 4 or less; it seems like (similar to our 4-year-old), many of those parents experience similar things with their children for a short period of time, but that the issues resolve much more quickly than with children who have been adopted at age 5+, when these issues seem to persist.

PPS.  I should also have mentioned the many strange memory 'holes' in Seth's vocabulary. For example, he adores strawberry jam - but although he eats it several times/week, he persists in calling it ketchup...or more recently, after months of working on this word, he'll say something like "may I please have ketchup...mmmm (long pause)...I mean...red...stuff....jam please." But it took months and months to get him to even catch his error; it used to be that 'ketchup' was the only possible thing he could associate with the sight of jam.  There are many words like that.

PPPS.  Perhaps typical of a child learning a new language, Seth's ability to understand far exceeds his ability to verbalize.  He seems to have a significant challenge, though, repeating back verbally simple things that his younger sister could easily do.  For example, if I ask him to please not stack too many chairs on top of each other because they might fall, I might then ask him to repeat the instruction I just gave him and he would be unable to repeat much/any of it...but he wouldn't stack the chairs on top of each other.  His younger sister could easily repeat back the request as well as the reason for it.

I'm thinking/guessing it's a combination of malnutrition and trauma (ie. dealing with the grief and losses he's had to deal with) - someone else has also mentioned the possibility of stress hormones and this makes sense to me, too. Gordon Neufeld (dev'tal psychologist) talks about kids of adoption having something like an alarm bell ringing in their heads constantly, keeping them on guard b/c they're in self-protection mode. He talks about how difficult it is for kids to learn when they have an alarm bell going off in their heads. He suggests (in part) that parents find something to help kids of adoption regulate/minimize the alarm bell - for example, a kid who's very physical might find regulation by jumping on a trampoline, etc - that can make the alarm bell quiet down for a time, especially in those early months/years.  We're about to buy a small one-person-size trampoline to try that with Seth.

If these issues are brought on by varying degrees of malnutrition, it makes sense to me that the issues affect older children much more severely than younger children...which is consistent with the anecdotal feedback I've had.  Older children would be exposed to issues such as malnutrition and/or trauma for a much longer period...making it harder to overcome.

So what can we do about it, beyond giving our children time?  I feel almost desperate for encouragement that it's going to get better. I'm not sure how many more vitamins and fish oils we can pack into the kid!

We're h/schoolers, so at the moment I've left Seth alone for months when it comes to letters/numbers (and we're working on other things) but I'm curious to if others have experienced this and if there are known  methods that others have used to help their kids learn things like their ABCs. One person mentioned zoo phonics (I think that's the name), which I'm going to check out. What else works?? Or is it really just time and/or continued work, work, work...and more work??




That was the post that I put out like a query on my yahoo forum for older children of adoption.  I could truly go on and on in discussing the problems as they manifest in day-to-day life; it can be very tiring and frustrating and confusing.


  1. Hi Ruth,
    Your blog was passed on to me by a friend who is waiting to adopt from Ethiopia. We've been home 6 months with our 3 year old from China. I was just wondering which supplements you are giving to your children.
    Thanks for your blog, I find it very informative.

  2. Hi Ruth,
    I was wondering if you shared your son's learning concerns with your pediatrician. Has he ever been tested for learning disabilities? I know this would be harder to determine this because English is his second language. Were you given any info re: educational history, for example, his ability to learn new concepts in his native language? I hope you are able to find the answers you need. Good luck.

  3. Rochelle -
    Welcome here...glad you found the blog! And congrats on bringing home a child from China - if your journey is anything like ours has been, you've also experienced a roller coaster of an adoption journey!

    I hope things are going well and that everyone's settling in to the new life with your child.

    Re: supplements, there are a few critical things we give our kids:

    - the maximum dose of Kindervital multivitamin per day (b/c our kids are 4+ years old, they each get 10 mL in the morning and another 10 mL at dinner time). This is a liquid, natural, no-preservative multivitamin that apparently absorbs very well into children's systems. We've been very happy with it and I'm convinced that it's one of the reasons the kids have been hardly ill at all since we came home almost a year ago. I'm not sure where you live, but I'm in Canada and this can be purchased at most health food stores. However, I order it through amazon.com and have it shipped for free to a location just on the other side of the border. It's WAAAAY cheaper ordering it through amazon.com. Given that we go through a bottle every 8-9 days or so, I usually order about 8-10 bottles of the stuff at a time. It costs about $31/bottle from amazon or from other U.S. nutrition sellers.

    - vitamin D. I get this locally and get the kind that you drop onto the child's hand and they just lick it off.

    - Fish oils are critical. We've seen HUGE differences in our kids' brain abilities - usually at the 10-12 week mark after starting the fish oils. Most fish oils have more EPA than DHA (different kinds of oil that work on different areas of the body). I talked with a naturopath last fall, who strongly suggested that we find a fish oil that has more DHA than EPA, because DHA is what works on the brain, etc. So that's what we're doing. I buy Nordic Naturals liquid (also no preservatives, etc) and it's called Nordic Naturals Children's DHA (strawberry flavour)...made from 100% arctic cod liver oils; I give them a generous 1/2 teaspoon in the morning and another 1/2 tsp in at dinner time. I pour it into the same little container that I pour their multivitamin into, so they get the two things at the same time. I get the 16 oz bottles and this lasts for quite a long time. Incidentally, I also buy this through amazon.com, because all of this stuff is so expensive and I'm pumping three kids full of the stuff and can't afford to go bankrupt.

    - for quite a while after the younger kids came home last year, I also gave them a powdered probiotic put out by Seroyal Genestra, called HMF Pre and Probiotic. This was to aid their digestion and it was really effective...also against recurrence of parasites, but just for general good digestive health. The taste of this one wasn't great, but I made them take it! I think I gave them 1/2 tsp per day. The 250g (8.5 oz) container lasted forever.

    The way we do it is we serve up the vitamins before breakfast and before dinner, as we're setting the table for our meals. Then, when the kids come to the table, they drink their vitamin. The motivator for them to get it down quickly is that this is how we determine whose meal we dish up first!! Because they always seem to be hungry, they race to get their vitamins down. So there's never a problem getting them to take their vitamins!!

    I hope this helps in some way Rochelle! All of the best!!


  4. Hi Aja, and thanks so much for your comment and questions!!

    Yes, I've talked with Seth's doctor about these things; the problem is that because he's been home not quite a year, it's considered way too early to test him for anything. I've been told to wait at least a couple of years to have him tested simply for language reasons.

    We were given no information about his educational history, essentially. Our agency did have a 'teacher' to work with the kids, but as far as I've been able to determine, they basically coloured pictures...which we were given. In the notebook with the pictures, there were a number of pages of the English alphabet written out, but it was by the teacher, not by the kids. And the way the letters were written out, I'd just as soon not even had the kids exposed to that!

    So the short answer is that we really don't know. Sigh...I wish I did.

    Thanks again Aja...keep the suggestions coming!



  5. Hey Ruth,
    I spoked to a psychologist that does developmental and psychoeducational testing on kids with respect to our daughter (who you know is 6 on paper, but really probably 7). He was willing to do a psyched assessment with the understanding that the assessment, at this snap shot in time could be a little blury due to the language issue, but there are many non-language based parts of the assessment that could be quite helpful. We decided to go for it as he suggested waiting too long to do an assessment on a school age child could also be a disadvantage. Just something to consider.. we have a benefit plan to cover it, so we may do this periodically over time....feel free to pm me if you want to chat more.

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  7. Tracey -
    thanks so much for the comment/suggestion/etc. I may end up going that route. I'm not QUITE there yet, but I'm guessing that I might be there by fall. So thank you - you'll likely be hearing from me for specifics!! Or if you'd like to email me the information now, that would be ok, too. Either way.

    BLessings Tracey - so glad to connect.


  8. Jackie -
    thank you and how very kind. I'm off to send you an email!!!


  9. Ruth,
    So excited to see your next posts, and hoping you share what you've learned from Jackie. Perhaps she would write a guest post?! Interestingly, we're at 5 months home now, and our older daughter has learned a few more letters and colors. Still not easy for her, but it does seem to be coming. Nervous about school in the fall, and I'd LOVE to have some more ideas of things I can do to work with her this summer.

    Thanks so much for doing this!

  10. I wrote a response yesterday, but blogger didn't allow me to publish cuz I wasn't 'logged in'-blah!-LOL!!

    Anyway, I was just writing something I observed in your writing. You mentioned that Lizzie was learning a letter (E), and Seth just happened past and told Lizzie it was the letter 'E'-which you said was a letter that you hadn't worked on.--so HE was not really FOCUSING himself. Then you mentioned that Gordon Neufeld said that it was like an alarm bell going off in his head all the time and you have to get Seth to do something physical like jumping on a trampoline in order for him to learn.
    I'm just wondering if his FOCUS is just soooo strong, and he's working SOOO hard that he just can't seem to retain--kind of like Neufeld had said.
    An activity for you to maybe try (while waiting to purchase that trampoline), is get him to ride circles on his bike--show him a flash card of a letter (REALLY BIG flash card), then when he rides past AGAIN see if HE can tell you what letter it was. Kind of physical and fun so he has less of a focus in order for him to get it. Does this make any sense???--HAHAHA!! If you are thinking I'm off my rocker, you could be right. I have no experience really, so take my comment with a grain of salt. Just want to say I'm here listening to you and supporting you anyway I can ;)

  11. Jennifer, what a great connection! You know, Geoff and I have spent a lot of time wondering about his letter "E" experience. So often when I'm sitting somewhere with Lizzie working on the letters she so much wants to learn, Seth is there somewhere in the background. Occasionally he saunters over and just takes a peek at what we're doing. It's almost as if he learned the letter "E" by 'spying' on his little sister's learning.
    BUt I've never connected it with Gordon Neufeld's comment about the alarm bell...maybe that's right, that he learned it b/c he was relaxed and there was no pressure whatsoever. In fact, I've told him that we're not going to work on letters for a while because it's not quite time yet...so there really has been no pressure for him. Very, very interesting.

    ANd you know, I rather like that idea about flash cards and bike-riding. I REALLY like it. Guess who's going to be sitting on her front step flashing giant letters at her kid??? That's right - ME. WHo cares what my neighbours think - they already think we're a bit weird for h/schooling so why not let 'em have it with both barrels.

    Thanks Jennifer, so much. Great point.


  12. Hi Ruth!

    I "know" you from a group we both belong to but this is my first time commenting on your blog.

    Thanks so much for starting this series of posts!

    You have basically described both of my Ethiopian-born children, especially my 10 year old son. We are also homeschoolers (albeit fairly new homeschoolers) and I feel so inept at times.

    I hope you will share as much of what you learn as possible so I can continue to learn with you!