Learning and thinking differences in adopted children

At a glance

  • Learning and thinking differences in kids who are adopted can present special challenges.

  • Your child’s early life before adoption can impact learning differences.

  • An evaluation can help make clear what is affecting your child’s learning.

When kids who are adopted have learning and thinking differences, parents may face some unique challenges. Kids come to their new families with their own cultural and health backgrounds. It can be hard for parents to know if some of the problems they see are related to adoption, learning and thinking differences or both.

This is especially true if parents don’t know a lot about their child’s early life. They may be missing key information about a child’s biological family and medical history. They may also not be aware of things their child experienced.

Possible risk factors in adopted children

Kids who are adopted are roughly twice as likely to have learning and thinking differences, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. About 20 percent of adopted kids have learning disabilities. For non-adopted kids, it’s less than 10 percent.

There’s no concrete data that explains why adopted children may be more at risk for learning and thinking differences. It’s possible that several factors play a role. These include:

  • Exposure to drugs or alcohol before birth

  • Complications at birth

  • Poor nutrition, neglect or abuse

  • Genetics — and many learning differences run in families

The stress connection

Researchers also believe that stress and trauma early in life may raise the risk for learning and thinking differences. Constant stress causes the brain to release higher levels of certain chemicals. When that happens, it can interfere with the way the brain develops. This often occurs with kids who spend a lot of time in orphanages and don’t have a caregiver to bond with.

Language challenges

When kids are adopted from another country they often lose their first language. This is known as “subtractive bilingualism.” And it’s another risk factor for learning and thinking differences.

Kids who are raised in bilingual homes usually have caregivers who speak both languages. But adopted kids often don’t. They have to lose their first language before learning the second.

That process can delay how quickly they’re able to master their new language. And those language delays can cause behavioral and other issues that may impact a child’s educational success.

Sorting through the challenges

Learning and thinking differences can cause anxiety for many kids. But adopted kids may have an extra layer. They may worry that their issues were the reason their birth parents “gave them up.” They may also be anxious about being “different” in not just one way, but two (being adopted and having learning and thinking differences).

If your child is anxious, there are things you can do to address any worries and help your child understand why some things are difficult. A full evaluation for learning and thinking differences can help you learn exactly what your child’s challenges are. Once you know, you can start talking together and finding the support your child needs.

Key takeaways

  • Genes, prenatal care, and stress can all contribute to learning differences.

  • Learning a new language can cause learning challenges for some adopted kids.

  • Learning and thinking differences can cause extra anxiety in adopted kids.


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