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SmartStart: Home-Based Cognitive and Language Remediation Program for Internationally Adopted Children

By Boris Gindis Ph.D.

Children of different ages adopted internationally are often "at risk educationally. Deprived of essential learning experiences in orphanages, children are indeed disadvantaged and may have cognitive and language problems moving to more advanced levels of learning after adoption. What can be done to put these children on a fast track to catch up with their peers?

The answer in many cases is an early, well-planned, focused, and systematic cognitive and language remediation at school, in the community, and at home.

The SmartStart program, created for children ages 3 to 8 by an educational psychologist Dr. Carol Lidz ( with participation of Dr. Boris Gindis (, is a useful tool for any family with young children. It offers traditional family activities and games, which parents are invited to make more meaningful and remedial for their children without taking the fun out. These activities are not randomly picked; they are selected to reflect what is currently known about best practices in promoting cognitive and social development of young children.

What makes this program unique is that it bears in mind the specificity of international adoptees and introduces basic cognitive concepts and skills that might not have been formed in the adopted child's earlier development. It systematically stimulates academic language development and at the same time, it promotes attachment by providing parents and children with shared enjoyable activities. The SmartStart program stresses the utmost importance of adult mediation, missed in the early stages of an adopted child's learning. The prominent feature of each unit is a vocabulary section: which words to introduce and how to explain an activity to the child in order to make it more remedially meaningful. For international adoptees, learning their new language is a major adjustment activity. They learn English and the American lifestyle as a by-product of everyday interactions with their adoptive parents. Based on that, the SmartStart gives adoptive parents a large set of activities and provides the language that mediates these activities.

Unit 1: Introduction.

The explanation of specificity of cognitive remediation in internationally adopted child.

Unit 2: Noticing our world.

The goal of this unit is to teach the child how to look and what to notice; develop a vocabulary to share our experiences; detect pattern and make groups based on a shared characteristic.

Example: With crayons and paper, encourage your child to fill the whole page with different patterns (i.e., a row of circles then a row of crosses). Repeat these rows in a different pattern. Create patterns within a row. Model the making of a "pattern page" for your child.

Unit 3: Let's make a plan.

The goal of this unit is to teach the child systematically explore and organize, think ahead about the desired result and plan steps to reach it.

Example: Suggest that your child invites a friend over to play. Help your child think through the toys and how to get them ready, and what might be a good snack to have with the friend. Afterwards, talk with her about how it went: what the friend seemed to enjoy the most, what could have gone better, what to think about next time.

Unit 4: That's fantastic!

The goal of this unit is to teach the child differentiate between real and imagined, develop hypothetical thinking and think of alternatives.

Example: Encourage your child to play thematic games with toys and household objects: "In the airport", "In a supermarket", "At school", etc., imagining being a pilot, doctor, or teacher and transforming toys into the necessary props. Take the role of someone who is interested, watching, and describing, but not directing. Encourage him to interact with the toys and just add enough to help the flow of action or conversation. If he wants you to take a more active part, encourage him to be "the director" and follow his lead.

Unit 5: The nimble symbol.

The goal of this unit is to develop the ability to create symbols and use them and to develop positive attitude and readiness for literacy.

Example: Suggest a "measuring game" to your child. The aim is to find all the different ways something can be measured. Give an example, such as "See this table? I can measure it with my hands. Let's see how many hands long it is! Now, I think I'll measure it with this pencil. Let's see how many pencils it is!" Then ask your child to pick something to use for measuring, and, once done, to think of another way to measure the same thing.

Unit 6: What's the big idea?

The goal of this unit is to teach the child to get the main idea from listening and learn to appreciate, apply, and make up rules and general principles.

Example: Make up your own games with rules, for example, a ball game: decide how long to hold the ball, who can throw to whom, or a different way to move the ball (for example, with your hands, with your feet, with your nose, with your knee...).

Unit 7: Who is in charge?

The goal of this unit is to teach the child to control movements and learn to control attention and feelings.

Example: Tell your child, "This is a special kind of ball game. We're going to sit on the floor and roll this ball. We'll try to hit one of those toys with the ball. But, FIRST, you have to say which toy you are going to touch. THEN you roll the ball and try to hit it. Watch me do it first."

Unit 8: Making connections: understanding the past, facilitating the future.

The goal of this unit is to help the child to build awareness of new culture and new family and develop cause and effect relationships.

Example: Let your child know that the ancestors of most people in this country used to live somewhere else. Make it interesting and fun to think about where all the different people came from, especially your own family.

As educators and adoptive parents, we have learned that love and good nutrition are not enough to accelerate cognitive development and promote thinking, learning, and literacy in children who had been victims of deprivation, neglect, and institutionalization. The SmartStart program, available as on online class and as a CD at, is your essential aid in the remediation of internationally adopted children.

About The Author

Dr. Boris Gindis is known in the United States as a prominent child psychologist specializing in psycho-educational issues of older internationally adopted children. He is a chief psychologist at the Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment and Remediation (BGCenter) at, the author of many publications on international adoption issues and frequent presenter at conferences and workshops. Anyone can reprint this article provided the links to the authors' web pages and info is maintained.


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