Points of view: A two-pronged review of Gareth Marr/Scott Casson-Rennie and Hermione Michaud’s talks at Southwark Library on Wednesday 24th February 2016.

WAF LOGO DEC 14Hearing that We Are Family and the South London Adoption Consortium were running a presentation on “Why Children Placed From Care Need Support In Schools” was exciting news for me on multiple fronts. As a prospective adopter, I am trying to gather as much information as possible to help me prepare for life as an adoptive parent, but additionally, by day I work as a Deputy Headteacher at a London Primary School, and am always keen to learn more about how I can support vulnerable pupils at school.

So with two hats on, I felt like I was well placed to write a review (or two) of the evening. Thanks to We Are Family for giving me the chance to share my thoughts!

As a prospective adopter

My wife and I are underway with stage 2 of the adoption process, and keen to absorb as much information as possible to help us prepare as best we can. This fascinating talk was both worrying and massively useful for us in thinking about supporting an adoptive child through school.

The evening began with a (needlessly) nervous Scott Casson-Rennie taking to the stage to deliver Gareth Marr’s thoroughly researched presentation on the issues surrounding adoptive children in schools.

This part of the talk highlighted the serious problems that are evident for a worryingly high proportion of adopted children (and children under Special Guardianship Orders) in schools. Adopted children are much more likely to be permanently excluded from a school, and adoption disruptions are much more likely to happen around times of school transition (e.g. starting school at Age 4/5, and especially moving to Secondary school at age 11).

Despite these worrying figures, the level of support in place for adopted children falls well short of that available to children in care, who are supported by a “Virtual School” within each Local Authority. The Virtual School Headteacher plays a key role in supporting schools to do the best by these pupils, putting Personal Education Plans in place, and provides guidance to teachers in schools who may have limited experience working with children who have suffered trauma and loss. Once the permanence order is in place – no such luck.

Scott shared some of his experiences as an adoptive parent to 3 boys, all of whom had experienced difficulties at school. These clearly resonated with many of the current adopters in the room; children having angry outbursts at school, struggling to cope with changes in routine and working with different adults, and clearly, a sense that too many teachers had no understanding of the background or context of adopted children.

Scott and Gareth warned that too many schools lack training and understanding in how to best manage children who present difficult behaviour that is surely a result of their experience of trauma and loss. Scott told us how he came to dread collecting his boys from school some days in case he was intercepted on the playground by a teacher telling him about what a bad day it had been for their behaviour. The nods in the audience told me that this was a feeling many had shared.

Already, I was making mental checklists of the issues I will need to think about to help deal with this. How will I help prepare my child for starting school, or moving school? How and what will I need to share with my child’s teacher/s to help them understand? What will I do when my child lashes out in frustration at school, and I am confronted with this on the playground at the end of the school day?

Hermione Michaud then took the stage to share her expertise as the Virtual School Head for the London Borough of Islington. She was clearly not only knowledgeable, but warm, approachable and empathetic to the needs of traumatised children and their parents; in short, just the sort of person you would want overseeing your child’s education. Encouragingly, Hermione has extended her oversight to include Islington’s adopted children as well as those currently in care.

She told us that early in her teaching career, she had known very little about the impact that trauma can have on young lives, and that teacher training had not prepared her for how best to work with children no longer living with their birth families. Now, as an experienced teacher and Virtual School Head, she clearly has a wealth of expertise, and systems in place to share this with the Islington schools that need to hear it, not least through providing training to teachers to raise their awareness of the needs of such children.

Hermione advocated being involved and informed as a parent choosing a school; looking beyond an Ofsted report and taking the time to visit schools to get a sense of their ethos, and how welcoming and supportive they are to those children who can find things more difficult than most (more notes for the mental checklist!).

As prospective adopters, the highlight of the talk for my wife and me was the list of questions she provided to ask a school before enrolling my child. Asking things like “how does pastoral support work at your school?”, “What training have staff had on attachment and the impact of early trauma and loss?” and “is there any support for children during less structured times like playtimes?” will give us a clear sense of whether the school is going to be willing and able to meet the needs of our child when things don’t go to plan. More than ever, our focus will be on finding a school that understands that prioritising children’s wellbeing is the route to achieving the best academic results, all the more so for adopted children.

Overall, it was an incredibly useful, if sobering, event, and has helped equip us for yet another possible future challenge as an adopter. It was encouraging to hear that both Gareth and Hermione are looking at ways to get their message across to the Department for Education and to schools – that Virtual School (or similar) support for children post-adoption is crucial to securing the best education for them. We can only hope that there are some keenly listening ears out there to help make this a more widespread reality in the very near future…

As a Primary School Deputy Headteacher

As a Deputy Head, I often find myself with the opportunity to stand in front of a group of people and share my thoughts, and hopefully inspire some of them along the way. Listening to this talk put me on the other side of that fence – and it was not a comfortable place to be. Through the evening I felt a growing need to take a turn with the mike and have my voice heard. What did I want to say? In bold: “It doesn’t have to be like this!”

You can’t argue with the personal experience of those, like Scott and Gareth, who have not felt supported by schools in the past. And the picture painted by both the data, and the collected experiences of adopted parents, is clear – schools are a source of major anxiety to far too many adopted children and their parents. But the vibe in the room that evening towards schools was very negative, which I worry is nothing but counter-productive in helping to improve the situation for our children.

You see, my experiences of working with children who are living with trauma and loss have been overwhelmingly positive. Not that they have all been calm, happy and well-behaved – far from it! I have been punched, head-butted, spat at, kicked and sworn out more times that I can count. But I have seen first-hand that when schools work with families to deal with these issues, things invariably improve. Communication, and a united front are key: if a child sees that home and school are on the same page whether things have gone well or badly, they get the consistency and security that they so desperately need. If school and home are not talking, or saying two different things to the child (or both), then things can begin to go badly wrong.

Though I’ve never worked at a school where a child has been permanently excluded, I have only ever seen that possibility on the cards when the relationship between school and home has broken down. In these cases, I’ve seen parents (maybe unintentionally) undermining the school’s approach to supporting and addressing their child’s behaviour.

One case that has really stayed with me illustrates the power of the home-school partnership. Seb (not his real name) joined my school aged 9, having just been removed from his mum’s care for the third time. He had previously had failed placements with a foster family and his paternal grandparents whilst mum struggled to cope with alcohol addiction and a turbulent relationship with dad (now in prison). Seb was now moving from the North of England down to London for a new start with his paternal uncle Dave and aunt Sophie (again, not their real names).

Uncle Dave made a point of coming to meet with me before Seb started at school. He was frank and open about what Seb had experienced in his young life so far, and let me know about the difficulties Seb had in his previous school. Immediately, I was able to talk to the teacher whose class Seb was due to join, and help her begin to think about how she would make Seb welcome, and plan for what to do if he was struggling to concentrate, distracting others, or becoming angry.

When he started, it was clear that Seb was a funny, cheerful and charismatic boy with a beaming smile. He was also on the move non-stop, didn’t know how to manage his friendships without sometimes upsetting or physically hurting people, and had crushingly low self-esteem about his academic ability, especially in writing. In short, he was a real handful for a class teacher.

We had some issues; big ones. I held meetings with Dave and Sophie on several occasions dealing with the fallout of incidents that included violence, persistent disruption and racist language. I’ll be honest – Dave and Sarah didn’t always agree with how I had handled things; sometimes feeling that I hadn’t taken Seb’s point of view into account enough. But they were polite and reasonable in letting me know how they felt, and crucially, always backed me up in front of Seb.

Over time, we saw fewer of the big issues. Seb was settling well at home with his Uncle and Aunt, who clearly lavished him with love, got stable routines in place for him and gave him space to talk whilst still making sure he got his homework done. At school, we arranged to spend Seb’s Pupil Premium Plus on weekly sessions with a play therapist. We kept talking to Dave and Sarah, I would always make a point of chatting to them at the start or end of the school day, and sharing all the good things that were happening for Seb. Dave and I would stand together at the touchline while Seb was playing as goalkeeper for the school football team, cheering him on and celebrating every save he made.

Ultimately, Seb left us at the end of Year 6 with a good set of test results (which hadn’t looked likely when he joined!) But more importantly, he was enjoying school, had positive friendships and much improved self-esteem. I am convinced that it was the relationship that we managed to forge with Dave and Sarah that made this happen. And I am convinced that for other families and other children, the same is possible.

So my plea to adoptive parents is this. Firstly, take Hermione’s advice and take the time to visit a school and check that they support an inclusive approach; that they want to work together with you to understand what your child’s needs are and will do their level best to meet them.

Second, talk to your child’s school before they start. Tell them about your child and how they can help them. Tell them if you are uncomfortable with being approached on the playground with bad news and ask them to give you a phone call instead, or write it in a note, or in a behaviour book (like it or not, the school will have to tell you if your child has punched someone, or spat at them, or done something else fairly serious). And make sure you share the successes and the positives with them too, as they hopefully will with you. Thank them when you know they have done something to make school a better place for your child.

Thirdly, let your child know you support the school and trust their decisions. Let the school know politely if you don’t think they’ve made a good decision in dealing with something, but make sure your child doesn’t know you think that. It is important that they carry on seeing home and school as a united force trying to do the best for them (even if sometimes that means both sets of adults putting in place consequences for a bad choice).

Working in a positive partnership with school isn’t going to be a magic wand to fix all the issues your child is experiencing with school but I’m convinced that it is by far the most likely approach to lead to improvements.

Overall, the evening of talks was a disheartening experience for me as a Deputy Headteacher. But I did come away with a better understanding of how many adoptive parents feel about the school system, and a stronger resolve to do everything I can to build bridges with the families of vulnerable children. At a time of unprecedented change and considerable stress in the school system, many thanks to Gareth, Scott and Hermione for bringing our attention to what is clearly a vital issue to be tackled.

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Listen Closely

 

20150716_102245I recently met a beautiful and totally delightful 11-year-old girl who at the age of 10 – after a long and very difficult struggle – had finally managed to make her parents realise and accept that the male body she was born into was wrong and that she was indeed female.

The parents shared with me the terrible time they had coming to terms with this reality and how they now realise that they had seriously failed the child that they loved so very much for so long because of their own ignorance and prejudice.

They explained that their resistance to accept the truth had caused the daughter so much unhappiness and distress and that it had resulted in her becoming ill and developing stress-related alopecia and then how it had simply gone away once they listened to her and allowed her to be the person she knew herself to be.

As a parent this conversation touched me greatly. And as a parent of a child whose genes I do not share maybe even more so. It made me realise the huge responsibility we have to listen to our children and to respect that they have a voice, to comprehend that they may not be the ‘mini-mes’ we want them to be, nor the people we expect them to be and, most importantly, that it just can’t matter.

Whoever they are and whatever they are is a fact. We can teach them to understand and appreciate social mores and expectations and we can equip them to be the best they can possibly be within the framework that society lays down, but we can’t stop them being who they truly are. And even if we could, what on earth right would we have to do so?

We can educate our children to understand and appreciate our lives and the way we live them, but we can’t change their being to suit us, to suit our extended family, to suit our friends, our neighbours, our religion. Maybe we can influence them, maybe we can bully them into our ideals, or to meet our expectations or our beliefs, but does that change the people who they truly are? Or does it just result in them hiding their true selves to meet our selfishness, potentially confusing them and no doubt making them hugely unhappy in the process?

I wonder how many of us parents can look back at how we were brought up – and what we inevitably bring into our own parenting to some degree – and recognise just how strongly we were expected to live up to our parents’ expectations and how wrong that was for us.

I for one wish that I had been able to stand up for myself and say – ‘NO, listen to ME. That is NOT me, that is NOT what I want and that is NOT who I am’ – but as a child I was never given that chance, was simply chastised for trying to be true to myself and made to feel guilty for disappointing my parents’ impossible expectations.

Of course we have to make sure our children know right from wrong; we have to make sure that they are good citizens who abide by the law and respect others as they would wish to be respected. It is our responsibility to arm them well to take their place in the adult world, but surely only as the adults that they know themselves to be.

I now look back and realise that over the years I have been around a number of parents who I think did wrong by their child/children by forcing their own ‘needs’ or their own agenda upon them. That has left me as a parent wondering if I will be able to hear my children when they need me to, if I will really listen to them when confronted with something that I would struggle with or simply does not suit my expectations.

I certainly hope that I can and if required: I truly hope that I do. Of course for their sakes – but equally for mine.

P.S. I guess it is not going to be as easy as I had hoped it would be. A short time after writing this, I was having a conversation with a parent about their child (who has been privately educated) not wanting to go on into further education, and I found myself saying, “Well of course he has to go to university. The investment you have made has been huge and what will his future hold without a degree?”. To which I was quite rightly told “I know my child and he is not remotely academic. This is not about money; it is about him knowing himself and about me respecting that”.

Thank goodness for the parent group!

WAF LOGO DEC 14We soon realised – and it was a shocking realisation – that we were in it over our heads.

We had listened intently at the prep’ course, read copiously, had scoured the internet, picked the minds of the experienced parents around us; we thought we were prepared. However, can anything truly prepare you for the impact of an adopted child coming into your life? Especially when a child displays the trademark – and oh so challenging – behaviour of a traumatised child?

We are taught what to expect and indeed one of the biggest criticisms of social services by many of our fellow adopters during the adoption process was that they were overly negative and continually painting the bleakest of pictures. Even if it’s not as bad as it could be, it seems that most adoptive parents go through a tough time once that initial ‘honeymoon period’ is over; it takes us by surprise and immediately rocks that solid foundation we thought we had built with all our preparation. Some of us had years to prepare, yet when we are faced with the reality we realise that it’s simply nothing like we expected.

The impact of a child arriving in your – often calm and in hindsight easily manageable – life is truly huge. Apart from the immediate pressure of the responsibility for these little lives and the exhausting non-stop care and consideration that they require, there is the enormous emotional turmoil that I am sure none of us could have anticipated.

Before placement and in the early days I think many of us can be in denial; a child is just a child and our son/daughter is going to be just fine regardless of what we are being told. I think this can be especially true of adopters of babies or very young children. When the reality of our children, our family, our new life hits it can be frightening and with social services stepping back it can feel worryingly lonely.

To use a cliched metaphor, for me it really did feel like being in the middle of an endless ocean on a rickety raft; I truly felt adrift and uncharacteristically helpless. On good days it felt like I had oars that could dig deep into the water and make progress, on other days it was oars that barely skimmed the surface or indeed on the worse days (and there were plenty) with no oars at all – bobbing along at the mercy of what life was throwing my way.

For somebody who likes – no, needs – to be in control this was new territory and I was far from comfortable with it.

I needed a life line – oh how I needed a life line – to help me pull the raft ashore and to give me some control again. Turning to our network of family and friends helped tremendously, but as we all no doubt discover, advice and help from parents of birth children is not always what is best for us parents of adopted children.

Then I was introduced to the We Are Family Parent Group – which has proven to be exactly the life line I required.

I can’t say it has ‘solved’ my family’s problems, but it has helped me understand them and most importantly helped me to put them in to perspective. It has made me realise that we are not alone and that what we are dealing with is not exceptional; that others out there are struggling just the same as we are and that it is just fine to be doing so.

The parent group is for sharing – sharing your experiences (good and bad) and your worries and your fears – and the group is also about listening, listening to others who clearly understand what you are living through and dealing with as they too face the same challenges and indeed the same joys.

No advice or suggested solutions tend to be offered directly – as nobody is qualified to do so – but by sharing our stories, our problems, our difficulties and of course the many positives we are experiencing, we support each other and we can take away what we feel we need to take or what we feel can help us.

It is most certainly not all about the difficulties we face. Between the tough times we are all equally overwhelmed by the wonder of being new parents and by the marvel that are our children and this is just as important to share, if not even more so for some.

If nothing else, the group just gives us a chance to vent – to let it all out – and not to feel judged on any level while we are doing so. That is enormous, that is appreciated and if you have never been along, that is highly recommended!

For more information about times and locations, or if you think you may be interested in starting a group in your area please click on the contact us button in the menu.

Independence days

Photo by lili Gooch

Photo by lili Gooch

We live in London and we plan to move to a new home which we have chosen because it falls within the catchment of both our sons current school and a new secondary school that we feel sure they will both attend. We of course get priority school placements because of the boys ‘looked after’ status, however we have become aware that living further away from the school than their classmates sets them apart and we think that anything that makes them feel more included has to be a positive.
We have reasoned that the small ‘city’ garden in the new house is not an issue as there is a large park close by and a small open common just across the road. Regardless, a garden big enough to contain the boys, their friends, their boundless energy and their various toys and sports equipment would need to be as big as a football pitch.
The new house will be undergoing some quite major works and the boys will be 9 and 10 years old once we finally move in. Knowing our sons, we feel that at this age the boys will be mature enough and sensible enough for us to allow them the freedom and independence to play out in the park or on the common on their own.
I am fully aware that many would immediately disagree with that and I emphasis ‘knowing our sons’. I do not for one moment feel it would be right for all children and I shamefully acknowledge that if I had daughters – as hypocritical sexist and illogical as it is – I would probably not be saying the same for another year or so.
I grew up in the 60’s/70’s and had a pretty idyllic childhood in the English countryside. My oldest memories are of playing out with a friend of the same age, the pair of us wondering around alone in the village that my family moved from when I was just 5. We moved to a small town and my siblings and I played out alone from the day we arrived, this included playing in playgrounds, on farmland, building sites and also at the beach (as well as in the sea) which was a 2 mile walk from our house and a journey we undertook on foot quite regularly.
In contrast my partner grew up in the 70’s/80’s in one of the worlds largest and most populated cities, regardless he too spent his childhood playing out with his siblings and neighbourhood friends. He talks of a similar freedom and independence to that which I experienced and which we both now want to pass on to our children.
Yet we have become aware that – like many reading this I am sure – some of our friends and family are questioning our choice and quite simply think that there are too many dangers – especially in a city – for children of that age.
It seems that more and more parents are denying their children even the most basic of freedom and independence and this is something that my partner and I just don’t understand. It is a freedom and independence that we feel is crucial for their development and which surely has to come at some point in their childhood and we feel strongly that it should be sooner than later as we feel it will teach them to be responsible and to be able to face the challenges and dangers life will throw their way. Without allowing this ‘life education’ we think that we will be letting our sons down.
We are aware of the potential dangers (and of course of the vastly exaggerated ‘perceived’ dangers), but rather than try to create an artificial world that pretends they are not at risk, we will educate the boys to an understanding of what to be fearful of and in the unlikely situation that they are confronted with anything we would have armed our sons with the means to avoid/overcome the danger. We feel that being able to recognise dangers and to have the confidence to confront them is essential and only achievable if given the freedom to do so. A child too protected is surely more vulnerable when faced with a situation so unfamiliar to them or their learning.
Naturally we parents do everything we can to protect our children and would never knowingly put them in harms way, however life is full of dangers that we have no or little control over and indeed others that we do have control over yet we simply choose to ignore. Whether we like to admit it or not I think most of us probably put our children at risk pretty much on a daily basis, yet these are risks that are barely acknowledged or considered.
The most obvious of which is driving them in our cars, hundreds of children are harmed and killed in car accidents every year, more than in any other way. Although we all know that, we still blindly belt our children in and take that risk without giving it a second thought – of course we do, we have lives to live and for many having a car allows us to give so much to our children and for many it is seen as an essential part of family life. Yet we are putting our children at far greater risk in our cars than we would be by letting them play outside.
Also we are repeatedly informed of the shockingly high statistics of child abuse from within families and by those close to the family, yet we think nothing of leaving our children with relatives, good friends and indeed less well known sitters. Of course we do, but yet again this is taking a risk greater than letting them play out.
I am not for one minute suggesting we should not be leaving our children, but I am saying that if we are willing to take those calculated risks so readily, why is it different when it comes to playing out? Playing out seems to be the one area that parents focus on and are fearful of and that we have became paranoid about. Yet playing out is such an essential part of childhood, especially in these days of too much sweet and fatty foods and of electronic games that are all having an impact on our children’s health – in their childhood and more worryingly into their adulthood.
We all know the risks to children playing out are no greater now then when we were growing up – when all kids played out – do we not? Of course the media coverage highlights the dangers so much more then it used to, but we are regularly fed data that says it’s our perception that has changed, not the degree of danger.
I think nowadays it is often about the parents need to be seen to be doing the ‘right’ thing (and that need may be even more relevant for an adoptive parent), yet perversely that seems to be exactly the wrong thing for a full and healthy childhood for our children.
So we are moving house for our sons to be able to play out with their classmates, yet we wonder if any of the parents of their friends will feel the same as us and if there will be any friends to play with?
And of course the really big question is – will we feel the same in a years time?