Unattached to school.

Photo by lili Gooch

Our son has been kicked out of school.

That is two and a half years of almost constant struggle (and endless meetings) with the school reduced to just one line.

Two and a half years of trying to get them to realise that his behaviour is not naughtiness and that is is controllable, two and half years of trying to make then understand his needs (which are quite typical of adopted and traumatised children) and the correct way to address them, two and a half years of him suffering and consequently failing to get an education because of their inability to make him feel safe and calm.

Sadly, ultimately it boiled down to that one simple line and that is all that now matters for us.

The school tried – at times they tried very hard indeed – but their attempts were often misguided and sadly short lived. They would feel that they resolved one issue and another would raise its head and then they would simply give up. It has never felt that they were wanting to learn and to grow as a school, frustratingly it always felt like they were doing what was required to placate us – the frustrated, demanding parents. Without the belief that it was benefitting them too I fear that their investment into it lacked any true conviction.

We never felt we had the understanding or the assistance of the SENCO to fight our corner or from the ‘Pastoral support teacher’ who barely seemed to even understand pastoral care – so it always felt like a battle we were fighting alone and in hindsight we can see that it was one we were never destined to win.

The suggestion of finding him a ‘special school’ was made regularly throughout the two and a half years, yet nobody could tell us what kind of school he needed to be in or indeed where to find one.

Fortunately we had started looking into alternatives and had found a school that seemed to offer an amazingly therapeutic approach within reasonable distance of where we live and which does indeed put the special needs of its children first and foremost.

However we were yet to introduce ourselves to the school or indeed apply for admission for our son when on the last day of term the old school informed us that our son is no longer welcome there.

Thankfully the school we had found has been incredibly understanding and have accepted him pretty much immediately as they could see that it was a critical situation.

It’s very early days and we are fully aware that we are in a ‘honeymoon period’, however we are full of hope as so far things have been amazing. Our son is clearly at ease and comfortable in an environment that is welcoming and inclusive of his emotional needs.

They have not witnessed one issue so far and have said that his behaviour has been exemplary and for the first time in a long while he is concentrating on work and he is actually achieving.

It is a total turn around.

He is the same child, we are the same parents parenting in the same way that we always have – yet the old school just couldn’t accept that THEY were failing him and creating the environment that was so difficult for him to function in.

We are told as adopters that mainstream schools must meet our children’s needs and I understand that the government are allocating a dedicated teacher in every school who is aware of the special needs of our children and will be there to support them.

However, how well trained and how capable they will be and just how willing the school they are part of is to listen to what they have to say remains to be seen.

Our son is not a bad child, in fact family and friends around us are shocked when we share the issues that the school have been facing as they know a child who is nothing like the one the school knows.

Even if it is just a ‘honeymoon period’ which comes to an end and the new school are subjected to the behaviour that the previous school struggled so deeply with, we know that they will still not see him as a bad boy and just like we have learnt to do at home, they will see that they are doing something wrong and they will address the situation accordingly – and they will get the results required.

Isn’t that what ALL schools should be doing?

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Our big adoption friendly / attachment aware school choice gamble.


I don’t buy lottery tickets or gamble, but when my husband gave me responsibility of selecting our adopted daughters school, that’s exactly what I did.

Almost three years ago, we met our fabulous children and started family life together. While in the throes of building a family relationship and surviving instant parenting of a 1 & 3 year old, we were pressured by our children’s social worker to select and apply for our daughters school place fairly early into our placement. Under time pressure, not knowing many local families with school aged children and being fairly emotionally exhausted, I will admit to doing fairly limited local research… visiting one school. Excluding many of the immediate local faith school options, I grasped onto a neighbour’s recommendation of a free school which was nearby. It had only been open for 2 years so came with many risks but, it sounded amazing. After looking at reviews and reading about the school, I applied assuming that being a London school, they would have some experience of the needs of looked after and previously looked after children. I was sold on the sound of the nurturing but classic education offered with firm behaviour expectations. To be honest, I didn’t even visit the school until the place was allocated.

Writing this reminds me of the big gamble I took with our children’s education. It was always a risk going with a recently opened school and I was aware it would be a work in progress. So how have we got on?

Our daughters school place was confirmed and I waited for the school to get in touch and arrange a home visit. When it became apparent this was not going to happen, I contacted the school only to have doubts well and truly set in. They no longer offered home visits, could not be less interested in allowing my daughter to visit the school to help prepare her for the move and the (then) head teacher along with her extremely bad attitude, left me spending the summer regretting the school choice and feeling like the worst parent ever. I debated changing to another school but, my husband and I both felt that we had to follow through having made the choice.

Our daughters first few weeks starting school were a test for me. She loved it immediately. I got 5 minutes on her first day to help settle her in the class and then had to leave her to it…. And it was so hard to leave. There were tears.. Mine! My assumption that the school would be experienced with understanding and meeting the needs of children who have experienced developmental trauma and have compromised attachments was fairly misguided. Thankfully, her teacher despite being newly qualified was incredibly nurturing and willing to learn / understand. Yes, some mistakes were made for example: seating a distracted hypervigilant child with her back to the door, not anticipating that changes of staff, environment or school trips lead to edgy/ hypervigilant behaviour.

Collecting my daughter at the end of the day was a lucky dip of either a food angry, emotional daughter who could fly easily into aggressive tantrums and rages or a delightfully happy little girl, loving school and wanting to share every moment. My lowest point was sobbing in the senco’s office about the tantrums and self-destructive behaviours which started about the time our daughter started the school. Hitting herself in frustration or giving herself massive nosebleeds, sometimes nightly, as a result of emotional anxiety and consequently many mornings she and her bed looked like there had been a massacre. I learnt to come to pickup armed with pockets full of snacks and not expect a hello or hug until at least half had been quickly consumed.

While I had conflicted feelings about the school’s lack of attachment experience / awareness, my daughter was thriving. The teachers were fabulous, the curriculum was amazing and being a new “free school” the parents wanted to make it a success There were many, many positives. Changing schools was not an option we would consider, as it would be further disruption. Speaking to other adoptive parents in the borough who had placed their children in school’s known to be experienced with adopted children, I realised we were not alone in having challenges regardless of the school’s experience.

I decided that I would become a squeaky wheel and (be annoying) encourage…… the school to work on becoming attachment aware, transparent regarding how the Pupil Premium Grant was being spent, share my experiences to ensure lessons were learnt and improve communication. Luckily, the head teacher left at the end of our daughter’s first term in reception and a senco started. New staff arrived and it was a breath of fresh air. On a mission, I contacted and met with the interim head which was a refreshing experience. After off loading, and then meeting with the senco laying out all the issues, the school were thankfully receptive to working with me on ensuring our daughter’s needs were met and receptive to feedback on areas of improvement needed. Our daughter thankfully now gets drama / play therapy sessions weekly, consistent staff to support her with changes, I’m notified in advance of changes to prepare her, she has access to confidence boosting clubs / activities and is thriving. The school remain receptive to feedback and ideas, taking on board anything I feel our daughter might benefit from at school. They have started arranging regular follow up sessions with parents of children needing support and are working on encouraging parents or carers of previously LAC to meet up/ support each other. Despite the odd tantrum and nose bleed now, it’s remarkable to reflect how much more settled our daughter is and very excited she is to be returning to school shortly in year 2. After the long summer holiday break, I’m excited she is back to school shortly too!!

As our son prepares to join his big sister and start school in a few weeks, I’m reminded of how far we have come! What a lovely feeling it is this time round to know he will be in good hands with a school who has observed him at nursery, had him do visits to the class/ meet his new teacher, provided him with a book of photos of the class/ school/ teachers to look at over the summer, his teacher is coming to visit at home and a phased starting school plan organised with clear parent/ school communication to ensure his needs will be met. Nurture spaces are in place and support is evident. Staff have had had attachment training and once he settles, there will be discussion on how his Pupil Premium Grant can be used to support him.

While the school continues to work towards becoming an “Attachment Friendly School”, it is really nice to appreciate how far they have come in two years. I realised early on that there was not the joined-up approach I had assumed would be in place regarding information sharing on things like talks on “how to become an attachment friendly school” or free training offers actually being offered directly to the school. I took it upon myself to share with the school any information I came across regarding talks or training opportunities for school’s especially the free ones. I would follow up and repeat if needed. Thankfully, a deputy head and the sendco have embraced the school working to become an attachment friendly school with full support of the head teacher and governors. They have gone to great effort to attend talks, become actively involved with virtual schools, signed up with PCT and more. Most importantly, they are working in partnership with parents such as myself on ensuring the school understands and works towards meeting the needs of their looked after and previously looked after students.

The icing on the cake apart from knowing how our children are benefiting is to hear from a fellow wearefamily parent, giving positive feedback about hearing the deputy head from my daughter’s school, speaking at a local virtual schools talk about the benefits of schools becoming an attachment friendly school… So far thankfully the gamble in paying off. Perhaps it’s time to buy that lottery ticket ….

The Diagnosis

It’s been one week since my son was diagnosed at St Thomas’ with ASD (Autism), ADHD, ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) and major emotional regulation difficulties.  He was diagnosed by a panel consisting of a Paediatrician, Psychologist, Psychiatrist, Speech and Language Therapist and Occupational Therapist who spent 3 hours assessing him.  They were thorough, professional and understanding.  

I came out of the feedback in shock, it was not what I was expecting to hear from them, though of course I suspected it all.  Four years of having been continuously told it was our parenting and attachment that were really the issues doesn’t give you a lot of hope in being understood.  They did understand.  Engaging him with the assessments was a challenge they told me, the motivators changed from moment to moment.  Not only is he easily distracted, he is very interested in what he is distracted by.  And of course he just does not understand people and how they communicate.  They could see how on the edge he was at any given moment, a coke bottle on the brink of fizzing over.

I had to get my son home.  We surprisingly managed without incident considering what he’d just been put through. We walked through the door and I cried.  For the first couple of days they were tears of devastation.  It’s a paradox but although I know we’ve done everything we could have I did really want someone to say, ‘just try this new thing and it will all be ok’ (a magic cure), ‘give him some Ritalin and he’ll cope’ (I would try it!), ‘turn your parenting around and he’ll be better’ (we have, things got a little better), ‘try some therapy, he’ll engage’ (we have, he hasn’t).  What they actually said was ‘you have turned your world upside down for this child, but you can’t do that for him forever.’  They think his problems will be lifelong and are mostly influenced by his genetics.  So that’s Developmental Trauma out of the window, at least partially.

Others’ reactions to the diagnosis have also been difficult.  People immediately questioning it’s accuracy, whether we’re convinced, ‘was it really that thorough?’  The people who’ve been the most supportive and helpful on our journey have effectively been congratulating us on finally achieving some recognition of our difficulties as a family.  They mean well but they have missed the pain that comes with the confirmation.

Some have pointed out that he is still the same child as before.  Well of course he is but we must now shift our expectations and rethink everything.  We are worried for his future, and ours.  I have hope, mostly based on the relationship my husband and I have managed to build with him through sheer perseverance despite his difficulties and the lack of support.  I do believe that with the right support (that we will continue to fight so hard for) our love for him will mean that he finds his way.  That love now has to guide us through some difficult choices.

12 blogs under the Christmas tree #10

20161223_131101My one special present under the Christmas tree would be a mini, pocket sized version of our family therapist. I could then pull her out to consult at those moments when I’m a bit lost as to how to respond to our daughter’s more dysregulated moments, or am just in need a bit of a confidence boost. We’ve been so incredibly lucky to find her and to have had six months worth of Theraplay and family support sessions funded by the ASF. We certainly weren’t in what I would call a ‘struggling’ place, so I’m sure we wouldn’t have qualified for support pre the fund. We would have just kept on trucking on. But having our therapist come to work with us with her warmth, expertise, experience and support has been transformative for our family and to my confidence as a mum. Our daughter is bubbly, outgoing, very bright and seemingly coping with everything fine, so many of our non adoptive family and friends couldn’t see any issues – it was a case of ‘oh she’s fine, all kids do that’. But our therapist immediately spotted the challenges our daughter has with hyper vigilance, emotional regulation, control and being extra demanding of me, as her mum, having been let down by so many mum figures in her past. Talking to our therapist made me feel like I wasn’t going mad, there were some problems we could get help with and it was okay to find things difficult. The games we play seem so innocuous and often silly (you should see me with a foam soap ball on my nose!) but gently and subtly they are nudging all of us towards healthier ways of relating and allowing our daughter to truly and deeply accept the loving parenting we so much want to give her.

Realistically high expectations.

20160701_114148I started a Blog a while ago suggesting that adoptive parents needed to have realistic expectations of their children’s school and especially of the child’s teacher. Our children are (usually) 1 in a class of 30 and expecting the teacher to ‘get them’ and to cater for their specific needs is of course a tough ask – especially when we parents can often struggle on a one to one basis at home.

Something stopped me completing the blog and now it is evident why that was so… I was wrong! Which sadly in our case has resulted in us failing to protect our son and failing to do right by him.

Our son displays much of the typical behaviour resulting from trauma that we are told to expect – which can ONLY be controlled through therapeutic parenting/teaching. In his first two years at this school his teachers understood this and did a great job of making him feel secure and valued, however his teacher last year clearly didn’t ‘get it’ at all and this has resulted in a terrible year for our son and as a result of that it has been a very problematic and indeed stressful one for us.

A couple of months into the year we became aware of issues in class and we went into the school to discuss the situation, we attempted to point out our son’s history and his needs, but we were shut down by the new assistant head with ‘of course we know how to deal with adoptive children, we have plenty of experience and in fact we have about a dozen adopted children in the School at the moment’.

We accepted this at face value, as adoptive parents we often feel that we are ‘one step behind’ and we thought that it was perfectly reasonable to assume that professionals in a professional environment would be better equipped than us.

Yet it is now clear to see that these were hollow words and worse still that we were accepting them from the wrong person.

For 6 plus hours a day our children are sent to school and left in the care of another adult – this is likely to be as much time (or indeed for some – more time) than they spend awake with us the parents during a 24hr period – this is huge and the importance of this relationship in their lives can not be underestimated. It is imperative that we make sure that the teacher – and indeed any teachers assistants – caring for our child know their needs and know exactly how to deal with them.

Regardless of what the school thinks it knows or how good an understanding it feels it has, it is the direct relationship with the teacher that is most relevant and it is OUR responsibility to make sure that they do indeed understand and have the skills to cope.

My thinking that we should make allowances for the difficulties that teachers no doubt face – although empathetic – was naive and on reflection very foolish. They have a responsibility for our children and they have a need to ensure that our children are being treated appropriately.

Quite simply our son was not, his teacher failed him, the school failed him and we failed him too for not being on top of the situation.

Now we know better and this new year will be different, we have regular meetings with his new teacher and we have made her very aware of his needs and how to deal with him, in addition we have furnished her with books and handouts that we feel will help her in her understanding.

Sadly it is evident that quite a bit of damage has been done and we can see that our son’s relationship with the school, the teachers and in a broader sense adults in general has been badly affected. Great efforts now need to be made to address the issues – and the resulting challenging behaviour – that the year has brought about in him and we are making sure that his teacher is very much part of that process.

Big little girl

20160728_110230And so it begins… This week, this long awaited week was your first at school. I can barely believe it as I type the word- school! the very idea seems quite preposterous for someone as young as you are.

We have had a summer of ice-creams, holidays and adventures. But also of nights with you a wriggly, sleeping starfish in MY bed, me alternating between snatched snippets of sleep when you are at rest, and holding the little hand that migrates frequently into mine. We’ve seen a lot of the moon this summer.

Although outwardly you seemed sanguine about the big move up, and could become quite animated when reeling off the list of “things to look forward to about reception” that your nursery teacher so thoughtfully prepared with you before you left her class, occasionally you’ve let slip little clues about your anxiety.

I find your anxiety painful, and want to make it go away. I am aware though that reassurances aren’t really enough for someone for whom the earliest changes involved suddenly and unexpectedly losing literally everything and everyone you knew. Having gone through this twice, it is unsurprising to me that you are constantly attentive to the slightest ripple in routine, and acutely alert at times of change. So whilst many of those around you, myself included, have been gaily chattering about “big school”, sometimes in an attempt to habituate you to the idea, sometimes to offer reassurance, I know that for you, the undercurrent to this summer has been apprehension that has kept you from sleeping soundly, and peacefully as I know you can.

But you’ve done it, the great unknown has this week begun to become the new normal, and tonight as I tucked you up in bed, you looked so small, but I felt hopeful that as you grow older, and we go through more and more of these big changes, you’ll develop a deeper understanding that you can depend on me being there, and there for you, and that your confidence in the permanence of your place in your world will grow. Oh, and also I hope you’ll spend more time in your own bed.

Dear Daughter: You’re Moving on.

20160728_110932Dear daughter, You’re moving on and I can hardly believe it. –
Not moving on from me and your dad but from the first place you ever really learnt to separate from us – you Nursery.
You began there aged 2, a timid little girl who’s dummy filled lip trembled everytime I kissed you goodbye in the morning. And you’re leaving there as a confident four year old who waves me off in the mornings to go and play with her friends, and shouts goodbye to every teacher as we leave at the end of the day.
You have made friends – lots of them and our house is filled with the chattering of little girls as you constantly invite them all over for play dates.
Now you’re about to move on to a new chapter. BIG SCHOOL!
I think I’m more nervous than you and It’s made me quite emotional. I‘m not entirely sure why but there are a number of things it could be. There’s the fact the time has passed so quickly and the little baby I held in my arms has grown into a girl; there is the nursery school which we both love and must leave, with the teachers who have taken every care over your development and who all love you to pieces. There are the wonderful friends you’ve made who won’t be going with you to your new school
And then there’s the unknown – the new big school!
When I first walked around it on an open day I was overcome with the same feeling I had when I started my own big school – HOW TERRIFYING! I can remember my first few days being traumatic with my mum having to peel my hand and fingers off her legs as I refused to let her go. Later of course it was fine but that memory has stayed with me.
I’m hoping things will be different for you and I’m encouraged by something your nursery teacher told me yesterday.
She told me that when she took you (and another little boy you don’t know very well) to visit and look around the new school, the little boy began crying and saying he didn’t want to go. She said you stopped him in his tracks by holding his hands and saying “Are you frightened of the new big school Jo?” When he said yes, apparently you took his hand and said “It’s going to be ok, and I’m going to look after you”. Seemingly, this was all he needed and he followed it up with “Actually, I’m fine now! I’m not scared at all… Come on!” And the two of you ran towards your next chapter.
God luck little girl. XXX