My 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.
I 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.
And 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 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
If you had not screamed at my partner in the school playground, he could have explained.
If you had not embarrassed him in front of the school staff, the other parents and in front of the children – most especially our sons, he could have reassured you that we are aware of the problems, that we are dealing with them, that the school is involved, that we have a therapist for our son – that we are doing everything we can.
If your anger had not caught him by surprise he could have reasoned that our son’s past and the trauma he has suffered means that things are different for us, for him. He would have told you that our little boy is not a ‘bad’ child, that he is in fact a sweet and loving and thoughtful little boy who doesn’t look for trouble, but that he doesn’t know how to respond to confrontation which he always feels threatened by. He would have told you that his experiences have left him with self esteem issues and that his anger is a self defence mechanism.
If you had not verbally attacked my partner and shocked him with your aggression he could have told you that our son responded to provocation by your daughter – who is simply not as pure and guilt free as you like to think. He would have said that this is not an excuse, but that it is a reality.
If you had given him a chance, he would have apologised regardless, because we know that our son’s issues are not your issues, we know that it doesn’t make it right for him to upset your daughter.
If you had allowed him time to catch his breath and to think about his response it would have been more measured, more reasoned and it would have felt less confrontational, but you didn’t – you assumed and you attacked and you were unnecessarily aggressive and no matter how upset you were this was unacceptable.
We realise that people don’t know, that they have no way of understanding or appreciating our difficulties and that’s fine – but at least give us a chance to inform you and to help you understand.
Is that too much to ask for?
Hearing 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.
I 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”.