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 ….

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Projection.

What do you do when suddenly you don’t recognise the child standing in front of you? He has the same blonde hair, the same slightly chubby, ruddy face, but the smile is gone and in its place is a snarl that seems so grotesquely out of place on a five-year-old.

When suddenly from being the loving centre of his world you are the meanest, cruelest person he’s ever encountered?

When instead of a warm, small hand sliding lovingly into yours, an open hand crashes into your arm, a tightly curled fist into your chest again and again, accompanied by a scream that emanates from so deep within them that you cannot believe it doesn’t contain all their truth when it bursts out in a stream of “I hate you; you’re mean; I don’t like you any more; I don’t love you.”?

And when you explain this to other parents and they tell you it’s just a phase, they all go through it, when your heart is hurting and when you cannot get them to understand that it’s different when your child is adopted to hear those things for the first time because it makes you project into your future when your child will say in anger “you’re not my real Dad.” And to some, and to a little bit of you, it will be true and that is your worst fear realised.

When your experience thusfar has been mostly love and laughter and joy and of course the odd tantrum, but never this well verbalised because now they have the vocabulary and it really hurts as opposed to being slightly irritating. Because now it’s not about ice cream or not wanting to share a toy, it’s about how they really feel in that moment about you?

I don’t have any answers. It just hurts. And I pray that the projections are very, very wrong.

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas #8: How did I get here?

20150214_122654I picked up a brand new “Frozen” themed bike for my 4 year old daughter just before Christmas and even though it’s not my new bike, I’m brimming over with joy every time I see it!

Carrying it home from the shop was one of those moments when you think, “how did I get here?”

I’ve been a mum for nearly three years. I’ve seen her through the nappies, the dummies, the pushchairs, the tantrums (on-going), but this feels like a dream. A moment to cherish. “I’ve got a daughter and I’m buying her a bike for Christmas.” I just can’t believe how happy that sentence makes me.

All our Christmases have been great but it feels like there’s something big about this one. The tree is bigger. Our daughter is bigger and this year was able to reel off a proper BIG list to Father Christamas of what she “needs”.

This year she was finally big enough to help me decorate our tree; yes she put rubber bands on and bits of plastic and anything else she could get her hands on onto it, but to me it is beautiful.

It’s not been an easy year. We’ve had family illnesses, operations, challenging beahviour from the little one but this is one of those ‘joy’ moments I’m really going to hold in my heart forever.

Funny how the really big joy moments totally overshadow all the bad ones.

I’m so thankful for that.

Merry Christmas everyone.

 

The Questions #12 A peek into how we do family

Photo by Lili Gooch

Photo by Lili Gooch

How and when does your child/children wake you in the morning

Daughter shouts “mum, mummy, MUM, MUUUUUMMMMYYYYY”. Son babbles to himself or cries if his babbles aren’t responded to in time.
Why adoption?

We had a still born baby girl following IVF and wanted to do something worthwhile instead. Also my husband is adopted.
Mainly we wanted a family.
From start of assessment to bringing your child home how long did the process take?

16 months
How could it be improved?

We started the new short assessment but due to lack of resources it still took nearly a year to be approved despite us being described as straight forward adopters.
What has been the biggest surprise?

How much I’m enjoying it. And how supportive others have been.
How was the assessment process?

Good, interesting and reassuring.
What’s your favourite thing to do together?

Outdoor play in a park.
What makes you and your family laugh?

Playing together. Tickling and rolling around cuddling.
The best thing about being a parent?

Rewards of seeing how the children have progressed. Meeting new people.
The hardest thing about being a parent?

Frustration that we do everything we can to make them happy and they don’t understand that and have tantrums.
The piece of wisdom you would pass on to a child?

Just to let them be. For them to be honest in asking for what they want.
What time do you go to bed?

10.45 – 11.00 but it’s too late and we are always tired.

The Briefest Moment

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was the briefest of moments, but a moment that has filled me with guilt and which I know will stay with me forever.

It was early days – in fact just five or six weeks into placement – the honeymoon period was over and we were starting to see a different side to our new sons. We were totally smitten with the boys and felt that we had loved them from the very first moment we were brought together, but now we were being challenged and we were finding it hard.

The previous couple of weeks had been tough – very tough – mostly with our then almost 5 yr old, who was angry and upset and confused – which we still see signs of today – and daily we were dealing with that. We were new parents and rapidly discovering that all the experience we had of looking after children seemed to be irrelevant when it came to our own, our own damaged and wounded children.

Our son is extremely short tempered and he will fly into a rage over very minor incidents, it is a rage that was uncontrollable then and grew worse with our feeble and misguided attempts to deal with it. We knew we were in it over our heads and we knew we were just not breaking through. It felt like we were failing and to be honest it felt more and more like we were faced with an insurmountable challenge. However, it was a challenge we were committed to and no matter what it took we would get the better of it. Nobody said it was going to be easy, in fact we had it drummed into us on the prep’ course that it would be anything but.

To make matters worse we were exhausted, emotionally and physically. We had not slept a full night since they joined us in our home, jumping up from our bed at the slightest sounds from their bedroom next door, lying awake for hours considering the day we had just had and worrying about what the day ahead would bring.

In addition nothing could have prepared us for the sheer magnitude of the emotional roller coaster ride we found ourselves on and just how weary that would make us.

From the moment our son woke that morning we knew it was going to be ‘one of those days’, there is a look in his eyes, a little extra swagger and attitude in his interaction that we were already able to spot and identify, but to this day we have no idea what determines that mood. It was not a good start to the day and with my partner and older son leaving early we were left alone. My gentle reprimanding of our sons constant challenging increased, and as he and I sat down after breakfast to play together it was clear that all of what I was saying was falling on deaf ears.

Gradually my anger was growing and getting more and more difficult to control as he persisted in his mis behaviour and his determination to ignore my attempts to bring it to an end. Finally a very stern warning that one more time and he would have time-out (a last resort then and of course eliminated completely now) which predictably was immediately followed by the action that spurred the warning.

With far too much anger he was lifted from the floor and stood in the time-out spot, from here on in the situation just deteriorated totally out of control, with my anger continuing to grow – and the volume of my shouting increasing with it – as he refused to stay for time-out, the more I shouted the worse he got and we were in a vicious cycle going absolutely nowhere.

With time we were to learn that he gets worse as we get angrier as of course it destabilises the security we are building, but way back then we were a long way off that realisation and I just saw a defiant and naughty little boy determined to ‘get one over on me’. How crass and ignorant that statement sounds now.

He was refusing to stay on the time-out spot and I was sure that giving into that would be the beginning of the end and that he would never listen to me and my discipline from that moment on, so I repeatedly lifted him back into place. His anger continued to build and soon it was completely out of control and there I found myself, on my knees, face to face with my 4 year old son trying to hold him in place, his face blazing red from absolute fury and his spit covering my face as he simply stood and screamed at me.

And then that moment.

I gave up. I accepted defeat and realised that I couldn’t do this. I had failed. I was not a parent and could never be, which of course meant only one thing – he had to go back. Back into Care.

That briefest of moments.

And then thankfully it was gone and I pulled myself together. Could this 4 yr old really get the better of the 50 yr old me? Of course not – that is NOT what this is about. Then the realisation that this was in fact all about me, not his naughtiness or his anger, but my handling of it. I didn’t know the answers, but I knew it was about me finding them.

Totally ashamed at the thought that had run through my mind and with my heart breaking for him – my beautiful SON – for even thinking what I had, the anger drained from my body. I let go of him and I stood up and he of course immediately ran from me and he hid under the table. Calmer now, I lowered my voice to little more than a whisper and told him that ‘under the table’ was the new time-out spot and his 4 minutes were starting from now.

He stayed – thank goodness he stayed – I am sure it was because he was as relived for the ‘out’ as I was. The – very long – 4 minutes passed and I attempted to calm him and to get some kind of order back in place. He was having none of it and refused to move from his spot where he stayed for quite some time. When he did finally come out he would not come to me or allow me to hug him, which of course I desperately needed to do for my own sake as much as his.

He stayed angry, hurt, upset and distant and then finally my partner arrived home. Initially he resisted my partners efforts to console him, but he was in such need of comfort that he did eventually allow himself to be picked up and I stood and watched as our little boy crumpled into my partners shoulder and sobbed his heart out.

This had been tough on me, but my goodness it was now very clear to see how tough it had been on him and I was responsible for that.

Things had to change – and they did, or should I say WE did.

Nearly three years on we still have an angry little boy, but episodes as extreme as this are now rare and we are hopeful that they will soon be eliminated completely. We have learnt how to handle him much better and in doing so we have became more like the parents he needs and my goodness so deserves.

Far more importantly though, there has never been a repeat of my thoughts in that moment, but as a parent those thoughts will always haunt me and shame me.

We are a forever family and families come as they are – for good and bad – and one thing is for sure – being adopted does not make you any less forever than a birth child and to even think so for the briefest of moments is surely unforgivable.

Out of the blue – A lesson in patience.

Picture 053My daughter and I are both recovering from surgery.

Mine – not hers but we’ve both been affected.

It happened so quickly that I didn’t have the chance to explain to her that not only would I not be coming home in time to cook her tea, bath her and carry her to bed, but that I would be gone for six whole days. I was just gone, absent without warning and it felt unbearable. In my panic I was sure our bond would be damaged by my sudden departure so I can only guess how it felt for her, and explanations were left to those who kindly jumped in to care for her in my absence.

Now we’re all dealing with the aftermath.

Crucially, I can’t bend down and I can’t lift her. Doesn’t sound that bad but it’s created a space between us that wasn’t there before. Now I tower stiffly over her, my stance so different to usual, essentially talking down at her and she doesn’t like it – I don’t blame her. I wish I could sweep her into my arms, or kneel down and kiss her face but I can’t. It feels very formal.

Mummy has gone from being a big strong, person she could bounce off, to a stiff, weak temporarily disabled one she needs to be careful around (as everyone keeps telling her!) Despite the constant reassurances that I will be back to my old self in time – a concept she doesn’t understand anyway – she rarely answers when I speak to her and constantly demands toys and presents and sweets – something she was probably given a lot of while I was in hospital. I find it heart wrenching.

I know that life’s not perfect and stuff happens all the time but it feels big. It’s brought loads of stuff up for both of us, for me how I can’t bear to be still and I really struggle to find the patience to recuperate at the right steady pace, and for her? .. Well tantrums and it’s anybody’s guess what else but she’s reacting differently as each day passes. My husband tells me not to worry, that our bond is strong and secure and my presence alone is nourishing and comforting to her. I trust his judgement and try to stay positive. There are encouraging signs. This morning as I woke up she did slip her hand into mine and whisper “Mummy, when you are well you can pick me up again” and gave me a kiss. I’ll just have to wait it out.

 

Another penny drops. A follow up to A banana, 3 clementines, a bowl of grapes and 4 kiwis

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We were on a beach holiday and the mid day sun was just too much for the fair skinned Anglo Saxons amongst us.

My partner and our younger son returned from a shopping trip with a few treats that they had picked out for the family as we had planned a ‘picnic’ together on the floor of our hotel room. I had made some preparations and we sat down around a makeshift picnic blanket (3 beach towels) nestled between the beds, which I had rolled out of the way.

We settled and our son immediately opened a family size packet of crisps and started eating them, after a few minutes in a light hearted way I leaned across and took the crisps from his hands, making a joke about the packet being almost as big as him and how I needed to feed my big, fat tummy.

At which point he got immediately angry, we could see that unprovoked his anger was increasing and rapidly turning into a tantrum. This came as a total surprise as he had been in a good mood and this abrupt change seemed to come from nowhere and it was clearly building into something really quite extreme.

Before long he was screaming and ‘wailing’ that he wanted the crisps, that he wasn’t finished, that now we were all eating them and would leave none for him. We were firmly pointing out that they were not his and that he knew the ‘picnic’ was for everyone to share, we insisted that of course we could eat them and that he had to calm down.

He didn’t. His ranting continued and was getting quite hysterical, we were at a bit of a loss as we started to realise that any attempt at calming him was failing hopelessly.

We tried a firm approach telling him he was being selfish and that we all had to share and that this behaviour had to stop – which of course just made it worse.

We tried a softer approach and put down the crisps and told him that he could have more when he was calm and had apologised for his unacceptable behaviour, but this achieved nothing either.

He stormed from the room and continued his screaming from behind the bathroom door. I was calm and attempted to open the door telling him that I just wanted to hug him and calm him down. He screamed that nobody was to come in and nobody was to talk to him.

We sat down and fell silent, not so much giving in to him as respecting the ‘limits’ we thought he was clearly laying out. We figured if this is what it needed to bring it to an end then so be it, once calm we hoped we could get him to listen to us and recognise that his behaviour was unacceptable.

However when he came back into the room he was immediately upset that we were not talking to him and started screaming that we were being horrible and ignoring him. When we started to respond NOTHING we said was the right thing and just resulted in more wailing and crying and with him putting his fingers in his ears saying he didn’t want to listen.

We have got used to his anger and his tantrums over the past 2 1/2 years and we have discovered ways of getting through, so much so we thought we were ‘on top’ of them, but somehow in this case nothing was working and we were back to being truly mystified.

And than the penny dropped – for my partner anyway. He looked at me and said ‘this is about food, you snatched it away from him’. Suddenly some sense in a totally chaotic and illogical scene.

As I explained in the previously blog, in the birth family there was frequently a shortage of food and being the youngest he often missed out to his older siblings when food was placed in front of them and immediately snatched up before he got any.

I didn’t have to stop and consider what my partner had said, I immediately knew it to be true. This was clearly the trigger, in this case and what was more difficult to accept was that it had probably been so in a number of other similar situations previously that we had failed to see and would have simply treated his behaviour as naughtiness.

Knowing the cause didn’t stop the tantrum, but it did give us the confidence to deal with it. Our son had retreated back into the bathroom so my partner went to him saying ‘I know what’s wrong and I understand’ over and over, he continued with ‘daddy did a silly thing, he should not have snatched the food from you, he is sorry that he did that and knows it was wrong and he wants to apologise to you’. Gradually our son allowed himself to be embraced and finally stopped shouting and just sat sobbing.

I stood behind the door listening, my partner said that he knows that when he was little his brothers and sisters snatched his food away and left him hungry, but that in our family he is never hungry and he will never be hungry again. Our son’s response was – in between sobs – to agree that was why he was so upset, it was not just a simple ‘yes’ in agreement, it was truly heartfelt and said with a passion and I like to think a sense of relief at the fact that we – and maybe even he – had finally ‘got it’.

To anybody who thinks that he was just playing us to get his own way, rest assured that is not the case. We know ‘those’ tantrums and as I said we feel we are getting better at dealing with those before they get out of control, we are quite firm in our parenting and the boys know there is only so far they can go before we clamp down hard on any bad behaviour. We knew this was different and we could see that our regular way of dealing with him was only making it worse.

This was absolutely not about him eating all the crisps, which was evident once he calmed down and had the crisp packet again as he willingly shared them around between us without even needing to be asked.

He made sure I was held to my apology as promised by my partner and when I did say sorry it was for SO much more than snatching the crisps from his hand.

So another penny dropped. At the time I was angry for us not realising immediately, now writing it down I am even more so as it all just seems SO blindingly obvious, but in the moment that is just not the case.

Our boys are far from perfect and they do misbehave, they do push their luck and they do try to play us to get their own way and yes that includes throwing the odd tantrum, I think working out which tantrum is simply bad behaviour and which has been triggered by something haunting them from their past is one of the most difficult challenges we have to face as adoptive parents.

To see the original blog A banana, 3 clementines, a bowl of grapes and 4 kiwis please follow this link. http://wp.me/p44UZE-ki