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 ….

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.

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.