Books

With it being World Book Day this week, I thought it might be a good time to share some of our favourite children’s books and the reasons they have become important to us.

First Books

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The board book pictured was Little Bear’s first book. I know this because we gave it to him during introductions when he was 3 and a half years old. The average 3 and a half year old is likely to have progressed beyond board books quite some time ago and is most likely enjoying a range of picture books with maybe a couple of sentences on each page. I’m going to assume that Little Bear had seen a book somewhere and on occasions someone had read one to him. However, he certainly didn’t own any books and a bedtime story was not part of his bedtime routine, which appeared to involve wrestling him into his pyjamas and beating a hasty retreat, shutting the double height stairgate behind you.

There has been some recent Twitter chat which would suggest that Little Bear was not alone in not having a bedtime story during foster care. This makes me incredibly sad. I know the majority of foster carers work extremely hard and give the children in their care everything they could possible need but evidence suggests they don’t all. For me, a bedtime story (or a story at some other part of the day) is not a pleasant add on, it is an essential part of childhood. Books have so much to offer children, not least in terms of their language development, and not having a bedtime story is a huge opportunity missed, particularly if the child in question has Developmental Language Disorder

The lack of books felt like such a fundamental omission to me that I couldn’t wait until we got home to introduce them. Thankfully I had popped this one into our packing and read it to Little Bear the very first time I put him to bed (after the wrestling into pyjamas part). I was surprised by how quiet he was and how much it held his attention, considering his behaviour the rest of the time. He LOVED it and asked for it repeatedly in the days and weeks afterwards. From there on in he has had a bedtime story. In fact, I feel as though so much time has been wasted for him, he actually has three bedtime stories every night.

Transition Books

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We read Little Bear board books for as long as he needed us to and he still has them on his shelf in case he fancies one now. However, when I felt the time was right to move him on, I needed something that bridged the gap between board books which usually have few words on a page and proper picture books which have quite a lot more. The books pictured here and others like them are the ones that bridged the gap nicely. They held Little Bear’s attention well and were good for extending his vocabulary with words that would be within his grasp.

The length of these books was just right at the time, helping to stretch Little Bear’s attention span little by little.

I especially love the bright pictures in the Meg and Mog books and they contain a good level of drama too!

First Picture Book

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We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is an important book to us because it was the first book from which Little Bear started to learn parts of the text. The repetition really helped him and he loved anticipating seeing the bear (he has always enjoyed an element of peril!). I remember being so chuffed that he could recite parts of it and fill in blanks when I paused because it was such a leap in language skills. It’s always a pleasure to see a child enjoying a book but especially so when they have been denied the opportunity sooner. It has been an honour really, to be able to take Little Bear by the hand and gently guide him into the world of literature. It’s been an exciting and lovely expedition for both of us.

This is a book that has spilled into our play too and we have been on many walks and adventures looking for bears and chanting “we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we have to go through it” and getting very muddy.

Books about Lions and Tigers

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The thing about books is that you can get them about anything. ANYTHING. The infinite possibilities are brilliant for a child with a wild imagination (see Fantasy versus Reality) and I love the way you can use a child’s interests to engage them with learning without them really knowing it’s educational. Little Bear is partial to a book with a lion or tiger in it (the element of danger again) and we have built up a bit of a collection. In fact on World Book Day, he will be dressing as a lion and taking The Lion Inside by Rachel Bright as his favourite book.

Never Tickle a Tiger is a relatively new one but it’s a good one as the main character can’t help but fiddle with everything and she really does remind me a lot of Little Bear! He did notice the similarity too.

This collection also shows that Little Bear has progressed with his attention span and can now listen to three of this type of book at bedtime without difficulty. Moreover, he can follow the more complex texts and vocabulary in them which he previously would not have been able to. Books have certainly played their part in his progress.

Books that Rhyme

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I think the go-to rhyming books are usually those by Julia Donaldson. We do like those and several feature in our book collection but they generally have quite a lot of text and it has only been more recently that Little Bear has been able to engage with them. For maximum exposure to rhyme and lots of repetition in a short space of time, I don’t think you can beat the Oi Frog books. They are just a little bit naughty too which appeals to boisterous boys. We have read these a lot and they have definitely resulted in laughing out loud. They have also been great for helping Little Bear learn to rhyme (a fairly recent development) which has helped him with his vowel work and with beginning to spell at school.

The Cat in The Hat has been a surprise contender for favourite book. Big Bear never really engaged with it when he was younger but something about it has really grabbed Little Bear. It is also a long story but for some reason he manages it (if he chooses it, it’s the only time we don’t have three stories because we’d be there all night). I suspect he likes it so much because the cat is so naughty. It is a good book for phonic development though and sometimes Little Bear has read some of it to me, helping to build his confidence that he can read other things, not just his school book.

Books that Have Issues

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These are books that tackle big emotions and might help with adoption-related things. I Will Love You Anyway is a really lovely book that I struggle to read without a lump in my throat. It is about a dog that keeps running away and is difficult to look after. He hears his humans saying that they can’t cope with him and he’ll have to go. He runs away at night and gets lost and scared until the boy comes and finds him. The message is that no matter what the dog does his humans love him anyway and want to keep him. I suppose its art reflecting life and it really does talk to a child’s insecurities. We like this one.

Where the Wild Things Are is quite an out-there, random book. I’m not really sure how much it speaks to me but it does speak to Little Bear. He seems to really understand the analogy of the boy becoming angry and going off somewhere in his head and I think it makes him feel better that he is not the only one it happens to.

There are quite a few other books like this available. All the ones by Sarah Naish and things like The Big Bag of Worries. We just haven’t dabbled much yet and where we have dabbled, these two are clear favourites.

Books that Get Us Talking

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These You Choose books are a recent addition after a teacher friend got Little Bear one for Christmas. They’re absolutely brilliant for language development and I’m going to invest in at least one more for Little Bear’s birthday. On each page there are lots of choices like which job you want to do on the rocket, what you’re going to wear and where you’re going to go. It means that each time you read the book you can make different choices and have a different adventure. They are great for vocabulary development, generating narratives, developing imagination and formulating questions. You could also work on turn-taking, listening and following instructions if you wanted to.

We have been known to use the book to generate verbal sentences which we have then written down for writing practise. I really think they are a fabulous resource and can’t believe I’ve only just found them. They would also be good in a work capacity for building relationships with children you don’t yet know well – it would give you a shared context to begin chatting.

More to the point, Little Bear loves this book and chooses it frequently.

Books for Big Bear

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Big Bear is an independent reader now. He’s a good reader but rarely reads for pleasure. We have tried all sorts of different books to engage him but to my surprise it has been The Goosebumps Horrorland series that have really grabbed him. He discovered them at school and has taken to disappearing to his room to read one which is pleasantly surprising. He also enjoys Michael Morpurgo books and we went through a phase of devouring all things Roald Dahl.

He has always enjoyed non-fiction, leaving picture books behind at quite an early stage and still does to some extent. We got him a subscription to The Week Junior for his birthday which has encouraged him to read more (though it’s a newspaper not a book) and has led to some interesting conversations. Just tonight he was getting hot under the collar about Donald Trump (he has a point).

His football information books have really held his attention too, though he likes me to read them to him. I’m secretly very pleased that my big boy isn’t too old for a bedtime story yet.

 

These are just some of the books we have enjoyed together and some of the benefits we have gained from them. I haven’t even mentioned that reading together is great bonding time – Little Bear likes a good snuggle-in at story time and it has been a way for other family members like grandparents and aunties and uncles to spend some quality time with him. It is also a predictable and familiar part of his routine now, which may well have contributed to his sleep settling down.

I wonder what books are popular in other people’s houses. Do you have any recommendations for us?

Happy World Book Day everyone,

The Bears xx

 

 

 

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Books

Pressure to Know

Right from the start of the adoption process I have been aware of the need to get knowledgeable. I mean, adopting is a massive life-changing decision and you should certainly go into it with your eyes wide open. I think my quest for knowledge started even before the process itself. I sought out adopters with zeal and bombarded them with a gazillion questions. I googled different agencies and scoured their websites. I kept meerkat-alert for anything adoption or fostering related on TV or in magazines.

Once the process-proper began the reading came thick and fast. Our Social Worker would give us relevant articles to read or suggested You Tube clips to watch. Prep groups were fairly intense and threw up several new issues we would need to research, even though the safeguarding side of things was already familiar to me through my work in the NHS. Reading lists were given; book suggestions made.

I think at that point my focus in reading was attachment theory (Vera Fahlberg, Kim Golding) and real accounts of adoption or fostering (Sally Donovan, Casey Watson, Cathy Glass).

I suppose as we came to the end of the process and towards meeting Little Bear I probably thought I was fairly well prepared; that I at least had a good grounding in relevant theory.

Then we met Little Bear and it is quite hard to describe what happened. Knowing the theory we had gleaned so far was helpful and we probably did apply it. Well, I think we did. I don’t really know because that period is a bit of a blur to me. I suspect we used the theory in a subconscious, surviving minute to minute kind of a way. I do remember routinely ‘meeting’ with Grizzly of an evening to dissect the day’s events and to analyse why things had gone wrong, what might be behind Little Bear’s behaviour and what we might be able to do about it.

We were certainly reflecting (wracking our souls) even if we did not turn to literature for solace. I think I may have dipped into the books I already had a couple of times but they didn’t have chapters called “what to do when you don’t love your child straight away” or “when your child says ‘go away stupid’ at 3am and throws things at you” or “ways of staying calm when you are fully losing your shit” so I’m not sure they were doing what I needed them to.

I hadn’t yet discovered adoption Twitter which may well have plugged that gap for me had I have known about it. Discovering it and the world of blogging was something of a watershed moment when it did happen in January 2016 (about 5 months in). It is hard to quantify what I have learned from online adoption resources but I guess one of the crucial things has been an adoption reality check. I am now much more aware of the variation in children’s needs; the variation in support; the whole spectrum of issues faced by adopters as well as the campaigning that goes on to improve things. Prior to that watershed moment I was quite naively unaware of the struggle that many face in attempting to traverse their adoption journey.

My online life has also brought issues to my attention that I likely wouldn’t otherwise encounter or consider such as the fact that some people view adoption as a scandalous and incredibly negative act; that adoptees struggle to have their own voice; that contact with birth relatives is not black and white and cut and dried. That some adopters have exceeded their contact agreements and have met, befriended and even invited members of their child’s birth family into their homes was shockingly revelatory.

Throughout the months and years since, my thirst for knowledge has not been quenched. I continue to scan the landscape meerkat-like for any adoption-related information, stories or articles. There have been further watershed moments along the way. One was reading an article by Beacon House (The Repair of Early Trauma A “Bottom Up” Approach) which caused the penny to finally drop that Little Bear has experienced trauma. Looking back I feel pretty stupid that I didn’t know that before (more of this in a minute). I suppose that my reading about attachment only ever told me part of the story.

Discovering Beacon House altogether was brilliant and I have since read many more of their articles and infographics as well as plundering their online downloadable resources which I like to tell others about too.

Reading that article led me to other books. Controversially I had never read any Dan Hughes (though I had obviously heard of him) and now felt it was time to welcome him and Bruce Perry into my life. Although the principles of therapeutic parenting seemed fairly instinctive to me, I had somehow never actually read about them.

At some point I also attended a Nurtured Heart course and became a fully paid up member of Adoption UK, opening up their magazine to me (another great source of information).

The problem, because there is one, with all of this is that the more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know. Ignorance is pretty blissful. I still have the same desire and the same drive to be knowledgeable but the further into that quest I get, the harder it seems to achieve. The end goal of knowing everything there is to know about adoption seems to move ever further from me as I realise exactly what that entails. It initially seemed like a narrow field that I would absorb quickly but as I wade in a little further, I can see the field widening out and including all these things that I never thought it would.

I can remember being 12 and being quite sure that I knew as much as grown-ups. I was convinced I had this whole knowing about life thing sewn up. I have a sneaking feeling I continued with that level of quiet confidence throughout my teens and twenties (obviously with moments of deep angst thrown in for good measure). As I reach the latter end of my thirties I fear I was incredibly vain in my youth as it is becoming increasingly apparent that there were many things I really didn’t know or understand about life in general.

As I’m getting older, I’m clearly not getting wiser and unfortunately it feels the same way about adoption. The more I find out, the more I realise I didn’t know before. Having the watershed moments I’ve described, and others like them, can actually be pretty painful. You realise you were merrily trotting along being ignorant about certain things and that realisation can be unbearably cringe-inducing. I seem to be a bit prone to self-doubt since entering parenthood and sometimes gaining knowledge only serves to undermine my confidence in the whole thing.

Being a parent and specifically an adopter seems to invite a high degree of self-critique. Are we really doing everything we can to meet our child’s needs? Do we have all the right knowledge and information behind us?

I often look to more experienced adopters and am in awe of their expertise. I know that their savoir-faire has been borne from necessity and often being the only person who is fully-versed in their child’s needs, which is a great sadness, but it has essentially led to them becoming extremely knowledgeable.

I’m lucky in that, so far, I have always had access to professionals who understand attachment, trauma etc. and I have not had to be a lone voice, cramming knowledge in order to fight for my child. I have encountered people who know little but have always had the back-up of people who know lots.

I am also lucky that I work with some of the most knowledgeable and experienced social workers that there are (I’m not exaggerating). This is a double-edged sword that offers me a huge, unparalleled resource but, at times, another reason to doubt the depth of my own knowledge.

Whilst I can’t help doubting myself (it creeps in without my permission), the sensible bit of me tells me I mustn’t allow it to cloud my decisions and approaches. Parenting is much better carried out naturally and without a negative voice over your shoulder. Theory is essential and knowledge is power but I need to remember that whatever I do or don’t know I am walking the walk. This parenting lark is happening. It is not waiting about for me to read another book. I am doing it. I have been doing it for some time.

I know what I know. I probably need to work a bit harder to accept that what I know is not everything there is to know. I may never know that. I need to accept that as I gain in knowledge it will expose gaps in what I knew before. That is inevitable. It is probably an essence of being human and one of those things that I thought I knew about when I was 12 but actually didn’t.

Becoming an adopter has involved a steep learning curve and is most likely going to continue to for a long time yet. I shall endeavour to scale the curve, absorb the knowledge and try not to undermine myself as I go.

 

 

 

 

Pressure to Know

Speech Therapy Works

As a Speech and Language Therapist it shouldn’t really be a revelation to me that speech and language therapy works. Obviously I have always believed in it otherwise I wouldn’t have stayed with it as a career for over 14 years. It’s just that trusting something works because you understand the theory behind it and actually experiencing something on a practical level, within your own home, with your child, is quite different.

Obviously I have experienced success in my professional life, but that has been within the confines of a large caseload and various time and resource pressures. In the latter part of my NHS career, as a more senior clinician, my main role was assessment and report-writing. I rarely did any therapy as we had a structure where skilled assistants carried out care plans under our supervision. It meant I didn’t get to know children as well as I’d have liked and I didn’t get to share in their small steps of progress week by week. I re-assessed and reviewed progress, seeing improved assessment scores but that isn’t the same as cultivating progression yourself.

Now that I’m an independent therapist I’m really enjoying being able to properly get to know the children I work with. I’m completely invested in their therapy and am just as pleased when they move forwards or overcome something as I am when Little Bear does. I do see (and feel) therapy working now.

However, what we have experienced at home has taken my belief in speech and language therapy to a whole other level.

I was recently running a communication workshop (for adopters, prospective adopters & professionals) when somebody asked me a question that made me realise the examples I talk about in it, from Little Bear’s communication profile, paint a bleak picture. The picture is totally accurate and reflective of his communication skills when we first met him, aged 3 and a half. The picture, detailing significant difficulties with attention and listening, comprehension, expressive language and speech sound disorder was bleak. At the time I was fairly overwhelmed by his level of need and the magnitude of the task ahead of us.

Here is a very brief summary of Little Bear’s presentation then:

Little Bear was not tuned into language at all and did not respond to verbal instruction, including his own name. His comprehension was better than it appeared but significantly delayed for his age. Little Bear had a very small vocabulary that didn’t meet his needs. He did not have words for common, everyday objects such as cow, train, television, food items etc. Little Bear couldn’t answer ‘what’s your name’, his only size word was ‘big’, he couldn’t name colours or count and he couldn’t put more than about 3 or 4 words together. The words that Little Bear did have were unintelligible. Little Bear was extremely frustrated and he was often left with no other option but to express himself with his behaviour.

I quickly realised this wasn’t a straightforward language delay and that Little Bear’s needs met the criteria for Developmental Language Disorder

At the time I had no idea what the prognosis would be but I suspected it wasn’t rosy and that speech and language therapy would be a big part of our lives for years to come. It was hard to know where to start and easy to become overwhelmed by priorities. There were times I really questioned my faith in what I was doing and wondered if we’d ever get to where we were hoping to go.

I did not expect, in my wildest dreams, that 2 and a half years later a speech and language therapist would observe Little Bear in his mainstream classroom and say there was no discernible difference in language skills between himself and his peers and deem him ready for discharge. Yes, his attention and listening skills still mark him out and there are some minor speech errors but his comprehension and expressive language skills are now within the expected range for his age.

This near miraculous improvement is due wholly to one thing: speech and language therapy.

Admittedly our circumstances are unusual: most children with DLD do not have a parent who is a speech and language therapist and able to provide targeted intervention on tap 24/7. Little Bear has essentially undergone an intensive 2 and a half year block of therapy. Strategies have been used by the whole family and are an automatic part of the way we talk with Little Bear, not something we use for just a couple of minutes each day. The key strategies have included: using environmental sounds to capture Little Bear’s interest as a way in to listening to language; reducing our language; modelling of vocabulary, sentence structures and sound patterns; repetition; showing, explaining & checking understanding of complex concepts or new words as well as seizing every possible communication opportunity. We have done some direct work on auditory memory, phonological awareness (initial sounds, syllables, rhyme, blending sounds together) and speech sounds.

I suppose at any one time I have always had a current communication aim in mind, whether it has been a specific language concept or speech sound and I have found ways to weave this into play or our usual day to day lives. I have very rarely, if at all, asked Little Bear to sit at a table and ‘do speech therapy’, it has been a much more holistic and inbuilt approach than that.

Little Bear has also been seen by an NHS speech and language therapist throughout the past 10 months or so. She has taken the lead on sorting out Little Bear’s disordered vowels which have been complex to assess and set goals for. Generally she has started us off with a sound or activity and we have carried it on between sessions.

The NHS therapist has also set language goals for school and has provided them with programmes to carry out, which they have done.

All of these strategies, techniques and approaches have worked. Their effectiveness is inarguable. Yes, the sum total of the input Little Bear has had is massive and yes, me being a speech and language therapist does make things different. However, I truly believe that a similar impact could be gained by providing parents with good quality, strategy based communication training alongside regular sessions with a speech and language therapist, who could do the assessing and target setting bits, as well as providing resources and guidance. Similarly, if speech and language techniques can be embedded into teaching and used holistically as part of the curriculum (not here and there for 10 minutes) that too can be highly effective and impactful.

Little Bear is living and breathing proof of the efficacy of speech and language intervention. Prior to treatment when I’m almost certain that no strategies were in place, he made negligible progress. In fact, on entering pre-school shortly after coming home, Little Bear was assessed as having a delay of more than 2 years in all areas of his development, with speech and language and numeracy being the most delayed areas. Within 2.5 years of therapy, that gap has closed (meaning that Little Bear has essentially made 4.5 years’ worth of progress) and his comprehension and expression now measure within age expectations on standardised assessment.

Speech and Language Therapy works.

Whilst his progress has been phenomenal, I should point out that speech therapy is not a panacea. Little Bear still has DLD and I suspect it will impact him to a greater or lesser degree into adulthood but what therapy has done for him is allowed him to reach his communication potential, despite having DLD. Little Bear still finds it difficult to learn new vocabulary and to figure out the sound patterns in new words but we know what to do and the strategies work. The approaches that we have built into our daily lives will continue as Little Bear is still going to need them and it is imperative we continue to strive for that meeting of full potential. As the demands of the curriculum increase, we might find we need to access formal therapy again and that would be okay too.

I feel extremely proud of Little Bear’s progress and find myself constantly marvelling at the things he can say now. Last week he took part in his second school assembly. He learned more than double the words he managed last time and was able to recite them in front of the school without any prompts at all. The naughty streak in me did notice that other children in his class had to read their lines or forgot them completely (I don’t mean that badly, it’s just he has never been able to keep up with them before, let alone outshine anyone and he’s more than earned his moment of glory). Not only that but he sat really well throughout, no teacher attached to his side like previously, and he spoke loudly and clearly. Several people came to me afterwards to comment on how well he had done, the difference being so stark in comparison to previous public appearances.

I am truly grateful to speech and language therapy for not only giving me a career I love but for unlocking my son.

 

 

I think I had better make some changes to my workshop too. Although people need to see the bleak picture, they also need to see the sunshine over the rainbow picture that can be gained by using the strategies and applying them diligently. Little Bear’s prognosis appeared extremely poor so his progress really is a beacon of hope.

 

 

Speech Therapy Works

Our Just-Right Challenge

The term ‘just-right challenge’ was first coined by well-known Occupational Therapist (OT) Jean Ayres. She was referring to finding activities for children that are neither too easy nor too hard. The secret, she said, was pitching a task just above their current level of functioning – so that it was definitely attainable but not so difficult that they would experience frustration and not so easy that they wouldn’t develop any new skills. I think it’s a concept well-known and used within the field of OT.

The just-right challenge is like the sweet spot of learning, when you pitch something just perfectly and you can see your child grasping a concept right before your eyes. The just-right challenge is essential for developing confidence and turning the I’m Stupid feelings on their head. It’s a crucial, yet largely underrated skill in any parent, teacher or therapist.

The idea first came to my attention when I attended a Sensory Integration training course, an approach also derived by Ayres, several years ago. Despite practising it all the time without actively labelling what I’m doing, the term just popped into my head the other day, probably because we have been having some issues with finding the just-right challenge for Little Bear.

Little Bear attends swimming lessons every Saturday and has been doing very well, so well in fact that his teacher said he was ready to move up to the next group. Little Bear seemed pleased with himself and I took him along the following week. I popped back to the pool a few minutes before the end to wait for Little Bear with his towel. When I got there I was shocked to see he was crying. “What’s the matter?” I asked the instructor who was closer to me than he was. “He’s just cold” she said.

Well that didn’t stack up because Little Bear is one of the toughest children I’ve ever met, he’s practically a Marine, he doesn’t cry because he’s cold.

Little Bear’s lesson is now at the deep end of the pool and he, along with the other children, was standing along the furthest edge, preparing to jump in. I noticed that Little Bear was about a foot smaller than the other children who appeared about 8 or 9 years old. Little Bear looked extremely uncertain but did jump in. He swam straight to the edge, got out, came to me and dissolved into a crying wreck. It just wasn’t like him. What on earth was wrong?

After a lot of cuddling and drying Little Bear managed to tell me that it was too deep and he was scared. I said I would speak to his instructor as I could already foresee a problem with next week’s session. I went back into her, wondering if he’d accidentally gone into the wrong group. No, she said, he was absolutely fine, he could keep up with the lesson. He was fine; he’d be fine next week. She said ‘fine’ a lot. I don’t find ‘fine’ particularly reassuring.

The following day Grizzly took both Bears for a fun swim, thinking it would boost Little Bear’s confidence. They had fun, they dived in, and it was all good. It was fine.

When the next swimming lesson rolled around I was careful to keep an upbeat approach. It was working until we got to the front door of the pool building when Little Bear began crying and wouldn’t go in. He didn’t have to do the jumping in bit if he didn’t want to I reassured, I would come back early for him. Anyway, the long and short of it was that when we entered the pool area Little Bear was crying and gripping on to me for dear life. This is not like him: he usually skips in on his own. The new instructor, who I was quickly growing annoyed with, told him to get in, he’d be fine: cue more crying and clinging to me. The instructor continued to teach the other children and made no move to come to Little Bear, reassure him or anything else remotely useful.

Thankfully, Little Bear’s previous instructor, who was teaching a class in the middle section of the pool, noticed what was happening and asked if he would like to re-join her group. “Sometimes the jump to the next group is too much,” she said, “don’t worry about it, he can come with me”. I thought Little Bear would have been relieved (I certainly was) and would have hopped straight back in. He didn’t though, continuing to cry and hold onto to me. He managed to tell me that although he did want to go back to his old tutor he now didn’t know any of the children in her group because the time of his lesson had also changed. Evidently this was unsettling him.

The old instructor listened, took him quickly into the pool, introduced the other children and had him swimming a width before he had time to protest further. She was like a swimming fairy and I couldn’t have been more grateful. The would-be new instructor was unfortunately more like a wet lettuce.

I watched the rest of the session from the side, in the bit where parents are forbidden to be, as I had promised Little Bear I would and he kept checking I was still there. As I stood, I reflected. The thing is that we want our children to do well and we want to be able to celebrate their achievements with them. When children work hard and succeed they are generally rewarded by being able to move up a group or go onto a harder task or level. That is the usual way of things in school and sporting situations. However, what is often not considered (and I failed to consider on this occasion) is that moving up means leaving behind everything familiar to you. In this case it meant leaving the instructor Little Bear knew and was comfortable with. It meant leaving the children he knew and was familiar with. Although he would still be going to the same place, it also meant he would be in a different part of the pool: a deeper, more challenging part. As a transition I had underestimated it.

Yes Little Bear was doing really well at swimming but moving him up a group was not the just-right challenge for him. It was a too-far-out-of-the-comfort-zone challenge.

That is the tricky thing for children who have experienced developmental trauma or who struggle with attachment: finding the just-right challenge for them (obviously it’s very different child to child). You cannot simply base the level of challenge on their skill level. Clearly in terms of Little Bear’s swimming ability, he was capable of being in the harder lesson. However, that didn’t take into account his emotional or attachment needs which, at the moment, mean that taking the leap away from everything familiar leads to him feeling unsafe. He would probably have coped better (it’s all good in retrospect) had the whole group and the tutor moved to the deep end; or had they stayed where they were and just done harder swimming.

I suspect also, that Little Bear has had a bad experience in water in the past as he was terrified of it when he first arrived and clung onto me the first time we went into a pool – arms tight around my neck, feet wedged between my thighs, clutching on limpet-like. It was ironic really as I dislike water and can barely swim but it was undoubtedly good for bonding as I kept him safe, successfully hid my fear and he slowly found his confidence. Grizzly takes the boys swimming a lot now and Little Bear had seemingly fully conquered any fears he used to have. That’s the thing about trauma though, it pops up when you least expect it and perhaps something about standing at that deep end, already out of his comfort zone, staring into the aqua depths triggered something? A memory? A fear?

We couldn’t really have anticipated the possible trigger but with hindsight I think we should have been able to see that moving up a group was a challenge too far. For now, doing very well in the group he is in is the just-right swimming challenge for Little Bear.

When it comes to education, finding the just-right challenge for him has been even trickier. Not only do we have to consider his skills, his attachments and familiarity but we also have to consider his self-esteem and sensory needs (he is pretty confident physically and sports meet his sensory needs well). In addition, as with many children, what Little Bear is capable of on any given day can fluctuate. If he’s particularly anxious or hungry or unwell or excited he is unlikely to manage as much as if he is calm and relaxed. The just-right challenge can vary minute to minute and task to task and requires an adult to really know him to be able to differentiate demands accordingly. My post Jigsaws is a good example of me getting the just-right challenge bob-on and the positive outcome that resulted from it.

Too often we don’t hit the right challenge level, usually making the challenge too hard, resulting in upset, frustration and even aggression. As a rule we have now learned that Little Bear’s just-right challenge tends to be a little below his full ability when all the stars are in alignment. Pushing him too hard causes a panic, even if we know he is able to achieve whatever it is.

In a recent meeting with school, his teacher told us that he is doing well in his Maths group and they are considering moving him up. Whilst it is fabulous that our little dude who couldn’t count for toffee on school entry has overtaken some of his peers and has taken to extending his own learning (why do tens and units when you could do twenties or thirties and units?!), knowing him as we do, the just-right challenge for him is being the best in the group he’s in, not struggling to keep up in the next group. Yes, he would probably be able to do some of the work but he would find it hard and his confidence would suffer. I think he would enter scared-mode. Where he is, he can succeed nearly all of the time which is just-right for now.

 

 

*It’s difficult in a situation like swimming where the teachers don’t know anything about Little Bear or his background so aren’t aware of the need to make reasonable adjustments. I never know whether I should try to tell them or not but, practically, it would be difficult as they are in the pool and I would need to shout!

**Whilst I have spent the whole post pointing out the problems, I shouldn’t omit to point out that Little Bear did fabulously being able to let his emotions out and putting his fears into words and telling them to me. It’s not so long ago that he would have had a meltdown or punched somebody instead. Progress comes in many forms.

 

 

 

 

Our Just-Right Challenge