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

Football: A Yardstick for Progress?

Back in the summer of ’15 (no, I am not re-inventing a song) Little Bear had just arrived. It was both a blessing and a curse that this momentous event had taken place during the summer holidays. It was great because it answered the question of how we were going to possibly manage meeting our youngest son a couple of hundred miles away whilst also managing the needs of our elder school-age child.

However, once we were back, the days stretched out interminably ahead of us. Grizzly and I were both on leave and there was no school or pre-school to give some much-needed structure to our days. There was just us and a very unruly seeming energetic mass of a child who at the very minimum needed to be kept out of immediate danger all the livelong day. With the benefit of hindsight I can say that he was traumatised and emotionally at sea. At the time I don’t think we quite knew what had hit us and I’m pretty sure we had barely a second to think about it.

We discovered, within the first hour of his arrival, that being inside the house with Little Bear was kind of difficult. He could not be contained in one room and wandered, nay prowled about, seemingly looking for the most dangerous or unwanted (by adults) tasks to engage in. He was everywhere: up shelves, in cupboards, under furniture. Little Bear was not in any way tuned into language so didn’t respond to any verbal means of trying to shape his behaviour. We spent the first weeks trailing after him, like a Police dog trailing a criminal, trying to anticipate what he might do next, trying to keep up with him, trying to offer distraction. We had to physically remove him from dangerous situations, which triggered his fight response and we were often bitten, scratched, hit or kicked.

It quickly became apparent that we might fair slightly better outside. Wide open spaces were good because there weren’t many things you couldn’t touch and Little Bear could be freer. Obviously the not responding to language thing was tricky, especially when you wanted him to come back. There was many an occasion when Grizzly had to sprint after him but notwithstanding that, things were easier.

You cannot actually live your life in a field though so we did have to try to make do with our small-ish back garden some of the time.

Left to his own devices, Little Bear would have spent the whole day watering the garden with the hose until a flood came and we would have needed Noah on speed-dial. We did of course allow Little Bear some hose time but it was essential we introduced some parameters if we were ever going to gain a modicum of order. As an aside, on one occasion of supervised hosing, Little Bear accidentally caught the sunlight at just the perfect angle to create a rainbow. It was one of the first times he responded to my communication to “look” and together we shared the same reference point and together marvelled at the amazing rainbow. I remember feeling more happy than you might think about that because I had actually reached him. After that we often tried to make a rainbow collaboratively and he began to see the point of me in an interaction. He also learned the word “rainbow” which was a big deal in his otherwise depleted vocabulary.

While the rainbow moment was a mini-turning point, I still did not want a flooded garden and knew that Little Bear needed help to engage with other outdoor activities too. Big Bear was 6 at this point and had recently got very into football. He was keen to be outdoors and was never far from a ball. Little Bear was also interested in the ball and generally ran straight though the middle of a kick-about with the sole purpose of nicking said ball. This was incredibly annoying from Big Bear’s point of view.

We tried to explain that Little Bear was little and didn’t understand games yet or that there were rules and he was really just trying to play. Big Bear could entertain this type of reasoning and would try to follow Little Bear’s lead. Little Bear would pick up the ball and run off, saying ‘catch me’ and looking for you to chase him. Big Bear or one of us would oblige. As he was shouting ‘catch me, catch me’ that’s what we tried to do. Only, when we did catch him, all hell would break loose. I guess because when the catching actually happened he decided he didn’t want it after all. I suppose being grabbed by people you aren’t sure if you trust yet is pretty frightening.

Little Bear would cry, we would be scratched. We would try some reasoning but Little Bear couldn’t process it. Five minutes later Little Bear would be running off with the ball shouting ‘catch me, catch me’ and the whole merry-go-round would begin again.

It was very difficult to manage or to see how to manage it a different way. All we knew was, it was a very inauspicious start to a footballing career and we probably had not just adopted the future David Beckham.

In the summer of 2016, things had developed a little. Big Bear was now getting good at football and wanted to practice properly. Little Bear had fallen totally in love with his brother and wanted to do whatever he was doing. If Big Bear was playing football, Little Bear was close by. Unfortunately he still had a penchant for ball-snatching and though Big Bear is extremely patient with him, it really did push his patience to breaking point. Most football games ended in one or the other or both in tears or storming off.

By this point Big Bear was pretty knowledgeable about the rules of the beautiful game and both he and Grizzly did their utmost to teach the basics to Little Bear. There were a few problems. One was that Little Bear could be (and still can be at times) rather oppositional so rules were like a red rag to a bull. If you told him he wasn’t allowed to pick up the ball, his first urge was to pick up the ball. Another problem is that Little Bear had very poor resilience then and the smallest knock or comment or his own perception that he had done something bad would be enough to cause him to purposefully kick the ball out of play or boot it at someone or call someone a name or hit them. Football continued to be a source of stress, distress and very little enjoyment for anyone involved.

Thankfully for Big Bear, he played football at an after-school club and he joined a club outside of school so he could get his fix somewhere. Interestingly, he had had a rough time because he didn’t like football when he was younger and it had really impacted on his ability to be accepted by the other boys. We had been reluctant about allowing him to join a club as it can be so competitive and the last thing we wanted was for his confidence to take a further knock, for example by being kept on the bench if he wasn’t perceived to be good enough.

Grizzly researched all the options and found a club with an inclusive ethos where all children get an equal go, irrespective of how good they are. Despite our reservations, it was a fantastic experience for Big Bear and did wonders for his confidence, both inside and outside of school. He continues to play for them now and apart from a recent appearance of nerves (a whole other tale, there is always something!) he loves it.

By the summer of 2017 a glimmer of football-related hope began to appear. Little Bear was beginning to tolerate the rules. He accepted they were there but was often in conflict with himself over sticking to them. He was still easily upset and something like the other team scoring a goal could be enough to cause a bit of a situation. However, the situation was generally less dramatic than before and mostly involved him stropping off to a corner of the garden for five minutes.

Alongside this, Little Bear’s language skills had now developed unrecognisably. We could start to talk about how he was feeling and what might be causing his behaviour. We could say things like “I think you are feeling a bit frustrated because the other team scored. That’s ok. Sit there for five minutes then join in again when you’re ready”. We generally didn’t make too much of a fuss and often if we ignored the outburst he would just join in again a few seconds later by himself. We always praised the good decision he had made to come back. We also tried some other techniques like bringing a squidgy stress toy outside with us and Little Bear would go and squeeze that if he was getting annoyed, rather than shouting at somebody or running off with the ball.

Football still had its moments but as the summer wore on I realised that the boys were starting to have a kick-about on their own after tea, while I did the washing up (handily positioned in front of the back window where I could keep a watchful eye). More often than not, the game would go without hitch and I would silently count my blessings when they came back in. They even started to set each other up for specific bits of play e.g. Little Bear would throw the ball so Big Bear could volley it in. Maybe football could be fun in the Bear household after all?

Not long after term started again, Little Bear began asking to join the after school football club that Big Bear attended. I had a lot of concerns. He is extremely tired after school, making listening harder than usual. We were having a very rough phase in the classroom and Little Bear was frequently in trouble for being disruptive. The guy who runs the football is lovely but not especially firm and I’d always rather suspected the children ran amok. Little Bear is not a child who should be allowed to run amok. It is not wise. It could be extremely detrimental.

Little Bear clearly wanted to go though and I had to listen. I decided this was a rare time that a sticker chart might work. I was clear with Little Bear that I couldn’t let him go to the club if he wasn’t going to listen to what he was told because that could be dangerous. The rules would be there to keep him and his friends safe. He gained stickers by doing what he was asked in school, at home and if he was with others like his grandparents. If he didn’t manage to do as he was asked, nothing happened. If he did manage to, a big fuss was made about his ability to make good decisions and he got a sticker.

By October half term the chart was full and I kept to my word and signed him up. I did speak with the football coach about Little Bear’s needs; that rules need to be clear and consistent for him and that he needs to know that the coach and I will talk and if things are not going well, the coach will tell me.

I knew I had to let him try but I was worried.

Last week, out of the blue, I received this message:

Just a quick one, I know you were unsure about signing Little Bear up for football but he has been amazing! I love coaching him, football or PE, just wanted to drop you a message to let you know. And then Big Bear is something else, great kid that doesn’t get the credit he deserves, he’s fantastic.

And my heart melted.

How lovely of the coach to take the time to send me that? I wonder if he really knows how much that means?

I couldn’t possibly have predicted, back in 2005, mid back garden flood, that my little dude would be able to overcome so many hurdles that he would be able to not just cope but flourish in a football club only 2 years later. He’s a phenomenon.

Maybe we did adopt the future David Beckham after all?!

 

And as for Big Bear, he is an extremely patient and lovely big brother and I hope that I at least give him the credit he deserves.

Football: A Yardstick for Progress?

Two Years of Adoption Blogging

This week marks the 2 year anniversary of my first tentative foray into the world of blogging. It’s hard to believe that I have written a post each and every week since then, totalling 107 posts. I think that fact probably indicates a few things. Firstly, that I have far too much to say for myself!

Secondly that when you are an adoption blogger there is an awful lot you can say. It gives some indication of the complexity and breadth of the subject matter. Whether you are writing about a particular parenting challenge, an attachment issue, an education issue, your child’s emotional wellbeing, your own wellbeing, sibling dynamics or wider family complexities, there are many perspectives or angles to consider. That is before you think about your child’s birth family, contact, the foster carers and the voice of all involved, not just the voice of you the adopter. Of course I’m also a speech and language therapist and like to talk about all things communication-related too. There really is a lot to say.

I’m finding that as the Bears grow and change so too do the worries, challenges and funny bits, further adding to the possible blog-fodder. Every so often my mind goes blank and I start to panic that I might not have anything to write about that week but without fail something always crops up.

I suppose I am a bit of a routine blogger. I know lots of others who just write as and when they fancy but I committed to writing weekly back at the beginning, in order to get me started, and I don’t appear able to stop. It is never onerous and I never bemoan my commitment to it. I have basically fallen in love with writing and very much need it to be a part of my life now (see My 1 Year Blogversary for more on how writing has helped me).

I don’t write to get read (I suspect I’d need to write anyway) but I’d be lying if I pretended it doesn’t matter whether people read or not. Of course it matters. I’m always touched when somebody comments or shares a post or I see that more than one person has viewed my blog! I’m particularly fascinated by the map that WordPress provides of which countries my blog has been viewed from – I can’t help wondering who the people are and what their story is.

I’m extremely grateful to everybody who reads or has read and especially to those who have borne with me and have read every single one of my 107 ramblings.

Sometimes people will comment that a post has resonated with them or helped them or made them feel less alone. I especially appreciate those comments because writing from your own perspective all the time can make you feel quite self-obsessed. I think it’s brilliant if my blog can help others but I have been unsure about how to do that as I have never wanted to be an advice-giver. I’m qualified to give communication advice but that’s all. I’m not professing to be an expert when I write, I’m writing as a person who is experiencing adoption and parenthood. If others can benefit vicariously through our lived experiences though, that’s perfect. I know I am often helped when I read about others facing something we are facing. Even if it doesn’t give me any ideas for practical strategies, it helps me just to know we are not alone in it.

I think I’ve been more mindful of this over the past year and have tried not to hold back in my writing. I’ve tried to be braver about sharing things that perhaps I previously wouldn’t or that others aren’t generally writing about e.g. Continence Issues  PMS and AdoptionA ConfessionA bad bedtime , Parenting in Public ,  The Other Parents .

I think it’s important for all of us that real, honest, no-holds-barred accounts of adoption exist. I am grateful that my honesty has been accepted and that the response is almost always positive. Thankfully I don’t seem to move in Twitter circles where people think it’s ok to be rude and offensive (my readers have been very polite and if they have thought I was talking nonsense have kept that to themselves. Thanks!)

I have noticed that people especially love to read frank accounts of the challenges faced in adoption and when other professionals are getting it wrong for our children. My post A bit of a rant is my most viewed post ever. It is also my most negative, angry and critical post.

Though our adoption hasn’t been without its challenges, it has also brought many positives, benefits and enhancements to our lives. Quite often I want to write about them too e.g. I love my Bears  Credit Where Credit Is Due , The Little Things . Occasionally I will doubt the wisdom of it, knowing that people prefer something grittier. However, I have been careful not to censor myself in this way as my integrity as a blogger is really important to me and I need to write my truth, not the story I think people want to hear.

I hope that the overall result is a balanced one, detailing our ups, downs and everything in between – neither shying away from controversy nor courting it either.

This year I have also become more aware of whose story this is and what the wider impact of me blogging could be, particularly for my children. I am careful not to inadvertently tell Little Bear’s story for him as it isn’t mine to tell. However I do spend a lot of time thinking about his behaviour and what it might mean and how he might be feeling and all those whys and wherefores so inevitably I do share aspects of his story. I hope when he grows up he can see this for what it is: me thinking aloud about trying my best to meet his needs; and not as a misappropriation of his narrative. I certainly think that anonymous blogging is essential for us and does future-proof things somewhat. However, it is possible that as the boys grow and become more aware of what I’m doing that it might start to feel like an invasion of their privacy. I guess time will tell but it is a little niggle at the back of my mind.

I do try, where I can, to include the voice of others, not just my voice as adoptive parent. This year the boys have been involved with The Bears Talk Adoption and I hope as time goes on that they can have further involvement.

Whilst it still feels ok to do what I’m doing I shall continue writing, posting and trying to persuade the publishing world that they really do want to turn my blog into a book…

A massive thank you to everyone who reads my blog and has commented, shared or voted for it in the Full Time Tired Weekly Round-up (#FTTWR). You are all good eggs.

 

If there is a topic you would like to read about or you would like to write a guest post please get in touch by commenting below or tweeting me @adoptionblogfox

 

Two Years of Adoption Blogging

I’m Stupid

The following comment was written in Little Bear’s take home book recently: “Little Bear keeps saying he is stupid when we’re doing English. Obviously we tell him he’s not but he’s very insistent”.

Firstly, I could hear the discomfort in Mrs C’s voice, the TA, as I read it to myself. Hearing a child say they are stupid is a very unpleasant thing to hear. Generally, as grown-ups, we’d rather they didn’t say that, about themselves or anybody else. I can hear the unwritten plea: how can I make him stop?

Well, as we have discussed on several occasions in school meetings, telling him he isn’t stupid isn’t going to work, for the simple fact that he believes he is. Let me turn to all round adoption guru, Dan Hughes, to explain this:

“When your child verbalises his shame, it is important not to reassure or argue with him – this would only make him think that you do not really know him or that you are lying to him. A more helpful response will be to express empathy and then curiosity about his sense of shame”.

I have interpreted this as needing to say, “It must be really hard to feel stupid. I wonder if it is because you are finding x, y or z a bit tricky?” I usually go on to say that I know he can do whatever it is that is being asked and that I will help him. I then put whatever measures are necessary in place to ensure that he succeeds at the task. I might make the task a bit easier or shorter, do part of it for him or just give general encouragement to have a go. I think it’s essential that he completes the task though in order to get a sense of satisfaction at the end. What better way to prove to yourself that you CAN do something, than actually doing it? (See Jigsaws for more detail on how this can work).

I have definitely explained this process to Mrs C before but I think that sometimes she doesn’t believe what I say/ doesn’t believe I know anything and, aside from my own personal insecurities that I can easily distract myself with, perhaps this is just a difficult way of working for some people. It certainly isn’t something that I would naturally have done: I have only been doing it on Dan’s advice. After trying it a few times I was fully bought in. When I get the wondering right, Little Bear often crumbles, seemingly with relief that somebody actually gets it. I don’t always get the wondering right, his little mind being as complex as it is, but on some level I think he appreciates the trying. It is certainly better than a flat “no, you’re not stupid” which, when you think about it, is more about the adult’s need to stop hearing it, rather than being of any therapeutic benefit to the child.

Funnily enough, I had a chat recently with another adopter (not in a work capacity), who said their son also frequently says he is stupid too. Their way of dealing with this uncomfortable comment has been to ban the words ‘bad’ and ‘stupid’ in their home. I know I shouldn’t judge someone else’s parenting but by banning those words from a child’s lexicon, you are effectively banning their ability to talk to you about their inner state of mind. How are they supposed to work through their shame if they are not permitted to discuss it? I suspect that just adds shame about having shame to the big pot of unwanted, hard to deal with feelings.

Obviously I don’t want my gorgeous, clever, funny Little Bear to feel stupid. Of course I don’t. But if that is how he feels, I really do need him to be able to tell me. How can I help him otherwise?

Sometimes, to help with challenging those self-beliefs, I have gone to some strange lengths.

As I’m convinced that a child needs to experience success in order to change their feelings and beliefs about themselves, the biggest challenge is often getting them to have a go at whatever the activity is in the first place. It turns out that donning an American-esque cheerleading/ army PT instructor type of vibe is pretty useful in these situations. Grizzly is very much a natural at this and I have witnessed him many a time getting a child to do something they aren’t too confident about by shouting ‘push it, push it’ or ‘come on smash it’ in his naturally loud voice. It isn’t a shouting at them kind of way, it’s more of a pumping everyone up before a match kind of way; an exuberant boosting of their self-esteem and public show of your belief in their ability to do it.

Whilst I do not have a loud voice or such an exuberant manner, I am not against stealing good ideas.

Over the last few weeks Little Bear has been avidly watching a programme on Netflix called Beast Master. It is like Ninja Warrior, only harder. As Little Bear tends to, he now thinks he is the Beast Master (see Fantasy versus Reality). At bedtime the other day, he was telling me all about his Beast Master abilities. How good he is at flips, how long he can hang for etc. We then got onto the reading part of his bedtime routine and his demeanour drastically changed. “I’m no good at reading”, he said, “I’m stupid at it”. My inner cheerleader kicked in. “Well, I’m shocked at you Beast Master. I didn’t think you would be all miserable about reading a book. I thought you would smash it like the Beast Master course”. He looked at me and I could see him wondering if that was really true, if he really could smash it. Leaving no time for doubt, I continued a la Grizzly, “come on Beast Master, smash it”.

And he smashed it. He read with more drive and determination than I have seen for a several weeks. He knew he’d smashed it too. We high-fived (am I actually turning American?!) and made a big deal out of how well he had done. It’s just one instance of succeeding at reading but I really believe that all the small instances add up and one day, he’ll really believe he can do it, because he can. The Beast Master won’t work every time, I’ll have to stay on my toes and come up with new ways of motivating and encouraging him but it’s worth it, because every success, no matter how small, is a step in the right direction. A step in the direction of leaving the “I’m stupid” feelings behind.

In order to really maximise the opportunity offered to us by Beast Master I needed to share it with school in the hope they too might be mad enough to give it a go. I did feel like a bit of a wally explaining it in the take home book and wondered what on earth they would make of our alternative methods. Thankfully, Little Bear’s teacher fully understands the need to use a child’s interests to motivate their work and bless her she totally did the Beast Master thing. Apparently, the Beast Master was in attendance at school, he smashed his reading and he completed lots of other work that hadn’t been done over previous days. He had an extremely successful day: more success, more steps forwards.

I also shared that little snippet of life with my Bears with school in order to try to change the narrative away from “no, you’re not stupid”, to something more constructive. I know Little Bear’s teacher gets it and I’m so grateful for her open attitude towards teaching him. I don’t know whether Mrs C gets it. I suspect she thinks I’m bonkers.

We still have plenty of work to do on Little Bear’s self-construct, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and every piece of genuine praise, every experience of success, every time he exceeds his own expectations of himself, takes us one step closer to the robust self-esteem we are aiming for. And if that involves us chanting “smash it, smash it” occasionally then so be it.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m Stupid