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.

 

 

 

 

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Our Just-Right Challenge

Seeing the Educational Psychologist

I recently requested a progress meeting with school to discuss how Little Bear is getting on. I feel lucky that so far the staff have been very approachable and accommodating. We had the meeting and as usual were able to identify progress and also areas that we want to work on. During the meeting Little Bear’s teacher wanted to ask me something: would I consent to him being seen by an Educational Psychologist (EP)?

She explained that the EP had made routine contact with school to check whether they needed to consult regarding any pupils this term. The SENCO had thought of Little Bear. What did I think?

I had a couple of initial thoughts, most of which I kept to myself. Firstly, eek! Out of the whole school of almost 200 pupils Little Bear was the first child that they thought of. In fact, I have since found out that he was the only child. What did that say about the severity of his needs? Those old feelings around whether I really do accept his needs, just as they are, were getting a little airing.

My main thought though was one of cautious gratitude. I couldn’t see any negatives of involving another agency and if anything it could lead to positives such as more tailored input or dare I even think it, funding. My previous experiences of working alongside an EP Service elsewhere were of an extremely stretched and in demand service. Children frequently waited long periods to be seen and schools had to juggle and prioritise the most needy to maximise their allocation of time. Once a school’s EP allowance ran out, children just had to wait, irrespective of their level of need. Given that experience I felt lucky that in his second term at school, Little Bear was already getting an opportunity to be seen, without me even having to ask for it: no battle needed.

I consented straight away then instantly became anxious that the appointment might happen without any of my involvement (not that I’m a control freak!). When I worked as a Speech and Language Therapist (SaLT) in an NHS Department I worked closely with the EP’s. I knew them and they knew me. We had a mutual respect for one another’s work and often spoke regarding specific children. Occasionally we would have some healthy professional debate (AKA a polite argument), usually when I was putting my neck on the line about a child needing a specific provision that nobody wanted to pay for. However, most of the time we worked in partnership to make things happen for children.

It was feeling very strange to be on the other side of this equation. Would I be respected and listened to in my role as parent? Would I be involved at all?

Increasingly I have also found myself taking the role of Little Bear’s SaLT – out of necessity to fill the gaping void left by our local NHS Service. I wondered whether my opinions with my SaLT hat on would be considered or valued when the EP came either.

When I asked Little Bear’s teacher whether we might be able to meet with the EP or be part of the consultation when the time came, she replied with a brisk “I wouldn’t have thought so”, confirming my fear that they thought I didn’t have anything to contribute as a parent or as a professional. Feeling a little disheartened and somewhat undervalued I felt as though I would just have to go with it. I can see how easily you can become disempowered as a parent, particularly one of a child with additional needs.

However, something changed somewhere and a week or so later I got an e-mail inviting me to attend the meeting with the EP. Greatly relieved I then began to wonder what the EP might be like. Although not meaning to stereotype I assumed it would be a middle-aged no-nonsense lady.

This week Grizzly and I have attended the meeting. It turns out that the EP was actually a young man and he was lovely. He was very good at listening to us and tweaking his advice accordingly. He wasn’t in any way judgemental and we did feel like valued members of the meeting. I think that is so important.

We had been told that the EP would have seen Little Bear prior to the meeting and would be feeding back to us. However, in reality it was a consultation meeting and the EP had never met Little Bear. Apparently we would create strategies during the meeting and then reconvene to review them before deciding whether Little Bear would require further assessment or not. I think school might have felt a bit fobbed off by this.

In the meeting, Little Bear’s teacher talked about his educational levels, his behaviour in the classroom (generally a little less challenging than at home) and his attitude to learning. I had expected much of the focus to be on his communication difficulties and ways to manage that within his learning. However, we talked a lot more about his social communication, his ability to identify and regulate his own emotions and ways to develop his skills in these areas. The EP seemed versed in early trauma and attachment and was interested in our perspectives. He was clear on the links between Little Bear’s early life experiences and his approach to learning now. We talked about how he can be oppositional and how the very fact of you wanting him to do something makes him not want to do it. We talked about him not showing his full ability and sometimes making purposeful errors. We talked about Little Bear easily entering fight or flight mode and how that can lead to him lashing out.

Whilst acknowledging and problem-solving these things with us the EP was not alarmist. At the moment the challenges do not seem to be things that we cannot overcome. The strategies seem practical and hopefully fun for Little Bear – including an adapted version of Lego Therapy to help build his resilience and ability to play with his peers with less adult support. We had to adapt it because Little Bear doesn’t always have the resilience for Lego so school have agreed to try it with Duplo instead.

A lot of the strategies were around Emotional Literacy – giving Little Bear a wider emotional vocabulary; helping him to identify his own feelings; giving him strategies to use when regulating himself is difficult. School are going to identify a safe space for him to retreat to when he needs it and will support him in using it appropriately.

We both came away from the meeting feeling pleased.

Another bonus for me was some of the comments the EP made. He said he felt we had “already done a lot of psychological unpicking” and that we understand Little Bear’s needs well. At the end he commented that he had enjoyed listening to our story and was pleased to hear so many positives in our descriptions of Little Bear.

It is very easy to forget how hard we work (I mean all adopters) and how much time and effort we put into trying to understand our children and what makes them tick. It is easy to forget that we are experts in them. If I went on Mastermind and my specialist subject was Little Bear, the only other person in the world who could beat me would be Grizzly. Nobody knows him like we do. It is hugely beneficial and confidence-boosting for that to be acknowledged by a Professional person working with your child.

I also found it surprisingly emotional to tell our story (the EP knew nothing more than Little Bear’s name so we had to fill him in on his background and progress to date) and to hear Grizzly sharing parts of our story. In the day to day craziness of our lives, it’s so easy to forget the highs and lows of the rollercoaster ride we’ve been on. At one point we spoke about how Little Bear used to bang his head and I had honestly forgotten that he used to do that. I felt proud of us as a couple for having tackled so many things in such a joined up way. As a parent it is easy to fall into a mode of constant self-deprecation but occasionally you have to allow yourself some credit. Perhaps we are doing an okay job after all.

At the end of the meeting we booked in a review date. The EP said he felt he knew Little Bear quite well now and didn’t feel the need to actually see him. Grizzly said he felt an observation would be useful and so did Little Bear’s teacher. She commented that in all her years of teaching, she had never taught a child quite like Little Bear! And I don’t think she meant because of his background as she has 4 other adopted children in her current class, irrespective of any who have gone before. I do know what she means; he is a complicated little chap.

So observation is going to happen and the EP is going to attempt some 1:1 assessment. Oh how we laughed when he said he would allow 1 hour for that! Little Bear finds 5 minutes of an adult-directed table top activity challenging. I would love to be a fly on the wall. I guess we are going to find out what the poor EP is really made of..

 

 

 

 

 

Seeing the Educational Psychologist

A Mini Crisis

Well this isn’t quite the blog post I had planned to write this week and it’s also a few days late. As usual life at Bear HQ has not been straightforward but we are all okay now.

On Friday evening Grizzly was meant to be going skiing with work, Big Bear had a play date and Little Bear and I were having a quiet night in. I picked him up from school and nipped into our neighbour’s house to pick up their post. I was just fumbling with our door key when my mobile rang. It was a lady from my Mum-in-Law’s work telling me that she had collapsed and they had called the emergency services. This wasn’t something that had happened before and though my mind was racing I tried to remain calm. I did speak to her on the phone so I knew she was relatively okay but uncharacteristically when I offered to go to her, she did want me to. Obviously I said I would be right there.

What to do with Little Bear I wondered? I briefly considered taking him with me but I had no idea how this was going to pan out and the thought of him in an ambulance or a hospital definitely didn’t conjure up a positive image. I would undoubtedly be more focused on him than Gary (that’s what she is now known as: it’s meant to be Granny but Little Bear couldn’t say it, saying Gary instead and it’s kind of stuck!).

My parents I thought, they always help in a crisis and I could drive past their house on the way to Gary’s work. Shit. No, I couldn’t. They had gone for a day out and it would take too long to wait for them to come back.

Now I was panicking a little bit. Who else did I feel comfortable leaving him with??

I thought about our neighbour across the road. I have looked after her children before and the Bears have played at her house quite a few times. Yes, I would feel ok to leave him there. I rang her but she wasn’t home. Bloody Nora. She did answer her phone though and told me she was at another child from Little Bear’s class’ house, why didn’t I bring him there? Ordinarily, taking your adopted child to a relative stranger’s house and kind of dumping him there is not really a good idea. However, I was pretty much out of options and I really did need to go to Gary. I know the child’s mum a little bit and she seems very nice and my neighbour would be there too so I made a snap decision to do it. I knew my parents would be able to get there soon and that they would then take over.

In my haste I did make sure I took the time to get down to Little Bear’s level and to explain the rather complex plan to him. He surprised me by seeming to fully understand what was happening and by taking it completely in his stride. He was just excited that he was going to play with his friends and didn’t bat an eyelid when I dropped him off.

I got to Gary just in time to see her being wheeled on a stretcher to the waiting ambulance. I don’t think anybody was too sure what was wrong but she certainly couldn’t have got up from the stretcher so a trip to A and E was needed. Somewhere amidst the chaos I managed to alert Grizzly that maybe skiing wasn’t going to happen tonight. Later we realised that Gary should have been going to Grizzly’s Gran’s house that evening and that we had better let her know she wouldn’t be coming, yet somehow without alerting her about the hospital situation as she would be extremely worried. Grizzly’s Gran has not been too well herself and is pretty frail at the moment. Grizzly rang her and discovered that she too was unwell and in pain and needed someone to come. We ended up with my parents looking after the Bears, me with Gary in A and E and Grizzly with his Gran. You couldn’t have made it up.

Once again I was extremely thankful that we are all near to each other and that these situations can be managed with minimal stress.

Thankfully Gary’s condition improved and all the tests came back negative so they let her go in the evening. We decided she should come to our house so we went past hers on the way to get her a couple of things she needed. I think she was getting a little ahead of herself with her recovery and we ended up sitting on the bottom step with the door open for cold air, trying not to repeat the events of the afternoon.

Eventually we were all home and Gary was safely tucked up in bed.

Little Bear woke me crying at 6am. He wasn’t bothered that I was there, he wanted my Mum. He went on to have a difficult day and the worst bedtime we have had in months. There was a lot of hitting, kicking and screaming. Today has been calmer but with moments of aggression and defiance.

I don’t really know whether his behaviour is connected with the other events of the weekend or not. Big Bear isn’t well and Grizzly doesn’t feel brilliant either. It is possible Little Bear is also under the weather. It is also possible that abandoning your adopted child (as necessary as it was) at a near stranger’s house is still not a good idea, no matter how calm he seemed about it at the time.

We have had several chats today about the fact that Little Bear is never going to live anywhere else and will be here FOREVER. He keeps wondering if we might swap him with a different boy we know. We have tried to explain that we love him and as nice as this other boy is, we don’t love him at all, we just like him. It’s hard to know how much he absorbs of this and what his real worry is.

Gary is still not feeling well and is still staying. Little Bear has been pretty understanding about that and has given her lots of cuddles. He has not been rude to her as he can be sometimes which is a relief. Big Bear has spent hours snuggled up on the sofa with her.

In some ways it has been good for both boys as we haven’t been anywhere all weekend and we have had some quality time together; some time just snuggling and lounging and some time playing Lego and doing craft. I think they are at the exhausted-as-it’s-nearly-half-term-stage and we will probably be dragging ourselves through the next week, hopefully without too much regression from the little dude… A girl can hope anyway.

As for Gary, she is seeming lots better but we had another near-relapse earlier on so I don’t think we’ve quite got to the bottom of things yet.

 

 

A Mini Crisis

Reflections on Adoption One Year In

Last week marked the anniversary of us meeting Little Bear for the first time. Today is the anniversary of him moving in to live with us forever. I’m not quite sure which anniversary we are meant to celebrate but I like remembering both of them (and the anniversary of first seeing his profile). It’s greedy I know but it’s nice to look back and see how far we’ve come.

So what are my thoughts one year in? Has it been how I imagined it would be? Is there anything I would change with the benefit of hindsight?

Although I never thought adoption would be easy and I was fully aware of the potential challenges, I’m not sure I expected it to be so unrelenting and such a test of endurance.

I expected that bonding would take time. I do feel that I have a good bond with Little Bear but at the same time I’m aware it can be brittle. He needs A LOT of 1:1 time. If I have a busy couple of days or have to be at work I can start to feel the fractures forming. Even though I see him every day and we eat breakfast together and have cuddles and I’m home for bedtime, it is not enough. You can’t back off for a few days and still expect to be where you were before, as you could with a child with a different background. Adopted children tend to need a high level of you all the time. Without you there are usually wobbles.

These wobbly moments tend to lead to a deterioration in behaviour. I guess it’s the whole you aren’t giving me enough attention so I’ll behave in such a way that you have to notice me thing. At these points adoption can feel emotionally counterintuitive: I know intellectually that he needs more of me but emotionally it can be the last thing I feel like doing. This challenging little person who is so adept at pushing your buttons and who is behaving in a defiant, negative and sometimes aggressive manner needs you to get close and stay close to them. They also need you to seem as though you genuinely want to, which, to be brutally honest, given their behaviour, can require a lot of getting over yourself and some Oscar-worthy acting.

These sorts of days are hard.

The first few months of adoption consisted mainly of these days, along with some even worse nights. As time has gone on thankfully the numbers of days like this have significantly reduced and they now tend to be outnumbered by good days.

I have been surprised by how quickly family life with Little Bear started to feel “normal”. It definitely didn’t initially and it was like having a stranger under our roof for a while. I wasn’t keen on him getting into our bed to start with as it seemed quite odd and a bit of an invasion and I tended to dread what the morning might bring. Social Workers warned that it can take years to achieve the “normal” feeling. However, in reality, it only took a few months for us. Suddenly I was happy to see his cheeky little face first thing in the morning and only too happy to scoop him into our warm bed for a sleepy cuddle. Well, sleepy for me anyway, he’s usually wide awake and not keen to stay still for long.

Despite now knowing Little Bear well, having a fairly good understanding of his behaviour and having read widely on attachment theory, I can still struggle not to lose my temper. Remaining calm in the face of barefaced defiance is a work in progress for me. I fully understand why I need to and that there are other far more effective strategies in my tool box. However, I am also human and anybody who spends any prolonged time with Little Bear will also attest that staying calm is easier said than done.

Adoption is not for the fainthearted.

I hope that when I look back in another year’s time I will have further honed my calm (no matter what) skills.

Although adoption clearly has its challenges, it is no myth that it is also extremely rewarding. I have talked about Little Bear’s difficulties and the progress he has made in Living with Speech and Language Difficulties, Developmental Delay and Mischief. When I reflect on the past year it is impossible for me not to marvel at how much Little Bear has achieved. It is such an honour to be able to support his development and witness his progress. Little Bear is quite the little sponge when it comes to new information and I take a lot of pleasure in providing it for him and helping him to understand it. Being able to take part in a child’s developmental metamorphosis is one of the many huge positives of adoption.

Another massive positive for us has been seeing the bond between Big Bear and Little Bear develop and go from strength to strength. It is no secret that their relationship had a very turbulent beginning (you can read about it in Getting brother or sister) and we often searched our souls about whether the risk we were taking was too big. However, their closeness now has surpassed our expectations. I wouldn’t have dared to wish that they could be as affectionate or respectful or proud of each other as they are.

Big Bear still pretends to himself that he doesn’t like having a brother and that adoption is a negative thing but it is plain for all to see that really he has fallen for Little Bear hook, line and sinker.

I’m not sure there is anything that makes me happier than seeing them cuddle each other (which they do a lot). Biologically they are unrelated but they are truly brothers.

Talking of family ties, something I have been reflecting on recently is the role of grandparents in adoption. Both my parents and Grizzly’s Mum live close by and I would consider us to be a close family. All 3 grandparents have always been very involved with Big Bear and have provided child care for us when I have been at work. When we decided to adopt they were very positive and supportive of our decision. If they had any reservations they kept them to themselves. They were excited about having a second grandchild. They were keen to understand what an adopted child might need and read everything we sent their way. They are all around model grandparents and we know we are very lucky.

It can be difficult therefore to witness Little Bear being less than civil towards them. He is not always rude: sometimes he is loving and pleased to see them. At other times he makes it quite clear he would rather they weren’t there. Grizzly’s Mum recently came on holiday with us (something which Big Bear has always loved) and Little Bear was pretty persistent in making her feel unwelcome. I guess he didn’t want our attention to be diluted. He was also somewhat reluctant to accept her authority and do anything she asked him.

He definitely tests the boundaries more with the grandparents. I guess it is because he is not yet completely secure in those relationships and strong bonds will take longer to form because although he sees them often, he does not spend all day every day with them as he does with us. Perversely there is a positive in it: it shows he is able to form different levels of attachment with different people, rather than attaching willy-nilly to anyone he meets, which is healthy.

I have seen adoptive parenting described as “extraordinary parenting”:- requiring something more than typically expected when having a child. I don’t think I had been fully cognisant until recently of the implication that extraordinary grand-parenting would also be required. Typical grand-parenting involves all the best bits of having children around – having fun, sleep overs, treats and of course being able to give the children back at the end of the day. Extraordinary adoptive grand-parenting means sometimes having to deal with the sharp end of anxious behaviour as well as verbal and physical aggression. For our grandparents it has meant having to employ a lot more discipline and behaviour management techniques than they could have imagined. It means that sometimes (despite not wanting to feel this way) I suspect they can’t wait to give the little darlings back and lie down somewhere in a darkened room.

They cope admirably but I think adoption asks a lot of grandparents.

I think adoption probably asks quite a lot of your entire support network. We have been very lucky because everyone has taken our decision in their stride and I have been touched by how quickly our friends and their children have accepted Little Bear, just the way he is. It is particularly lovely to see the children at Big Bear’s school interacting with him. They all know who he is (I reckon Big Bear talks about him all the time) and they consider him to be one of them. I think the warmth and acceptance they have shown him has helped him to settle in quickly.

I have no idea whether we have influenced people’s reactions or if it is just because we know lots of thoughtful people. We are very open about the adoption though and I don’t mind people asking questions at all. We haven’t shared the full details of Little Bear’s history with anybody (including our parents) but I’m not bothered if anyone asks. I think it’s natural that there is a curiosity about adoption because it is not something that everybody does. I think it can be hard for people to know what they should/ shouldn’t say. I consider questions to be a good opportunity to help them become more informed about adoption and I’m quite happy to explain that we purposefully withhold some information.

I remain very much pro-adoption. I’m not somebody who tries to get everyone they meet to adopt though as I really don’t think it is for everybody. However, if someone is interested I enjoy being involved in supporting them and hope that I can do more of that over the next year.

I think that adoption is hard but so is anything that is worth doing.

If I could turn back time would I do it all again? Absolutely, without any doubt. I love my Little Bear.

I’m very proud of how we have all survived the first year: things could have turned out so differently. I wonder what year 2 will bring…

 

Reflections on Adoption One Year In

End of Term

The last couple of weeks at school have been an emotional rollercoaster of transition visits, reports, final assemblies and goodbyes.

At Big Bear’s school, they have a transition week and a half. The year 6 children have their taster days at high school, allowing each of the other classes to move up to their next teacher and classroom prior to the summer holidays. This is the second year they have done it this way and I think it’s brilliant. It is particularly useful for children who get anxious and who would normally spend the last days of the summer break fretting and staying awake at night worrying about school (Big Bear). It means that classrooms are familiar, us parents know where to drop off and pick up, the children know where to put their coat and bag, which day they have PE etc. It means that transition is not tokenistic (a quick half day) but structured, organised and well-thought out. The children experience the entirety of their new timetable, not just a fraction of it.

Big Bear has made a very smooth and surprisingly easy transition to year 3 and seems very happy about everything. I, on the other hand, cannot believe that my baby is a junior already! He was however, very upset when he found out that one of his Year 2 teachers was leaving the school as she’s full of fun and has really “got” him. I’m sad too as it means she won’t teach Little Bear and I think she would have been great with him.

By moving all of the classes up early, the Reception class becomes empty. This allows the Reception teachers to do a really good transition for the new starters too. As Little Bear is starting school in September, he too has been taking part in the transition fun. This has been his timetable:

Friday: 2hr visit to Reception class with parents (Grizzly did it)

Tuesday: 2hr visit in the morning without parents; afternoon at Preschool

Wednesday: Preschool with visit from the Reception teacher & TA

Thursday: Visit to Reception class over lunch time and for the afternoon

Friday: Leaving assembly at Preschool then home visit from Reception staff

Unlike when Big Bear was small, Little Bear is VERY excited about starting school and cannot wait to join his brother at “big school”. Consequently I knew that I wouldn’t need to peel him crying from my legs and that he would just trot in without a backward glance. It was his behaviour whilst he was there that I was most concerned about. However, apart from whipping his friend around the face with his coat whilst waiting for his afternoon session and fiddling with a few things he shouldn’t, he generally did really well.

During the home visit (which I somehow conducted with the builders also in residence), I spoke with Little Bear’s teacher whilst Little Bear showed the TA his bedroom. Somehow he managed to disappear from her, leading her to think he had come downstairs when in fact he had hidden somewhere upstairs. That gave her a bit of a fright as he was there one second and gone the next. I’m hoping it has illustrated his escapologist tendencies nicely!

Overall, although the transition was thorough, I don’t feel as though the new teachers have seen the full extent of Little Bear’s behaviour. They haven’t experienced growling, aggression or any significant refusals to comply which I’m sure they will, once he’s fully settled. However, the fact that the transition has been really positive is brilliant and should mean that everyone involved is feeling fairly confident about September.

 

Little Bear’s leaving assembly was quite possibly the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. It was pretty entertaining watching the staff trying to shepherd 60 pre-schoolers on to a stage. One was dressed as an alien, a few were wearing bin bags (not too sure why), some had props. At one point, a girl on the front row lifted her tutu to scratch at her knickers. Little Bear was predictably the one who needed to sit right next to the teacher. He spent the first half waving at us, winking and blowing kisses and occasionally shouting out “that’s my dad. That’s my mum”. After a while we could see he was starting to get bored: he kept prodding his teacher and trying to get her to give him the microphone. Funnily enough she didn’t oblige. The staff had cleverly given him a big furry puppet to hold which distracted him a little.

It was lovely to see him stand up and join in with the others though. He joined in with some of the actions in songs and even did some Jolly Phonics actions and sounds which I wasn’t aware he knew. I was mainly just proud that he managed to sit through the whole thing and do roughly what he was meant to be doing; something he would certainly not have been able to do when he first started there. I realised how nurturing and constructive his time at preschool had been, how much I valued the staff there and how sad I was going to be that he was (we were) leaving them. There was a big lump in my throat and quite possibly some mistiness in my eyes. Ahem. I would need to collect myself before his last day.

The next end of term event was receiving Little Bear’s report (I already had Big Bear’s and wrote about it in Achievement). Overall it is very positive and focuses on what he can do and the progress that he’s made. It does mention a few times though that his performance on tasks is affected by his “listening and attention skills”, that he can “find it hard to concentrate”, that he “has his own agenda” and that he complies with adult direction “more frequently”(note, not ‘nearly all the time’ as he should). It is all true and I’m well aware of the issues but it can be disquieting nonetheless to read these things in black and white.

There is a lovely comment at the end that says how Little Bear likes to make other people happy and that his next teacher is really lucky to have him in her class. I know that the staff genuinely care about him and have become very fond of him during his time there. They have found it difficult that he is moving on to a different school and not continuing up to Reception in his current setting, with the rest of the preschool cohort. The reason he isn’t is because his preschool is in a different village from where we live. I could have sent him to our local preschool but I didn’t rate it for Big Bear and knew they wouldn’t be able to support Little Bear in the way he needed. I’m very happy that we chose to send him to a slightly further one and I do think that the school attached to it would continue to meet his needs well. However, practically it makes much more sense to send him to the school within walking distance that Big Bear already attends. Both boys will be happier if they go to the same setting too. Unfortunately that does mean leaving the connections we have made at Little Bear’s preschool.

On Wednesday we had to say goodbye. I came along at pick up time with a present and card for Little Bear’s keyworker, expecting a quick bye. I wasn’t expecting all of the staff to come out to wave him off and each cuddle him. Also (good job I was wearing my sunglasses) , I was really touched when they presented him with Chester, the Nursery cuddly rabbit who had been going home with the children for a night or two for them to take photos and record their adventures with and had been their buddy throughout preschool. Little Bear had brought him home fairly recently and had loved the responsibility of having him and taking him back. This time, the staff had tied a label to Chester and written a note asking Little Bear to keep him forever and to look after him for them. It was such a lovely and thoughtful thing for them to do and I felt they had really instinctively understood that it would help him with moving on; that Chester would be a tangible link between what had gone before and what was coming and that preschool wasn’t another abrupt and painful ending for him. It also showed me how much they cared about him and the fact that one of the teachers was teary too nearly tipped me over the edge. I very much intend to stay in touch with them though so I knew it wouldn’t really be the final goodbye.

chester

Just as we were walking off, Little Bear clutching Chester to his chest, the staff shouted after us to ask if Little Bear could say bye to his friend. Now, when Little Bear first started preschool he had literally zero interest in the other children, in fact he sometimes saw them as a threat. It is only in the last couple of months that he has started to interact and play with the others. Even more recently he has started to form a proper friendship with one specific boy, who he talks about at home and who his teachers say is a good pairing for him. The other boy is quite shy but tuned in to Little Bear’s speech and able to translate for him. The fact that he is helping seems to boost his confidence whilst the fact that a peer understands Little Bear and can play with him properly is a great boost for him. So of course I said “yes”, they can say goodbye. The little man in question came running out of the gate at full pelt, Little Bear ran towards him and they had a huge hug. This tipped the crying member of staff fully over the edge and gave me a prick of guilt.

I was fully aware of the growing friendship and had been umming and erring over whether or not to get a note to the boy’s mum to try to maintain it. I don’t know the lady in question at all and it felt like I was really putting myself out there by approaching her. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it and could envisage all sorts of problems if we didn’t get on. So far I had taken the coward’s way out and done nothing, telling myself that he would make lots more friends and it wouldn’t matter. However, seeing them hug like that spurred me into action. I gave my name and number to a member of staff to pass on to his Mum. I don’t know if she will contact me (I don’t know whether I would if the roles were reversed) but at least I know that I have tried.

And there we were: school was finished. Just like that. I have no idea where the last school year has gone, time has never seemed to go this fast. Now we have 6 weeks of holidays to contend with… It is only day 2 and I’m already a little frazzled!

 

End of Term

Little Bear’s Big Bed

At the foster carer’s house Little Bear slept in a toddler bed, so it seemed to make sense that he would at our house too. Physically he seemed tiny so the bed, although small, was ample for him. I thought he would probably sleep in that bed for a good while, not least because of his size.

When Little Bear first arrived we had a brief sleep honeymoon. After about a fortnight he started to show us his true colours. Although capable of and unfazed by settling himself to sleep, we couldn’t actually leave Little Bear to do that because he would take full advantage of the lack of supervision. Various items would end up in his bed; he would end up in various places that were not his bed; he might scale shelves or various other equally dangerous things.

Therefore to establish a sleep routine which involved staying in bed and actually sleeping, we needed to sit in his room with him. Little Bear was, understandably, furious about it as it curtailed his fun no end. Consequently whoever was on night duty was at risk of verbal abuse and being pelted by any item close at hand e.g. a teddy or dummy. Although I’m all up for self-expression, it wasn’t a behaviour that I wanted to persist so all of Little Bear’s cuddly animals moved to different parts of his room and his bed was empty of any potential missiles.

Little Bear would also wake during the night. The foster carers had told us that he did this but if they let him turn the light on and play for a couple of hours he would settle again… I wasn’t too keen on middle of the night playtime so had to provide “supervision” for several hours then too, to teach the idea that night is for sleeping and you need to stay in bed. If I didn’t get to him quickly enough he would try to climb over the stairgate or lob things over the banister. I have found him in the airing cupboard and under the desk in the spare room on occasions.

I was thankful therefore that his bed was small and low and he could not reach additional items when he was in it. I could only imagine what he might get up to if he had a cabin bed like his brother, with all the extra opportunities for climbing, reaching and swinging from lampshades it would provide. No. I would not even consider the idea until he was at least 10, maybe 15.

The really difficult sleep period lasted for approx. 5 months. I’m not too sure what changed – whether I had passed the “surviving whatever is thrown at me” test (quite literally) because I stayed with him no matter how challenging he got – or whether it was because we eventually took a two pronged approach and banned the IPad the following day if he’d messed about at night.

Either way, thankfully, things did improve to the point where Little Bear would get up once in the night, wander through to find me and allow himself to be taken back to bed again. I would tuck him back in, give him a little cuddle and go back to bed myself. And most amazingly I could mostly trust him to stay there.

Instead of being up for 2 to 3 hours, I was now up for 5 minutes which was a vast improvement and actually I didn’t mind this new arrangement at all. It felt as though he was waking for attachment reasons (a quick check we were still there) and not to test out what he could get away with. Instead of the anger and aggression we used to experience, he was now generally happy and affectionate in the middle of the night.

At some point in the proceedings (my memory fails me but probably during the Desperate Try Anything Phase) we introduced a Gro-Clock as I thought the visual nature of it would help him to understand it was still night. In the very early weeks he would not have grasped the concept but by the time we got him one, he understood very quickly that he was meant to stay in his bed until “the sun came up”. I say “meant” to, as understanding and actually doing it are not the same thing!

As Little Bear settled into a much better sleep routine, it became obvious that he really needs his sleep. There is quite a marked difference in his behaviour and resilience when he has had a good night compared to when he hasn’t. He is ready for bed early (usually asleep by 6:30/ 7pm) and needs to sleep until about 7am. Sometimes, in the winter, he would lie in until 8 or 9am! It was quite a contrast to the little night owl who first arrived.

As spring sprung and the mornings got lighter and the dawn chorus got noisier, Little Bear started waking much earlier. Sometimes 5:20 am, sometimes 6 am. Apart from not liking it ourselves, we could very much tell the difference in Little Bear’s behaviour so started reminding him about his clock and the need to stay in bed. A bed which seemed smaller by the day – were his feet really touching the end now?

Around the same time, Little Bear started asking for a bed like Big Bear’s. It’s a miracle that he knows what bed Big Bear has, as his bedroom door remains resolutely locked. However, on one of the rare moments that Big Bear has allowed him to stand on the threshold (not even a millimetre of toe can cross) with the door a teensy bit ajar, Little Bear must have clocked a significantly larger, taller and more exciting looking bed than his own.

One morning, after an unpalatably early start, Little Bear started asking for the aforementioned bigger bed. Grizzly flippantly replied that if Little Bear slept in his bed until the sun came up 10 times he would buy him one. This naturally lead (brace yourselves adoption folks) to a sticker chart.

I have never tried a reward chart with Little Bear before but this one seemed worth a try. Maybe it would also show him that if you keep trying, you can achieve things. Maybe it would teach him something about the value of items. Grizzly thought this was a safe bet and he wouldn’t need to put his money where his mouth his.

It took a few days to get the first sticker but when he did, Little Bear was very proud of himself. He wanted one sticker for his chart and one to display proudly on his top. Sporadically, over a few weeks, the stickers started mounting up.

In amongst the usual chaos of our house and our imminent building work, we paid the chart little heed, except to add a sticker as necessary. I started to realise that as soon as the chart was full, Little Bear would be expecting us to magic up a bed. He would think it would be there straight away, not in a few weeks’ time when we got around to it. We needed to get organised. Grizzly was having none of this as busy at work and at home, he didn’t have the brain-space for one more task. Stubborn as ever and quite convinced that Little Bear’s first experience of a reward system needed to be a significantly positive one, I ordered his bed on the day the chart was complete. Although it did not magically appear, I was at least able to show Little Bear a picture and explain that it was coming. Little Bear, although excited and asking for his bed, thankfully did seem to understand the process of ordering and delivery.

This was Thursday. I knew that our builders were starting on Monday and that over the weekend we would need to completely clear the living room. I figured it would take a few days for the bed to arrive and somehow everything would fall into place.

I was a little perturbed when my phone rang on Friday morning and a Russian voice said “I brink you mid-slipper bed, today, wan o’clock”. Hmm, just a little sooner than planned. I then realised I had not ordered a mattress and that would be kind of essential to him being able to sleep in it. So, after doing the supermarket shop (a marathon in its own right) and before baking a Father’s Day cake (yes, quite mad), Little Bear and I went mattress shopping. Thankfully Argos had one mattress left that was rolled (so I could carry it and fit it in the car) and that was available there and then. It was a good job as having Little Bear with you is not really conducive to adding up the relative merits of sprung versus memory foam or making a full and informed decision.

That night, after Grizzly had arrived home from working in a further away city than usual, we started building the bed. Poor Grizzly was shattered and I did think he was quite long suffering that day.

On Saturday we had to move all the furniture in Little Bear’s fairly tiny bedroom around so that the bed would actually fit and then complete its construction. It was fairly stressful as I was essentially making Grizzly do it against his will; the boys are rubbish at entertaining themselves and didn’t cope well without our undivided attention; it was hot and every time Grizzly looked down to screw something his glasses fell off as he needs new ones but hasn’t had time to get them! I’m giggling now that we are safe in retrospect!

Also, Little Bear was very excited that we had power tools and a hammer out and I don’t know how many times one of us said “Do NOT hammer anything!”, “no, don’t hammer your toes”, “no, do NOT hammer the wall” etc.

Somehow the bed was eventually completed, we were all still friends, everyone had all their limbs and there wasn’t any unwanted damage to the house.

To say that Little Bear was chuffed with his bed is an understatement. It has a hidden den underneath it which is very calming and perfect for him. Every so often he will say “I just go and check on my new bed” and will disappear upstairs to sit underneath it and occasionally to have a lie down on it.

So, at the grand old age of 4, mere months after I vowed never to let him have one, Little Bear is the proud owner of a cabin bed. So far, 6 nights in, he has done nothing but sleep in it. Not even a hint of swinging on the lampshade (though now I’ve said that no doubt he will try).

There are 3 brilliant things about Little Bear having his big bed:

  1. We can hide underneath it when the building work gets too much.
  2. He is very HAPPY and PROUD of himself.
  3. He can’t wait to go to bed every day!!!

Now that we have achieved point 3, Grizzly thinks the whole thing has been a fantastic idea.

bed blog pic

Little Bear’s Big Bed

This week I… ran my first communication workshop for adopters.

Last week I wrote about Little Bear’s difficulties with speech and language (see Living with Speech and Language Difficulties ). When Little Bear arrived, it struck me how significantly his communication difficulties impacted him, us and our ability to form bonds with one another. A communication barrier was not conducive to bonding. Little Bear’s difficulties with expressing himself compounded his confusion and frustration.

I was thankful therefore that I had my professional background as a Speech and Language Therapist (SLT) to fall back on. At least I knew what strategies to use to improve his language skills and how to modify my language so he could understand me. And then I thought “but what if I didn’t?” What if I wasn’t an SLT? How on earth would I know where to begin? I felt that Little Bear’s speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) would probably become another thing for me to worry about and puzzle over, along with his sleep and behaviour. I felt that not knowing what to do for the best would be stressful. Then I thought “surely there are lots of adopters in that situation?”. It is very difficult to find any statistics on it but as the majority of children entering the care system will have experienced some degree of neglect, it is not a huge leap to suggest that large numbers of children needing adoption are likely to have SLCN. If nobody speaks to you in your infancy, you will not develop age appropriate language skills.

My conclusion was that there must be many new adopters in situations such as my own, living with a child whom they were struggling to communicate with, but without any training in speech and language to support them.

A nugget of an idea formed but I was busy surviving the early months of adoption.

In December, the newsletter from our post-adoption support service arrived. It asked adopters if they had any ideas for additional training that could be offered. I think perhaps they were being polite but I waded on in anyway (!) and suggested there was a gap for some communication training.

A few e-mails later and I was meeting with the Service Manager to discuss what we could offer. I am aware from reading other people’s stories on Twitter etc. that we are extremely lucky with our Voluntary Adoption Agency (VAA). They already offer a wide range of courses and workshops and also individual consultations to any adopters who are finding things difficult. In fact we had already benefitted from these ourselves when Little Bear’s behaviour was particularly challenging and he was keeping us up half the night.

It wasn’t really a surprise then that the Service Manager was forward-thinking and open-minded. She was very much on board with my ideas and we agreed to try a workshop in May (I needed time to prepare it).

May has come around surprisingly quickly! All of a sudden I found myself on my hands and knees, rummaging in the under-the-stairs-cupboard desperately searching for my other sensible shoe. A new presentation definitely calls for a matching outfit and one shoe wasn’t going to cut it. Fashion disaster averted, I could then worry about who was going to attend my workshop. I had written it for adopters but a few days before it, I discovered that 10 of the 12 participants were in fact professionals, which was a little daunting.

On arrival I found out that my one set of adopters were actually prospective adopters so there wouldn’t be anyone in the room with a child with SLCN. There was little time to panic though and the next thing I knew I was standing up and wittering on.

I needn’t have worried about who would be there. It was so refreshing to train a room of people who were so enthusiastic and motivated and who were so engaged with the session. The brilliant thing about there being so many professionals was that they now know what the workshop is all about and will promote it to families when/if we are able to run it again.

There was a wealth of experience in the room which lead to interesting discussions.

We talked about the interface between speech and language therapy and other psychotherapeutic interventions. We agreed that this relationship has not been well explored and that there is scope for joint working and sharing of knowledge.

We discussed that Talking Therapies may well not be ideal for children with SLCN and that there is a need to develop their language skills first.

I talked about how complex communication is. I talked through listening and attention, comprehension, expression and speech – giving tips on how to spot difficulties in each area and practical advice about strategies to use.

I spoke briefly about the links between language and behaviour. There was a lot of discussion around this and again it was felt that there is a need to explore this in more depth.

There was a consensus that more is needed for those working/living with teenagers – as language difficulties are often still present but are frequently overlooked or misunderstood.

We talked about the word “no” often being a trigger for behaviour in itself/having traumatic associations and if there were any ways to get round it. I have to admit this had me scratching my head and I will need to think some more. I’d love to know if this is a problem for anyone reading and what strategies you have used to overcome it.

We started to form a vision of a Specialist SLT service for fostered and adopted children. A service which would be responsive and act when needed e.g. right at the start of placements. A service which would be provided by SLTs who are knowledgeable about attachment and trauma and would consider a child’s communication difficulties within this context. The impact of the communication difficulty on bonding would also be factored in and strategies/ therapy could target both. It would be a service where an SLT and a post adoption support worker/ social worker would work in partnership.

It sounds fabulous and I’d love to be involved. The problem, as always with these things, is funding. Some routes are being explored so, hopefully, one day, this vision might become a reality.

This week’s workshop was a great start. I feel very optimistic thanks to everyone’s participation and responsiveness.

It was also reassuring that I do still know what to do in the work arena, after being on adoption leave for the past 9 months (I wasn’t sure if I did, especially after the shoe incident).

I very much enjoyed running the workshop and hope there will be more to come. I then went to pick Little Bear up from preschool and got called in for a “chat” about his behaviour. Back to reality!

 

This week I… ran my first communication workshop for adopters.