Pretend I’m In Your Tummy, Mummy

Most children go through a phase of imaginative play when they are developing. They pretend, they act and they direct you to take your role in the game. They often play the same game over and over.

I can remember when Big Bear was about 3 or 4 he constantly wanted me to “make the man talk”. It was usually a Lego man and there would be some sort of scenario panning out in which I would be tasked with a specific role. Often he would tell me what words I should say and would be quick to correct me if I was getting it wrong. There was one particular game that involved a Lego man waiting on a platform for a train. Every time the train got to the station I would try to put my man on. “No” Big Bear would say, “Wait for the next one”. The next one would come and the same thing would happen. It was a game that required a lot of patience!

There was also a lot of dressing up pretending to be Batman or a fireman or a doctor. I think sometimes he pretended to be a cat.

This was Big Bear, still living with the family he was born into, following typical patterns of development.

Recently, I have discovered that this type of play with Little Bear is not quite the same. There are similarities but trauma has added an extra layer of complexity. This is a familiar conversation at the moment:

Little Bear: Pretend I’m in your tummy, Mummy

Me: Ok (cuddling him on my knee)

Me: Ooh, I wonder what my baby is going to look like. I can’t wait to meet them.

LB: I’m out now.

Me: Oh look, he’s gorgeous. Look at those eyes! He looks like a …Little Bear. I’ll call him Little Bear (In reality I say his actual name – I don’t really pretend he is a bear!) I’ll look after you and keep you safe forever.

If I don’t do the naming part he whispers to me “tell me I look like a Little Bear”.

LB: Pretend I’m a dog

Me: Have I just given birth to a dog?!

LB: Yes, you are a mummy dog

Me: Oh right

LB: No! You’re a dog! You can’t talk, you have to bark!

And so the confusing tale continues. Little Bear keeps replaying the part where I meet him for the first time. I don’t know if this is because I keep telling him how much I want him and how I’ll keep him safe forever in an attempt to be therapeutic or if in fact he keeps coming back to it because I haven’t yet said what he needs to hear. Your guess is as good as mine.

I think it is fairly obvious that the game has to do with seeking a sense of belonging, of claiming (and being claimed)* and is due to him wishing he had come out of my tummy as his brother did.

Interestingly there is another version of the game that involves me pretending he is a puppy who has got lost. I have to pretend I am following his footprints and discover him buried in a heap of snow. He pretends he is lost from his owner and that I rescue him, taking him home to warm up and have some food. Does this symbolise me back in my role as adoptive parent, I wonder? Coming in where someone else has left off? I’m intrigued that he would see that as a rescue.

Sometimes, once I have rescued him from the snow, he talks about his mum and dad coming in and finding him again. I always wonder if he means his birth parents but when I enquire who he means, he says Grizzly and me. By this stage I’m fully confused as to my role in the whole thing and whether I’m quite possibly just overthinking it.

Little Bear is definitely at the stage where fantasy and reality are fully entwined and he switches from one idea to another moment by moment. One minute I’m rescuing a puppy, the next he is a gorilla. On one occasion the baby I had given birth to was in fact an egg and I was a hen. It’s pretty difficult to keep up. I suspect the games are an amalgam of several ideas floating around his head at any one time.

A couple of times, over recent days, the games have taken a darker turn. I rescue the cold puppy, who initially seems to want some love and cuddles but who then suddenly switches to wanting to bite me. This could just be the new version of the game but as I am permanently in analyse everything and look for hidden meanings mode, I can’t help but wonder if this is like reliving the early days of our adoption. We chose Little Bear, we were excited for our future with him but when he came home he hit, bit, scratched, kicked and threw things and was generally distressed. Little Bear was 3 and a half at the time and likely remembers it. Is he double-checking my response? Do I still want to rescue the puppy if it turns out to be aggressive? Will I still take it home and love it?

I know that I might be over-analysing but I am careful with my response just in case. “Don’t worry little puppy” I reassure, “I think you are a bit frightened at the moment. I think that might be why you tried to bite me. I won’t hurt you. You are safe”.

In the game, this seems to calm the puppy.

Little Bear has instigated similar games before; right from when he arrived he wanted me to pretend he was a baby. I would lay a large blanket out on the floor and he would lie in it and get me to swaddle him. I had to be careful in the early days because it was easy to cross an invisible line into ‘too much to deal with’ territory. He would let me coddle him a bit – stroke him and coo over him like a baby but often I would unwittingly overstep the ever moving mark and be rewarded with a bite or hit. It always felt like it happened when he had allowed himself to let go for a moment and then accidentally let me in a bit too much, so that it had felt emotionally weird or frightening and he needed to back off again.

It has changed over time. I have had to persevere despite the re-buffs and he has evidently slowly become more comfortable to the point where he seeks a lot of physical comfort now. I rarely feel that the line is even there.

I find it interesting that over two years in, these acted games still feature and new ones are still appearing. I wonder if he wanted to play these recent ones before but his language skills wouldn’t allow him. Or whether he is only now reaching the appropriate developmental level. Or whether it is because he has a better understanding of his life story now. Or whether he is still seeking something I am not giving…

When I used to make the man talk for Big Bear I didn’t have all these extra things to think about. It really was about a pretend man getting onto (or at least trying to get on to) a pretend train. No hidden meanings. Little Bear’s play, on the other hand, is laced with them.

I am probably different too though – far more aware that there might be hidden meanings and far more attuned to looking for them.

What I want Little Bear to realise is that it doesn’t matter to me whose tummy he grew in, I love him just the same. But I guess they are only words to him; he needs to truly believe it and feel it within himself.

I guess we will be pretending he is in my tummy for a while longer yet.

 

*There is definitely a claiming element to it, not just biology, as Little Bear has also pretended to be in Big Bear’s tummy. Big Bear, being Big Bear, took it fully in his stride and ‘gave birth’ to Little Bear on the kitchen bench (!), before rocking him on his knee, cradled like a baby. I have no idea how an 8 year old came to be so instinctively therapeutic but he’s a natural.

** I’m very lucky to have two such lovely boys.

 

 

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Pretend I’m In Your Tummy, Mummy

Alleviating School Worries

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about how Little Bear was doing at school (School Worries), the apparent desire to keep us at arm’s length and my concerns about the school’s ability to support and educate him. Little Bear’s behaviour was spiralling and his teacher was tearing her hair out. It was going badly and I was very worried. Since then I have had several conversations with his teacher, parent’s evening and we finally had the big meeting we had been asking for.

The landscape now is very different. I think they are getting more right than they are getting wrong and Little Bear is starting to thrive. I thought it might be helpful to share some of the things we/they have done that have made the difference:

A Timetable

Don’t ask me why but when Little Bear started Year 1 there was no set timetable of what he would be doing each day; sometimes it could be Maths then literacy, at other times Phonics then Maths etc. His teacher realised after a few weeks that he might cope better if the expectations were clearer and his day was more predictable. They created a timetable for him but things were still going awry. I wondered aloud one day whether Little Bear was able to see the timetable himself. It turned out they were showing him the black and white typed adult version which was of course entirely meaningless to him.

Little Bear now has a timetable made up of digital photos of him doing all the different tasks. This is working fabulously

He knows the routine and seems much happier to get on with what he is meant to be doing. Plus he actually likes the timetable because he is in it and is therefore much more motivated to engage with it

Choose time

As Little Bear finds it difficult to concentrate for any length of time we agreed that he would do a short work task and then a fun task then a work task, then a fun task to keep him on track. The fun task would be used as a carrot in a NOW work, THEN fun task kind of way. The fun task might also involve moving about to give him a physical/sensory break from sitting still. The fun tasks have been chosen carefully so they are still educational (they might involve developing his play skills or turn-taking or creativity etc.) and are actually motivating to Little Bear, not just perceived to be motivating by an adult.

The choices are presented to Little Bear in photo form (with him in the pictures) and he picks in advance of each work activity.

This is also working brilliantly to the point where some mornings he is now able to complete all the work tasks on his timetable and doesn’t need any fun tasks at all.

A consistent approach

None of the above would be working if it wasn’t for this. The teacher and TA have now figured out their strategy and are being much clearer with Little Bear. There is no shouting one minute then letting him off with something the next any more. I think they have settled on a calm, firm approach much like we use at home. They have realised that the rules need to be clear and they can’t change from one day to the next.

They have also realised that Little Bear benefits from some extra rules where other children wouldn’t. For example, if he is tired one day and therefore allowed to read just one page, instead of 3, he will expect that he can do the same thing the next day. If he can find a chink in the armour he will exploit it. However, if there is a blanket rule e.g. every day we read 3 pages Little Bear knows where he is at and is much happier to adhere to it.

I think his TA was feeling mean but has found out the hard way that Little Bear actually feels a lot safer when he knows exactly what is expected and adults around him are consistent with their boundaries. If he doesn’t and they are not, his anxiety will spike and his behaviour will become increasingly challenging. Now that he feels safer, he is much more open to learning.

A discipline re-think

I have to say that whatever errors school have made I am extremely grateful for their willingness to listen (in the end) and to try something different. A little willingness goes along way for our children.

The school as a whole were using the Good To Be Green behaviour system, which involves children getting an amber warning card when they do something they shouldn’t and then a red card if they do something else or do something violent. Thankfully they did see early on that this didn’t work for Little Bear. There are the immediate issues with public shaming but for us the main problem was that once you get an amber or red card you can’t work your way back to green that day. Once you’ve got in bother and already had a red card, what is the point of trying to control yourself for the rest of the day? You might as well just go for it and do whatever you like. It is a very negative system.  Also, Little Bear was getting upset by the card changes because he isn’t naughty, he just finds controlling himself really difficult. He was frequently very annoyed with himself for seemingly having failed, which impacted his mood for the rest of the day.

Thankfully school recognised that they couldn’t continue with that system for him so came up with Magic 1,2,3 to use instead. They didn’t want to single Little Bear out with his peers so have changed the system for the whole of his class, a very sensitive gesture I felt.

I’m not sure that I love Magic 1,2,3 per se but it has an accidental benefit which is crucial for Little Bear. Basically the teacher counts each time you do something you shouldn’t so you get 3 chances to make amends or make a different choice. If after 3 chances you still haven’t co-operated or you have had 3 separate misdemeanours, you have to sit on the thinking chair.

Now, I know a lot of parents won’t like it because it is basically sitting in the corner. However, for Little Bear it gives him the calm down time he desperately needs.

I have struggled to get school to understand that when Little Bear is thoroughly pissed off the last thing he needs is someone lecturing him, talking at him and verbally chastising him. He needs to sit somewhere quietly until he is ready to talk. At home, we just ask him to sit wherever he is. He sits on the floor and we stay nearby and usually he’ll say “I’m ready Mummy” after about 3 seconds (a ‘time in’). However, it turns out that school weren’t ever allowing him this time so it wasn’t any wonder he was nearly blowing a gasket sometimes and going straight from one incident to another.

Sitting on the thinking chair gives him just the de-compression he needs. Also, it is in the classroom so he is not isolated or left alone.

I don’t think this would be the right thing for every child but it is suiting Little Bear much better and his behaviour has calmed enormously.

Praise & positive re-enforcement

Little Bear’s behaviour was becoming such an issue in school that I felt all the positives were getting lost. They had pretty much got to the point of thinking there weren’t any.Other than me pointing this out I don’t really know what changed but the teacher and TA have certainly got better at looking for the positives and making a big fuss about them.

Again this wouldn’t work for children who can’t handle praise but Little Bear really thrives off it. School have cottoned on to this and whenever Little Bear tries hard or produces something good, they encourage him to share it with the class. He absolutely loves this and I think it helps his peers to see him as someone who is successful, not just someone they think is naughty.

Working as a Team   

I do feel that school have recognised that they had cut us out of the loop and are now keen to include us more. I think they can see the benefits and that when there are meetings it is not because we want to tell them off or be difficult it is because we genuinely want to work in partnership. We have 2 further meetings arranged before Christmas which has allayed a lot of my concerns.

We have agreed common goals e.g. to extend Little Bear’s reading from 3 pages to 4 in one sitting and to encourage him to work independently for 2 minutes instead of 1. The goals are achievable and measurable which is exactly as they should be and because we are working on them at home and at school I’m sure they will be met more quickly.

A key part of the meeting we had was to share information about Little Bear’s history with his new TA. She didn’t know how long he had been with us, what his developmental starting point was etc. I have pointed out it would have been much more helpful for her to know all this at the start because then she could have adjusted her expectations accordingly from the outset. However, we can’t undo the past and at least she is now armed with all the facts.

Communication

To help school to communicate with us in a way that works for us, they invited us to have a frank discussion and be clear about what we actually want to know. We have agreed that they will comment on Little Bear’s behaviour each day and how he has got on with his independent working, hopefully in a one thing that went well and perhaps a thing that didn’t go so well sort of a way.

I can’t honestly say how well this is working yet but I’m hopeful.

Lateral Thinking  

School have been great about being open to different ideas and ways of doing things. Sometimes they still struggle to get Little Bear to have a go at things; he might flatly refuse or say he hates whatever it is. They have agreed to try things like offering Little Bear the opportunity to go and show his brother his work if he tries hard at it. I think he will be extremely motivated to do that and Big Bear is happy to be involved and relishes the added responsibility.

As the TA directly asked us for some advice on how to manage this, we were also able to talk about wondering and empathising e.g. “It must be hard to get your work done if you hate English. I wonder if that’s because you find it tricky” rather than a dismissive, “You don’t hate it”.

 

It meant more than they probably realised to be asked and to be considered a source of knowledge about our child. The Head teacher also apologised to us and admitted they had got the transition badly wrong. He asked what could be done differently next time.

We left the meeting feeling reassured, listened to and that Little Bear is in safe hands. They might not get it right all the time but at least they know that and are not afraid to admit it and ask for help.

I feel hopeful now.

 

Alleviating School Worries

School Worries

Last week in Adoptive Parent: Behaviour Detective, I wrote about my growing concern for Little Bear. Although I was struggling to narrow down the possible reasons for the changes in his behaviour, I was seeing warning signs that school could be at the root of it.

I was pinning my hopes of resolving the whole thing on a meeting with them which we had scheduled in for Tuesday. Hopefully a good chat and picking through the issues together would help us get back on track.

On Monday I got called in again. Would it be ok if we cancelled the meeting? They just felt that the things they have recently put in place (a timetable) need more time to bed in and they don’t have any updates for us.

I wasn’t really ok with this because Grizzly had re-jigged his ridiculously busy work diary so that he could attend. Although school don’t feel they have any information to share with us, we certainly feel we have many unanswered questions and do not yet have a clear picture of what is actually happening in the classroom.

We feel in need of a meeting.

However, I have always liked Little Bear’s teacher and feel I have to try to trust her. Although I tried to suggest the meeting would still be beneficial she was immovable. Mrs C, the TA, had already been told it was cancelled. She really felt it would be better to wait – its parents evening next week anyway. This didn’t reassure me much as Grizzly will be in America then and I’ll only have a ten minute slot…

It would be useful if Grizzly could be there because I’m pretty sure school have me down as a neurotic mother.

Not wanting to be completely fobbed off I asked about Little Bear’s behaviour as I stood there in the classroom door. It isn’t good. He is frequently refusing to do any work or anything he is told. In the whole class group he is silly and disruptive. He keeps getting himself sent out of class.

It sounds as though the TA has a lot of training needs. She is currently vacillating between getting cross with Little Bear and letting him do whatever he wants. Her management of him sounds inconsistent.

Evidently Little Bear doesn’t know where he is at with her. Unsurprisingly this is leading to a spike in his anxiety. He is pushing the boundaries because he needs to feel them there, sure and sturdy. Without clear boundaries Little Bear is anxious and out of control. He tries to claw control back in other ways like refusing to comply. When he pushes against a boundary it is because he needs it to stand firm. Predictable, consistent boundaries make him feel safe. If the boundary keeps moving or is there sometimes but at others not life is very confusing and unsafe. Life is how it used to be before he was truly parented: when he was in charge of his own survival.

We know this because we have lived with and parented Little Bear for 2 years now. We have introduced boundaries into his life (because we had to for everyone’s safety) and we have stood firm and united against the full onslaught of his behaviour, day in, day out, until he began to trust us and feel safe. Consequently he is unrecognisable from the out of control firework of a child who first swept us, quite literally, off our feet. At home he is now usually co-operative, able to listen and to engage appropriately in family life.

I don’t mean to sound full of my own self-importance when I say this but we are the experts at managing Little Bear. No one else understands his challenges or has as many strategies that work as we do.

I don’t think school know this or believe this.

I haven’t spelled it out in as many words but I have offered countless times to help. Perhaps we could meet? Perhaps we could problem solve together? Perhaps we could share ideas and agree a common strategy?

It is essential in my eyes that we work as a team – the consistency shouldn’t just be within our home or within school but across both settings too. This will undoubtedly help Little Bear to feel safer and less confused about what is expected of him.

School do not seem to want us to engage with Mrs C in this way though. In fact I feel they are actively keeping us apart. I’m quite confused as to why. Yes, I ask a lot of questions and I e-mail and I pop my head in. I guess I take up their time but I have never been cross or anything less than pleasant.

I can’t help feeling that they don’t value the contribution we could make. Perhaps they’d rather do things their way.

I reassured Little Bear’s teacher that no matter how well Mrs C is or isn’t coping with Little Bear, we appreciate that she is keen and willing and we completely empathise with the challenge he is providing her with and how this might be making her feel. Because we have lived this and we have felt those feelings. We get it.

We could help her.

In the meantime we are becoming increasingly frustrated and concerned. Each week that passes is another week of Little Bear being the class clown or naughty boy. It is another week of wasted potential.

I wish I could say with confidence that it is one week closer to a breakthrough but what if it isn’t? What if it is one week closer to not coping with mainstream education?

Sometimes it doesn’t do to have too much knowledge. Sometimes knowledge feeds fear. I keep abreast of adoption in the media. It hasn’t pass me by that one of the biggest stressors for adopters where things have gone wrong is navigating the education system for their child.

Ironically this week I’ve also visited a new school in my professional capacity. It is billing itself as a last chance saloon for children who haven’t coped in any other school. It is going to be the one place that won’t give up and that provides children with all the therapeutic input they need as part and parcel of their education. It sounds brilliant. I don’t think I can work there though because every time I drove up to the building a deep seated fear would be awoken: would this be Little Bear’s future? Is he going to become one of these children who is misunderstood, mismanaged and ultimately failed by our mainstream school system?

I told Little Bear’s teacher that I am worried, that the situation is worrying. Yes, she confirmed, it is worrying. Even Grizzly is worried and he usually says everything will be fine.

The worrying is tiring. I have a virus I can’t get rid of and two cold sores. It is not surprising.

The not knowing and the not being given updates and the being kept in the dark about what is happening day to day is only fuelling my anxiety. I would feel much better if had more information. I have mentioned several times that unless the teacher or TA tells me about things that have happened I won’t know about them. Little Bear does not come home and tell me. I am not psychic. We can’t talk things through with Little Bear and help with understanding what might be going wrong or what strategies could be put in place if we don’t know what the problems are.

Neither Grizzly nor I are any good at sitting around and just waiting to see what happens. We are both naturally pro-active. Just waiting and seeing does not seem a good plan when things are evidently going tits up.

I worry.

Post script:

Since I drafted the above, there has been a development: I got a phone call from the Head Teacher. He informed me that, on Tuesday, instead of the meeting we had asked for, they had had an internal meeting about Little Bear. Yes, a meeting without us. They had concluded that things were not going well and they would require some external support to help them.

He sounded very pleased with himself as he announced that he had done some research and found a great organisation that would be able to help us, had I heard of them? Err, well, yes, as a matter of fact I had because they are our post-adoption support service and I work for them sometimes! He went on to apologise that it had taken them a while to sort this: they needed to figure out what the right sources of support where.

It took me all my strength not to scream “why didn’t you just ask me?!” It’s so incredibly frustrating because once again we have been passed over and dismissed. I could give him a detailed account of the organisation in question and their offering. I provide part of their offering. We could have had a free consultation from the service, which I had mentioned several times but evidently this fell on deaf ears as a referral has now been made for costly assessment/training instead.

The Head also mentioned that they feel Little Bear is presenting with ADHD and that his behaviour in Year 1 “has taken them by surprise”. I’m baffled about how they are surprised. We are not surprised. We have described several times his behaviour at home and how his behaviour has changed over time. What they are now seeing is probably about a tenth of the behaviour we dealt with for the first 6 months or so of having Little Bear. We warned them before he started school what they might encounter.

In fairness, Little Bear surprised us all in Reception by taking the start of school pretty much in his stride. Looking back, I suspect very few demands were made of him in Reception whereas now the demands are constant throughout the day. It is obvious (to those of us who know him well) that this would lead to increased challenges.

Whilst I had to rant quite a lot yesterday and steam was coming from my ears, I have to focus on the salient points. An organisation which I have deep faith and trust in is now in Little Bear’s corner. I know they will help us. I am confident they will help school to see that we do know actually rather a lot about our son.

I was direct with the Head Teacher about some of our concerns: crucially that we need them to recognise us as part of the team. He was placatory but I fear still dismissive.

I am quite disappointed in myself that I have somehow come across as irrelevant. As a professional person working in the field of adoption and being an adopter, you’d think I might have a voice. I dread to think how other parents are made to feel.

I still worry.

 

School Worries

Adoptive Parent: Behaviour Detective

There are times, as an adopter, that I feel as though I am conducting an investigation or trying to solve a mystery. Whilst I’m not an actual Detective I am constantly looking for clues, analysing and weighing up evidence. I suspect a lot of adopters are at it – we could probably form our own (highly efficient) private investigators.

I’m pretty good at collecting the evidence and coming up with possible theories but solving the mystery often eludes me.

I’m particularly hampered by Little Bear’s highly unreliable witness accounts. A simple question like, “Where did you do P.E today?” can lead to fanciful tales like “on the roof”. When I enquire casually about how the class has been behaving, Little Bear will usually regale me with an elaborate story of how he punched someone in the face and got a red card. When I ask his teacher later, I’ll find out that no such thing happened and he hasn’t in fact had a card every single day as he has made out. I will doubtless also find out that some other misbehaviour did occur that he has ‘forgotten’ to tell me about. There are a lot of smoke and mirrors in my investigations.

I can’t rely on asking Little Bear to find out how he is. I have to rely on my instincts and observation skills. I look for clues. The take-home book seems a good place to start.

Last week I learned the following:

Monday: Bad day. Disruptive in class and downright refusal to do any work.

I got called in that day so I was able to ask a few more probing questions. The evidence was fairly inconclusive. Little Bear could have been feeling unwell (we have ANOTHER virus lurking about the house); he could have been struggling with the transition from the weekend to the school week; it could have been an aftershock of me having been away for the weekend (a very unusual occurrence); it could have been because he is still putting his TA through her paces because this is a new relationship and that’s pretty scary; or maybe it was just a bad day. Everybody has bad days.

We’d have to see how the rest of the week went in order to figure it out.

Tuesday: OK

Wednesday: New TA came with us to Speech and Language Therapy appointment. It went OK. I’m not sure they have properly bonded yet as Little Bear did ignore her quite a lot and I wasn’t sure she had adjusted her expectations of him enough but its early days.

Thursday: Disruptive again and some refusal to join in.

There wasn’t any information about when in the school day this had happened, what lesson or any other possible precipitating factors. Although this was more evidence to suggest an unsettled Little Bear, it also gave more questions than answers. I now felt as though there was a mystery to solve but the evidence was all over the place.

Friday: The book said that Little Bear had been upset in school and missed home. He had been hitting himself in the head and had not allowed his TA to stop him.

Grizzly and I were (unusually) out on Friday evening so my parents had picked the boys up from school and put them to bed and consequently I didn’t see the message until we got home. In the meantime Little Bear had not been especially compliant for my parents and had bitten my Dad.

I was surprised to read he had been upset in school. That is certainly out of character. It was also distressing to read he had been hitting himself but with no indication of what could have triggered it. Again, this is no longer Little Bear’s typical behaviour.

I discussed the week’s evidence with my fellow Detective, Grizzly. There wasn’t enough information we concurred – we would need to further question school on Monday. We also had the obligatory long, hard look at ourselves and our parenting – had we done something to cause his distress? Had we missed something critical? Could it be my fault because I went away at the weekend AND out on Friday night? As I’m usually always here like a piece of the furniture, disappearing twice in a week was kind of unfortunate. What was even more unfortunate was that next weekend is our 10 year wedding anniversary and we were planning to go away for the night. What daft planning! All the going away in one 3 week period! Perhaps we oughtn’t to go? Perhaps he needs us here.

On Saturday, Little Bear went to his swimming lesson. On his return he changed into his pyjamas, got his dummy and comfort blanket, wrapped himself in a cocoon on the sofa and silently stared at the TV for 3 hours, which I felt told us everything we needed to know about how he was feeling.

We reduced all the demands and gave him all the love.

By Sunday, Little Bear was back to his usual energetic self.

On Monday I asked his teacher how he was. “Fine” she said, looking confused.

“It’s just he seemed to have an unsettled week last week”, I explained. “Did he?” she said, still looking confused. “Err yeah, I thought so, that was the impression I got from the take-home book”. “Oh! The book! I haven’t seen it”, she said, “Mrs. C writes in it. Is it extremely negative?” The last part seemed odd, was something going on behind the scenes?

We talked some more, though I knew she was busy and I can’t help feeling sorry every time that I’m adding to her load. The thing is I have a nagging doubt. It is about the TA, Mrs C. I’ve had the doubt since she was first appointed. I wish the school had involved us in the recruitment process so I could at least have some influence over who was going to be responsible for making or breaking my child’s education but alas, they did not. Hard though it is, I am trying to keep an open mind and remember that this must be a steep learning curve for her. I get the feeling from the teacher that she too has some doubts. We agreed to arrange a meeting – we need to ensure that everyone is approaching Little Bear and his challenges in the same way, otherwise we risk him feeling unsafe and his behaviour escalating. Could this already be happening?

I read the take home book on my return. His day had been OK. Apparently he frequently chooses a baked potato for lunch though, perhaps I could speak with him about other options?

Perhaps we could consider our priorities I wondered.

I then glanced at his spelling book. Anyone who has followed our journey will know what a big deal it is that Little Bear even has a spelling book. When I first saw it I nearly had a fit – how on earth were we going to manage to learn spellings on top of reading and phonics and sight words? Were they bonkers? Yet here we were only 3 weeks later and you could have knocked me down with a feather because my read of the spelling book revealed that not only had Little Bear co-operated with the test but he had achieved full marks! The book should have been releasing fireworks and shooting confetti everywhere! Little Bear should have been plastered in stickers and weighed down by the amount of Numicon he had been awarded for his efforts.

The comment in the book actually read “remember to make your handwriting neater”.

Honestly.

What is going on here? I haven’t solved the mystery but I do have all sorts of concerns about the expectations placed on Little Bear at school. Are they realistic? Are they taking into account his starting point? Do we care if he is forming his numbers in the traditional fashion when actually it’s a miracle that he’s putting pen to paper?

I’m worried that all the positives and achievements and successes are getting lost amongst the ‘he was disruptive’s and the ‘he wouldn’t co-operate’s. Is he being praised? Is he being made to feel that he’s succeeding? Or that he is failing?

I keep writing things in the take-home book that I can imagine make the TA’s eyes roll when she reads them. I’m sure she thinks I’m making excuses for him when I point out that school takes all of his energy and that he’s exhausted afterwards and that the ‘even 10 minutes’ of work each night that she has prescribed is actually really hard for him to manage or when I say that he might well be disruptive in singing because singing is extraordinarily difficult when you have DLD and you can’t process the words when they are all mixed in so fast and hidden in the music.

I am getting a little neurotic about it all which is probably why my eyes are so peeled for clues and evidence. I am all too aware that this needs to go well. Little Bear’s experiences this year could literally make or break his education. He has so much to catch up on that time cannot be wasted getting it wrong. If we want his trauma to heal and him to progress, he needs the right support and handling. Now.

I found a fabulous document yesterday on the Beacon House website (www.beaconhouse.org.uk) called What Survival Looks Like in School. I have printed it and taken it to the TA. I cannot get stuck thinking that she is the wrong person. Maybe she could be the right person with a bit more knowledge.

This week has been fairly unremarkable compared to last but this morning Little Bear was not coping well. He was resistant to pretty much every demand and was tipped over the edge by me saying that we did have to drop his brother off first (because Little Bear gets to go first most days). Consequently he was angry and upset at drop off and resistant to my attempts to repair things before I left him. The TA was pretty sensitive and gave us some space before coming to distract him. He let her stroke his cheek yesterday so he must like her quite a bit.

Little Bear has not had a good day at all at home today so I still feel something is afoot. I don’t know what though. Perhaps the meeting with school next week will reveal all. As usual I have all my theories but no clear solution (though better communication with school would certainly help).

 

 

 

Adoptive Parent: Behaviour Detective

The Other Parents

I realised the other day that I am completely unsociable when it comes to the parents in Little Bear’s class and, unfortunately, I think it has to be that way.

Having already done the school-mum-thing with Big Bear I know that it can be fine. It’s all very awkward to start with as everyone tries to get the measure of each other and you try to suss out who might be potential friends. Now that he is in year 4 I have reached a comfortable place with the other parents from his class. I have one proper friend, who I hang out with outside of school events but if I happened to be sat next to pretty much any of the other parents for some reason (excepting one or two) I would feel comfortable chatting. I would know a little about their family and vice versa. There wouldn’t be any awkwardness. I don’t think there would be any topics I would be actively avoiding.

I’m probably not the most sociable of parents within the playground in general – I don’t like playground gossip or competitive parenting. I also don’t drink so I’m not fussed on a boozy night out. But I have been to quiz nights, craft fayres, meals, make up and jewellery parties along the way and have built up comfortable alliances. I suppose I know where I’m at amongst that group of parents and everything is tickety-boo.

Now over a year into Little Bear’s schooling, I am finding things with the year 1 parents quite different. I haven’t really built any friendships and tend to keep myself to myself. I realised it the other day when standing alone, feeling a little conspicuous, waiting to pick the little dude up. Why? I wondered. Why am I holding back and purposefully avoiding eye contact? Why aren’t I even engaging in a bit of chit-chat?

I mentioned it to my friend when I was away at the weekend and she said “I think its self-preservation love”, in that way that old friends who know you better than you know yourself can. I’m pretty sure she’s right. I don’t think it is just because Little Bear is adopted, though that is part of it. I think it is also a lot to do with the fact that he has emotional and behavioural difficulties and is not without his educational challenges. Relationships with other parents are certainly more of a minefield when it is your child who is disrupting the class.

I have been in the playground long enough to know how these conversations go. You start chatting about the one thing you know you have in common: school. Inevitably someone asks someone else how their child is getting on. You can try to be generic: “they’re tired” you can say, “It’s a big jump to year 1”. But it is never long before things get more specific. “Yes, it’s a nightmare trying to get all their homework done now they have phonics books isn’t it?” And already you have a problem because your child doesn’t have a phonics book yet. You are faced with the choice of lying in a nodding and smiling kind of way or ‘fessing up. But if you go down the fessing up route it is inevitable that you have to start talking about your child’s needs and how they got them.

I don’t want to discuss Little Bear’s needs with all and sundry. I don’t want parents of children he is in class with to know about his difficulties in any detail. I don’t want to tell them he’s adopted.

However, if you go down the nod and smile route you can never move beyond the superficial.

I am not against discussing Little Bear’s needs per se – I talk to many of my friends about them and obviously I blog about them for the whole internet to see (it’s different, its anonymous) but I want to build up a certain level of trust with somebody new before I go into that kind of detail. I need to know that I can trust them to be discreet and not make Little Bear the talk of the playground. It is very difficult, I am finding, to develop that level of trust with the parents in his class prior to the types of discussion I outlined above. It’s all a bit chicken and egg so I think the easiest thing is to hold back and not enter into these situations in the first place.

All of this is notwithstanding the behaviour. Little Bear tends not to come home and tell me all about what has happened at school, though I hear the most sensational bits when I get called in by his teacher. However, I’m sure that most other children in his class have more advanced language skills and are only too happy to inform their parents of what antics the other children have been up to. I’m also pretty sure that Little Bear’s name, amongst a couple of others, will feature fairly frequently.

I can’t help but wonder, while standing alone in the playground, what the other parents must think of me. Unless they are particularly well-informed about trauma and speech and language difficulties I can only assume that they think Little Bear is naughty. I imagine that most people would then make the not very big leap that his behaviour could well be due to our parenting. Perhaps I am being a little paranoid but I don’t think so, its human nature to wonder and cast aspersions. I can only imagine the conversations that have gone on behind closed doors.

Though I am well-informed about behaviour and the whys and wherefores, if I’m very honest, I don’t think I am entirely comfortable with being the mum of ‘the naughty boy’. I think if the truth be told no parent would want that, for them, or their child. It feels very exposing.

In fact, my avoidance of the other parents has fanned out from the playground and now incorporates out of school events such as parties. I hate taking Little Bear to parties. To start with I was all keen and dutifully took him along to everything but I have quickly lost my enthusiasm.

The problem with parties is that because I am all too aware of Little Bear’s behaviour challenges I don’t take my eyes off him. Other parents pay little heed to their children though and therefore don’t witness what I witness. They don’t see their little darling goading Little Bear or winding him up. They just hear A LOT about it when he finally snaps and thumps them. The children themselves see fit to come and tell Grizzly or I what Little Bear has done and deny their part in the event, even though we have seen it with our own eyes. The children are quick to blame him, too quick. They know he gets himself in bother and therefore it is easy to blame him. People (their parents?) think he’s naughty anyway.

We went to one party and I had to leave in the end because steam was practically coming out of my ears. There was nothing enjoyable about seeing my boy in such a no-win position. I didn’t want him in that situation and I didn’t know what good would come of it.

Grizzly thought I was a bit mad and over-reacting so I suggested he be in charge of taking Little Bear to the next party. He was and suffice it to say that we haven’t agreed to any invites since.

The no-show at parties is probably doing little to help my position with the other parents. No doubt they think I’m aloof and unfriendly, as well as bad at disciplining my child.

I do try to smile at people to balance things out.

In Little Bear’s class there are (strangely) 4 other sets of adopters. You would think that I might find solace in that group. I am friendly with one of those Mums but that relationship grew because we are neighbours and knew each other way before the dawn of the school situation. I began to get friendly with one of the other adopters when the children first started school and although his child does also have some difficulties with his emotion and behaviour regulation, he does not struggle academically, something which his Dad likes to make clear to me. I find competitive parenting difficult at the best of times, not least when you haven’t a chance of being in the competition.

I don’t want it to sound as though I am only able to be-friend other parents of adopted children with SEN. That certainly isn’t the case. Many of my friends who have grown their families through conception and whose children have no difficulties at all are extremely understanding and supportive towards me/us. In fact, you don’t need to have had children at all to understand that navigating Little Bear’s school life could be hard. You just need to be human and empathetic.

The thing is that many of the parents in Little Bear’s class could be just that. If I tried to talk to them and make them understand, they might well. They haven’t done anything wrong. Although I’m not breaking up with anybody, I do feel the urge to say “it’s not them, it’s me”.

It is me. I’m holding back. It’s self-preservation. Because having a child with a range of needs is tough enough. I haven’t the energy to test the relationship waters or overcome the myriad of possible issues with the other parents. It is bad enough standing there with baited breath at the end of each day wondering whether I will hear the most feared five words from a teacher in playground history: Could I have a word? And if I do hear that, I need to steal myself for whatever issue has occurred now, pretend that no one has noticed I’ve been called in again and gather my thoughts so I can respond in a contained and constructive way.

I’m like the playground armadillo – I look cold and unfriendly but my shell is just for protection.

 

 

 

 

The Other Parents

Developmental Language Disorder

As both a Speech and Language Therapist and Mum to a boy with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) this is a subject close to my heart. This week is DLD Awareness Week and tomorrow, the 22nd September 2017 is DLD Awareness Day. Through this blog I want to make a small contribution to raising awareness of this poorly understood condition.

Although DLD has been recognised as a condition for a long time, its name is new. The condition has previously been known as Language Disorder or Specific Language Impairment (SLI) but everybody used the labels differently and the lack of consistency wasn’t helping with making people aware of it. There is currently an awareness raising campaign taking place which is brilliant. There are more children in the UK who meet the criteria for DLD than there are children with Autism but nobody has heard of the former. This equates to 2 to 3 children in every class with a condition that is poorly understood and under-identified. I’m not quite sure what us Speech and Language Therapists have been doing wrong but I’m pleased that there is now a big push to raise the public’s awareness.

As part of the campaign a video has been made. You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/user/RALLIcampaign

You can also tweet about it using the hashtags: #DLD123 #DevLangDis

There are 3 key messages that are the focus of the awareness raising campaign:

  1. DLD means that a child (or adult) has difficulties with understanding and/or using language
  2. DLD is a HIDDEN condition but is surprisingly common.
  3. Support can make a huge difference to children with DLD

In order to bring these messages to life, I would like to share some of my son (Little Bear)’s journey.

  1. In simple terms, Little Bear experiences difficulties with both understanding and using language. This visual produced by Susan Ebbels is helpful in giving more detail:

FullSizeRender (10)

Little Bear experiences (or has experienced) difficulties with every area in the peach circle including Phonology. If you want to know more about his journey, the specific types of difficulty he has overcome and some of the things we have done to help him, you can read about it in these previous posts:  Living with Speech and Language Difficulties , Speech & Language & School, A bit of a rant, SaLT, EP & an Assembly, Communication Difficulties: Update

As part of the awareness campaign, the diagnostic criteria for DLD have been clarified. Crucially, for us, early neglect is not an exclusionary factor. This fits with my growing hunch that Little Bear was always going to have DLD but that his early adverse life experiences have served to deepen his difficulties.

2. DLD is a HIDDEN difficulty but it does show itself if you know what to look for. It is crucial that teachers in particular are able to see beyond ‘challenging behaviours’. A world in which you cannot understand much of what is happening around you and you are unable to verbalise your thoughts, fears and ideas is scary and frustrating. It is no wonder that many children with DLD express themselves through their behaviour. In general people need to get better at looking beyond behaviour – what are the child’s reasons for behaving as they are? In our case (and many other cases up and down the country) trauma could be at play too.

Children with DLD may not put up their hand in class, they might struggle to complete their work and their learning may not be progressing as you would expect. They may struggle in particular with literacy.

If you speak to somebody who is taking a bit longer to answer you or who doesn’t seem to be following your conversation or who is confusing to listen to, they might have DLD. Give them more time. Don’t worry about having a big pause – they might need that time to think. Try to keep your language clear. It doesn’t matter about flowery language – cut to the chase. Say what you mean. Your conversation will get much easier.

Children with DLD are not un-intelligent. Little Bear has the potential to learn many things but the way they are explained to him is crucial. He can struggle with too much or very complex language but if you can explain a complex concept to him in an accessible way, he will understand it. We have recently had chats about hurricanes, electricity and endangered animals and he is a sponge for knowledge if it is presented in a DLD friendly way.

3. The best message from our story is that support really does make a massive difference. A diagnosis of DLD is not hopeless. Despite having been neglected for the first 3 years of his life and having very poor language stimulation during that time, Little Bear’s language skills have gone from strength to strength with the right input. It is never too late to put support in place.

Of course Little Bear’s difficulties are ongoing but he is progressing all the time. He has gone from using 3 to 4 word sentences to full, compound, complex sentences.

His vocabulary has grown from a miniscule hand full of words to a wide and fairly ordered plethora. Although words do still have difficulty getting stored correctly and sometimes jumble together (Numicorn for unicorn (Numicon + Unicorn) or chicken yoghurts (nuggets + yoghurt)), Little Bear is getting better all the time at being able to analyse the parts of words and can mostly imitate them correctly now.

Little Bear’s grammar is not bad, though the order can be jumbled. We usually have one target on the go at a time. At the moment we are working on ‘bigger than’ instead of ‘bigger of’ which Little Bear is grasping and using appropriately.

Little Bear’s speech has gone from being completely unintelligible to just a few vowel and more common errors such as ‘v’ for ‘th’.

His awareness of the sound patterns in words has gone from non-existent to being able to say the first sound to being able to blend sounds together to being able to read.

This level of progress in a two year period is fairly transformational. He doesn’t sound like the same child any more.

The progress has meant that making friends is much easier and things like being able to sing are becoming a possibility (it is still a challenge but Little Bear tries very hard and repetition of songs is really helping him). Little Bear has learned lines and spoken in a class assembly. He can speak on the phone and family members can understand him and have a proper chat.

 

Little Bear’s DLD will be ongoing. It will probably affect him into adulthood but this doesn’t keep me awake at night because I have seen the progress he can make with support. I have every intention of keeping the support going and although DLD will always be a part of him, it needn’t stop him. With the right support, he will be able to reach his full potential.

 

 

Please share, use the hashtags and watch the video. We need to put DLD on the map. Perhaps you know someone who experiences it?

Developmental Language Disorder

Parenting in Public

The actual title of this post should be ‘Parenting a Child with Behavioural Difficulties in Public’ but it’s kind of unwieldy and somewhat lacking in zing. It is what I mean though as ordinary parenting in the public eye is not especially challenging, in my experience.

As we are now coming to the end of week 6 of the summer holidays I have been spending more time than usual out and about with Little Bear in public. We have been to all sorts of places: shops, museums, LEGOLAND, the beach, restaurants, the zoo, parks. Sometimes it all goes swimmingly and there is nothing significant to report but at other times I end up feeling more conspicuous than I would really like.

I think it is partly because Little Bear’s behaviour is at a developmentally lower level than his chronological age. Whilst this is common amongst children who have experienced developmental trauma it can nevertheless look incongruous to the untrained eye. I’m wondering if it has become more pronounced because Little Bear has had a growth spurt and for the first time since he has been with us he is requiring clothes larger than his age. He is a tall 5 and half year old who frequently engages in behaviour more typical of a pre-schooler. Today, for example, we went to the garden centre and he spent a happy 10 minutes going from water feature to water feature putting his hands in and splashing about in them. I can remember Big Bear doing exactly the same thing but he was probably a couple of years younger.

Ditto pointing obviously at people who look different and/ or commenting loudly within their earshot: Look he’s got a bald patch!

Why’s your tooth broken? (Whilst staring at close range into an elderly lady’s mouth when sharing a hand dryer. Thank goodness for unclear speech).

Why does that lady have her belly out mummy?” (Bellowing and blatantly pointing at someone about 3 feet away).

I don’t know son, but perhaps she should ask herself that.

While these developmentally younger behaviours do draw some attention and can be mildly embarrassing, it is the more unusual or more unexpected behaviours that I usually find harder to style out.

Sometimes a waitress or passer-by might be friendly towards Little Bear. They might comment on his outfit or try to chat to him about something and, one assumes due to his attachment difficulties and mistrust of strangers, he can be downright rude. He might not answer them or he might scowl or he might say something like “go away”. I find myself being extra friendly or making some sort of excuse for him.

Little Bear can behave similarly with other children and sometimes he seems to square up to them or tries to stare them out.

Conversely he can be over friendly and will approach people and even lean on them or touch them despite not knowing them. He frequently approaches people if they have babies with them and will try to push the pram. Today he somehow got another Mum whom we didn’t know to push him on the swing (I had turned for a couple of seconds to greet our actual friend).

Little Bear is also quite hyperactive and inquisitive. This tends to lead to a lot of touching of things he shouldn’t, climbing on things he shouldn’t and general wildness. Today I have had to coax him out of a dog basket that he had pulled off the shelf and curled into in the middle of a thoroughfare and also lift him down from a wire gazebo which he had scaled and was hanging from the top of. He hangs off counters in restaurants and cafes and if there is any sort of railing he will be doing roly-polies on it (there is one inside Asda that he is particularly attracted to).

Though he tries his best to stay seated when we go out for meals it is very difficult for him and he does get up and move about. Sometimes he gets under the table. On one occasion he commando crawled under a public toilet door – Big Bear thought it was brilliant and all I could think about was how many germs he had touched en route.

During our holiday we stopped at Services that had a quiet Starbucks and he spent the first ten minutes crawling laps around a long bench seat in there while we tried to maintain a sense of decorum (and tried to pretend he wasn’t with us).

He often runs inside shops and restaurants and might try to pick something up that he shouldn’t e.g. in Sainsbury’s he might start kicking a ball around the aisles if he sees one for sale.

Sometimes Little Bear has public outbursts. Today, whilst in a busy queue at the ice cream kiosk at the park, Little Bear lost his temper because they had run out of the ice cream he wanted. He wouldn’t choose anything different and purposefully ran over his brother’s foot with his bike. When I told him to get off the bike, he kicked it, the wall and attempted to kick me. I could practically feel the anticipation and judgement of the other parents around me, tense with wonder at how I would surely punish him. I guess they were probably quite disappointed when I didn’t (you try juggling a cup of tea, an ice cream, a balance bike and a dysregulated child. Also, I could have lectured them in the pointlessness of punishing a dysregulated child but my hands were quite full).

Now, here is the crucial bit, clearly I do not think that any of this is acceptable behaviour. I was brought up to be polite and well-mannered and try to instil that in my children too. Of course I would prefer it if they would both sit still, be quiet, react politely and not draw excessive attention to us.

If I’m being really honest, when Little Bear first arrived and his behaviour was at the more extreme end of things, I frequently felt like stopping members of the public to say “don’t judge me, he’s adopted. I didn’t make him like this!” (Don’t worry, I never did and I do know it isn’t an appropriate way to handle things!).

In an ideal world my child wouldn’t pelt up and down pubs, make loads of noise or throw things. However, in an ideal world, my little boy wouldn’t have been neglected. He wouldn’t have an uphill struggle ahead of him and his development would not have been adversely affected by his start in life.

I can’t set ideal parenting standards for Little Bear (at the moment) because good parenting does not involve setting your child up to fail. I cannot ask him to sit still throughout a meal, be friendly and polite at all times, always walk and never run and never touch anything. I can’t ask that of him because I know that he is already trying his best and he can’t do it.

I have had to re-evaluate what is absolutely essential behaviour-wise and what is less so. I have had to decide which things I can turn a blind eye to and which things I will tackle. I can’t tackle everything at once because I would be telling him off every minute of the day and that is no good for anybody. For now I have a zero tolerance approach to violence and we try our best to follow instructions the majority of the time. Other issues are for later.

My parenting style with Little Bear can be summed up by “don’t sweat the small stuff” and “pick your battles”.

The only problem is that Mr and Mrs Public are not versed in this approach and actually often do want to sweat the small stuff. Last week, Little Bear got told off twice by strangers. The first time it was because he had lifted a glass lid in a café to show me which donut he wanted. The waitress walked past and sharply said “that is made of glass! It is not for you to touch!” The second time was because he was climbing on a wooden railing inside a family pub and the waiter sternly told him to get down from there.

As I was present on both of these occasions and the person in question saw fit to tell Little Bear off anyway, I can only assume that they felt my parenting was lacking. Were I to have the time or inclination to concern myself with this, I would probably be quite offended. However, thanks to Little Bear, I don’t bother sweating the small stuff either.

I can feel a bubble of something brewing though. One or two interventions from strangers I can take. A stare or glare here or there I can ignore. Maybe even a tut could be disregarded. I know that people are judging Little Bear against their standards of behaviour and finding him lacking. I know that consequently they see my parenting as lacking. I have grown a thicker skin and am mostly adept at shrugging it off. I am confident on the path I am taking and I have the benefit of understanding his behaviour, what could be causing it and also seeing the incredible progress Little Bear has made.

However, I know there is a line when it comes to strangers telling off my children and should someone see fit to cross it, I would not be able to hold back. Don’t be so bloody judgemental, I would want to say, you don’t know his background; you don’t know what he has been through. Don’t judge my parenting. Try walking a few steps in my shoes and then see how you feel.

My inner momma bear is poised, ears pricked up. Ready. Little Bear is my cub. He is my noisy, energetic, curious, infuriating mischief of a cub but he’s my cub and he’s trying his best and I will not hesitate to leap to his defence if provoked.

Consider yourselves warned Mr and Mrs Public. Consider yourselves warned.

Parenting in Public