Conversations

Firstly, I’m sorry, I’m in a bad mood at this moment and I rather suspect it will be evident as this blog post progresses. The reason for my mood will also transpire.

Earlier in the week, we had some workmen over to do a job for us. I didn’t know them but we got chatting, as you do. Within minutes I had learned that the man’s son had ADHD and they’d had difficulties with his schooling. Feeling an immediate kinship, I felt I wanted to tell him that I also have a son and he also has some behaviour and learning needs. I was cautious though because I distinctly remember sitting in adoption preparation groups doing a practical exercise on who you should and should not share information with about your child being adopted. Workmen were a clear ‘no’. They knew where you lived: they did not need to know that an adopted child, who may be vulnerable, lived in your house. This was in the back of my mind but I also knew that this man had walked a walk which I understood. I decided to trust he was a decent bloke and shared that I also have a son with needs.

We shared some similar anecdotes and then he asked me what diagnosis, if any, my son has. I knew this would happen and this was the bit I had considered avoiding. However, I didn’t. I explained he’d had a traumatic start in life, was now adopted and his diagnosis was Developmental Trauma. The man understood what I was talking about and it turned out he knew an adoptive family well and their son had similar needs. It also transpired that the man himself was adopted so we chatted about that too.

It was a conversation I perhaps shouldn’t have had, but it was a thoroughly positive experience.

Today, we had a meeting with an Educational Psychologist about Little Bear. This was an official conversation I had to have but ironically, this was the conversation I wished I could undo. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, this is the reason for my furious mood. As a parent of a child with additional needs, when you have a meeting about those needs with a professional who is supposedly more knowledgeable than you are, the very least you can reasonably expect is to come away feeling understood. You would also hope to come away with some useful tips or strategies. You would not expect to come out sweaty-angry because things have got a little heated.

We’ve seen the Educational Psychologist (EP) before (see Seeing the Educational Psychologist and SaLT, EP & an Assembly ) and despite me having some misgivings, it went brilliantly. The man in question was knowledgeable and trauma-informed. Unfortunately, that EP has moved on and we have a new one.

Things started okay with this fellow. He’d done an hour’s observation first thing then we had met for a consultation, with the SENCO, class teacher and Little Bear’s TA also in attendance. The main purpose of the meeting, in my mind, was to review where we were up to in terms of re-applying for funding going forwards. I am fully aware that funding is not within the jurisdiction of the EP. However, I have been in enough of these situations to know that as a professional, you are often called in to inform a funding decision. You make an independent assessment and you write a detailed report detailing a child’s needs. It wouldn’t bother me in the slightest if people wanted to discuss funding in my presence. I wouldn’t be able to say whether a child should have it or not but I would be very clear about their needs and what measures are required to meet those needs appropriately. I thought the EP would do the same.

Instead, he was so touchy about funding (even though we didn’t mention it any point) that I came away believing he had a (not very well) hidden agenda. It meant that he wouldn’t give a straight answer about what level of support he believed Little Bear to require and wouldn’t comment in any detail on his needs. He kept saying, “I have no influence on funding”. We kept saying, “We know, we aren’t asking you to comment on funding”. At one point Grizzly said, “So, are we on the same page?” (in relation to a specific point) and the EP replied, “I’m on my own page”. When we tried to establish what that page was, he wouldn’t tell us. It was most baffling.

I also felt he had little to no knowledge of trauma/attachment. It was when we started discussing independence that things started to unravel.

The key reason that Little Bear has 1:1 support now is due to his extremely poor emotional resilience and lack of self-confidence. I’ve talked about it before and I think my post Jigsaws illustrates my point most powerfully. The EP evidently thought (though he only said so cryptically) that Little Bear has too much support and does not do enough work independently. He felt independence in his learning was a priority. I disagreed with this because I feel his biggest priority is building resilience, a love of learning and the confidence to tackle new tasks when faced with them. When those things are in place, he will manage independence. I struggled to get the EP to understand this.

He kept saying that Little Bear can be given a task he knows how to do first to break him in gently to a task he’s never done before. That makes sense in theory but what he doesn’t account for is Little Bear’s alertness to new tasks and the fact that, without the nurturing support of a trusted adult by his side, Little Bear will baulk at the task and not be able to begin. The EP, in his uninformed wisdom, reckons that with practise of working independently, Little Bear will learn to complete tasks alone. He won’t if he doesn’t have the requisite skills or belief. He will disengage and learn diddlysquat.

The EP went on to patronise us all by saying that children need to experience success in order to build resilience. I KNOW. I feel as though I have said it a million times myself. However, Little Bear currently needs adult support to begin and engage with a task. He needs an adult to support him to stay on task and reach the point of completion and success. Without that support, he will not experience success. You can’t remove his safety net and expect him to get there by himself.

I pointed out that we put him in challenging positions all the time. I didn’t labour the fact that we tirelessly work to match activities to ability (see Our Just right challenge) and carefully dampen or increase our level of support to ensure his success. He said, “But do you though? Do you do it enough?” It was an open question to us and school but I would like to have seen him take Little Bear canoeing when he was still in the feral phase or take him for a skiing lesson or horse-riding or on a plane or on a skidoo or a bike or supervise him with a sharp knife or a power tool. We have done all of those things and more and I did not appreciate the inference otherwise.

Grizzly had done well keeping fairly quiet throughout this debate and I wondered if it was just me. However, the EP went on to suggest a strategy of “planned ignoring” for when Little Bear interrupts or shouts out in class. Grizzly stepped in to point out that there is an attachment reason behind this behaviour and Little Bear shouldn’t be ignored because, if anything, it would inflame the problem. He needs to know the teacher hasn’t forgotten him and is holding him in mind, even if shouting out is not an appropriate behaviour. The teacher’s approach of saying; “That’s a lovely answer. I’d love to hear it when it’s your turn/ when you have your hand up” feels much more appropriate.

Overall, I felt the strategies the EP suggested were extremely basic and I felt defensive of the school who are already working hard and employing so many more complex strategies. The suggestions he made indicated a lack of knowledge and understanding of the complex behaviours we all experience.

The final straw, which we were unable to resolve, came when he said he had made a tally of the number of times Little Bear’s TA intervened to help him during a task. Apparently it was, “considerably more often than she intervened with others”. I queried this because Mrs. C is employed with Little Bear’s funding as Little Bear’s TA. I would expect her to help him more than others because that’s her job. I couldn’t understand the point of it as a statistic. The EP seemed to suggest the number was meaningful so we asked him what his interpretation of the number was – did he mean that Mrs C steps in too frequently or that Little Bear requires a high level of support? He refused to be drawn, saying he is there to gather the information, not to comment on it. He then returned to his rhetoric of not being allowed to comment on funding.

The Head, who was working quietly in the room, but not in the meeting, said, “They aren’t trying to trick you, I think they just want an answer” to which, there was no answer.

The more I reflect on it now, the more bizarre it seems. I get the impression this EP is used to coming to meetings, asking lots of questions, writing down the answers and going away again. I don’t think he is used to informed parents who ask difficult questions of him. I’m pretty sure he went away thinking we are a royal pain in the backside but I don’t really care. It isn’t okay to provide mediocre or downright rubbish services to parents because they don’t know otherwise. Services should be excellent because these are the most vulnerable children in our society. What we do now and what support is put in place for Little Bear now is going to be crucial for his life chances in the future.

I know people are under pressure because of funding cuts and I suspect he did have an agenda along those lines but children’s needs are their needs, irrespective of funding and I’m not sorry that I will fight for Little Bear’s needs to be met. I’m sorry we crossed paths with that particular EP and I’m sorry we have to have another meeting with him in a couple of months. I suspect it would have gone considerably better if we let our workman from earlier in the week chair the meeting.

I am sure it will all work out and with a child with additional needs, a meeting or three like this are par for the course. But they shouldn’t be. It isn’t ok and our children (and us if we’re honest) deserve more.

I do want to give credit to school though and specifically to Little Bear’s teacher, who has really listened and changed his approach and referred several times to ‘doing things differently’ in the meeting. I am extremely grateful to them.

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Conversations

Seeking the Positives

I know I promised last week that for this blog post I would write something shorter and lighter so I will endeavour to but to be honest it has been a confusing kind of day. My brain is a bit of a mangle and I’m not too sure, at this stage, how it’s going to come out.

My thoughts are around the idea that when it comes to adoptive parenting, how you feel about events really depends on how you choose to look at them. I suppose that’s true of many of life’s events but there is something specifically yin and yang about parenting a child with some behaviour challenges.

I find that in so many situations there are positives. I don’t know if my glass is half full or what, as I am very much a realist, but I do like a positive. I seek them out and collect them. The rub is that for each positive or few positives, there will be an equal and opposite negative. It’s as though when one hand gives, the other takes away.

For all the fabulous things Little Bear does, he’ll do something ridiculous and I guess it’s down to us at those moments, to decide whether we let that thing taint the good stuff or just let it go. Sometimes it’s impossible to be objective about it. Sometimes things push your buttons so much that you can’t help being irked. Sometimes you have given warnings and explained the cause and effect of an action and given ample chances and your little darling has chosen to do that thing anyway. At those points it is hard to find the positive.

At other times, I find myself dithering a bit. I find myself thinking theoretically that he shouldn’t have done x, y or z but that it hasn’t actually upset me at all and therefore should I bother making a point of it or not.

I suppose what I’m saying is that there is a lot of sifting of behaviour going on: a constant analysis of whether things have gone well or whether they haven’t, when you balance up the negatives and positives at the end of it all. This thought makes much more sense if you consider a specific event. For example, if we went to a party and Little Bear had played well with the other children and had sat for his party tea but at one point he had nicked someone’s balloon and had purposefully popped it, making them cry, is that, on balance, a successful or unsuccessful event? I could decide that the balloon popping was a big incident and therefore feel bad about the whole thing. Or, I could think that in the grand scheme of things, popping a balloon was small fry and that at parties, some incident or other is par for the course. In that scenario I can come away feeling pretty chipper and like things went as well as they should. The event is the same in both examples. The only thing that has changed is my perception of what happened.

When we became adopters (specifically of Little Bear and his particular needs), there was a natural adjustment period in which we changed our perceptions of what constituted a successful event. I suppose we made adjustments to our expectations based on his developmental level, behaviour at the time and knowledge of what he could/ could not reasonably cope with. To begin with, that was going to a place without us getting thrown out. If we achieved that and nobody ended up in A and E, it was a clear success. I think we have continued to adjust those expectations as he has developed and progressed so that now, we expect much more from him.

What’s difficult at the moment is knowing, accurately, what he really is capable of in any given situation. I think our expectations are pretty reasonable: we never demand exemplary behaviour all of the time because that’s clearly ridiculous. I think we take a lot of shenanigans in our stride. We never expect an event to go by without some sort of minor issue or three and that’s ok. We’re pretty adept at ignoring the less than perfect.

What is getting increasingly tricky are the situations when behaviour very clearly doesn’t live up to expectation; when we know Little Bear is capable of more or better. I think we are faced with a choice at these junctures: do we blame regulation/ his history/ the wind direction and allow those things to justify his behaviour? Or do we think that, actually, he is capable of more and should have tried harder? I am very much an analyser, a seeker of answers, a person who actively considers behaviour from all angles. I am very much about looking beyond behaviour, thinking about what it communicates and what may have triggered it. I do those things as a matter of course. However, I find myself occasionally wondering whether in doing so, I always find an excuse for Little Bear when, let’s be honest, all children can be little so and so’s sometimes and also that, as he grows older, he will need to take increasing responsibility for his own actions.

The reason I wonder this is because yesterday was Little Bear’s nativity. He had worked hard to learn all his lines off by heart and he delivered them perfectly. He was in all the right places at all the right times and did a sterling job. Then, as if to provide the yin to his yang, he proceeded to writhe about the front of the stage, hanging off the front and generally mucking about. He had been on the stage for approximately two minutes so even by his standards it was a remarkably short time to have got bored already. I know that he knows he shouldn’t do that. When the head teacher spoke, Little Bear was the only child who took it upon themselves to heckle him. It wasn’t cool.

I decided to speak to him about it later because there was an evening performance too. Sometimes, if there has been a problem with situational understanding or social expectations, a little chat to make things more explicit can help. I felt he was pretty clear on the behaviour expectations. However, lo and behold, in the evening performance, he pretty much repeated his antics from earlier, adding in a fracas with the other donkey and once more loudly disagreeing with the head teacher.

I couldn’t help going away feeling as though the negatives of his behaviour had outweighed the positives of line-learning and delivery. Grizzly came away feeling similarly.

As with all situations, I think we now have a choice of how to view the event. We could continue to be disappointed by his behaviour, knowing he is capable of more. We could choose to think that if only he had tried a little harder, he could have lasted the final two minutes without incident. We could consider that the other 59 children managed it, several of whom are also adoptees, as did all the children in Reception class who are two years younger than him. That line of thought could lead us to wanting to talk to him about it.

However, it’s done. No matter what we think or say, he can’t undo it. Given that, what would be the point of expressing our disappointment to him? It would only shame him.

We could choose to excuse his behaviour. We could blame it on tiredness, the anticipation of Christmas, dysregulation, the audience – a whole multitude of possible culprits. By exonerating him, would we be at risk of thinking he doesn’t have the power to control himself when he very clearly does?

Perhaps there is another way to view it. We could decide to view it from the point of view that Little Bear wouldn’t be Little Bear if there wasn’t a moment of indiscretion. We could just write the last 2 minutes off as collateral damage. We could focus on the fact that, despite having DLD, Little Bear managed to learn 52 words, arranged into 6 sentences, all off by heart and delivered it clearly and loudly. Those facts are phenomenal and fairly unbelievable given his difficulties with auditory memory, language and speech.

I don’t think it matters too much which perspective we choose to take, because none of them can change the event itself. There are no more nativities coming up that we could hope to go differently. Therefore, I think I choose the last version; the most positive. I think I seek the positives because they make everybody feel better. The negatives are difficult. The negatives draw unwanted attention to us as parents, they call into question our parenting in other people’s minds and they cause us embarrassment. It is difficult to be fighting the fight of getting school to understand your child and their behaviour then seeing them seemingly choose to clown around in front of all the parents, staff and half the school.

For one’s sanity, it is often preferable to take the positive stance.

I’m getting better at sweeping the negatives aside and letting them go. I just hope that in doing so, I’m not lowering my expectations of Little Bear unduly and I’m not finding justifications for his behaviour when I should be demanding better.

*

Anyhoo, it’s nearly Christmas and I have presents to wrap. All that remains is to say I hope you all have a calm and happy Christmas and enjoy time with your loved ones. I asked the boys if they have any Christmas messages for you. Predictably, Little Bear told a rude joke and sang a song about Uncle Billy losing his willy. Big Bear says, “Merry Christmas you filthy animals”. So, you know, good luck (I might need some) and enjoy the festivities. Lots of love from all The Bears xxx

 

Seeking the Positives

Stop. Collaborate & Listen.

No, Ice is not back with his latest invention, it’s just me, yattering on about relationships between home and school again.

Since Little Bear started school we have had our fair share of concerns (see School WorriesSchool-Parent Partnership and Dear Teacher ). We have worked hard to overcome them as best we can and around this time last year I wrote Alleviating School Worries about some of the positive practical changes that had been made.

A pattern seems to be emerging now where the first part of a new school year is hard work, stressful and leads us to the brink of crisis before we somehow manage to get school to listen and things improve considerably. The improvement part is fabulous and more of a relief than I imagine when it finally happens. The fact we have to go through the hard bit first, not so much.

We worked extremely hard on Transition this time so I don’t honestly know what else we could have done differently to avoid the tricky bit. It feels as though no matter how clear we are and how much we labour the specifics of Little Bear’s needs, the new teacher doesn’t hear us until they have experienced what we are talking about for themselves. It’s as though they need to approach him in the way they think (taking our information with a pinch of salt), using the strategies they usually use, only to find out the hard way that his behaviour will escalate. They then cynically have a go at the things we suggest, leading to a miraculous transformation. At this point, they seem to start listening a bit harder.

As you can see, I don’t have all the answers and I don’t know (yet) how to prevent this pattern. However, along the way we have learned a lot about developing the relationships we need with teachers and making change happen. I thought it might be useful to share some thoughts and ideas:

Things for teachers to think about

  • Parents of children with additional needs of any nature, but particularly adopters, are often a vocal and knowledgeable bunch. You might find we e-mail more, ask for more meetings and try to talk to you more than the average parent. I understand this is time consuming and potentially a little full-on. Please try not to run a mile or hide under your desk when you spot us coming. The best way to tame the over-involved-parent beast is to talk to us. If we see that you are listening and that you want to work with us, we will be a lot lower-maintenance.
  • (The little chat I’ve made a point of having with Mr. Teacher at the end of each week has made a huge difference to our relationship and to his understanding of Little Bear.)
  • Please don’t interpret our involvement and commitment as ‘over anxious parenting’. We think working in partnership is best and that laying the groundwork before problems arise is preferable to waiting for crisis (We’ve been there before, it isn’t fun).
  • Unfortunately, if you don’t respond to our e-mails and won’t meet with us and won’t consider other ways of doing things, we are left with no other options than to escalate our concerns to the SENCO/Head/Board of Governors/Virtual School. This isn’t meant as a threat. We don’t really want to do these things – it’s a hassle/it takes time/ it takes emotional energy we don’t always have – but we will because parenting is about being a voice for our child when they don’t have one and if we don’t fight for them, who will? We won’t be quiet and we won’t go away. It’d be so much better for all of us if we could do this the easy way: together.
  • When a child challenges you in your classroom with their behaviour, please don’t automatically assume it is due to ‘parenting’. Familiarise yourself with the child’s history; read their file, talk to other staff who know them. Is there trauma in their background? Do they have speech and language needs? Do they have attachment needs? All of these things could be the root cause of difficult behaviour.
  • If you are unsure how to support a child or your usual methods aren’t working, that’s okay. Parents are often experts in managing their children’s behaviour and we have many, many tricks up our sleeves. Ask us. We won’t think you’re crap at your job, we’ll feel valued and respected as the people who know our children best. If you are having moments of feeling out of your depth, we probably are too. Let’s work together.
  • Some of the strategies we talk about (especially for children with developmental trauma) might feel counterintuitive and opposite to the things you usually do. Please be brave and try them. Give them a good go, because once or twice isn’t enough. If you want to know more about the theory behind the strategies, we can point you to sources of information. Even if you don’t ask, there is a high likelihood we’ll be printing things off and giving them to you anyway. We’re sorry about that but getting things right for our children is kind of important to us.
  • If a child comes to your class with a visual timetable/social story/ communication aid/ calm box/worry monster/ chewy tube/ sensory diet/ other useful item, please get it out and use it. These things do not work in cupboards or drawers. If you’ve given it a good go and it doesn’t seem to be meeting its aims, talk to us about it. Maybe we could come up with a solution together.
  • Children will not learn in your classroom if they don’t feel safe and secure. This isn’t my opinion; it’s a fact. If a parent, or a child themselves, lets you know they aren’t feeling happy and comfortable in the classroom, try not to take this personally. Our children struggle to form relationships with all new people – it is not a reflection of how nice a person you are/aren’t (though I understand how it can feel like that). I understand why learning a child is unhappy in your classroom might make you feel defensive. Please see that it is not a personal attack. Also, if anyone understands how uncomfortable this feeling is, it’s us. Imagine how rejected and impotent you would feel if your child didn’t feel safe and secure at home, with your parenting. We’ve been there and felt that. We totally empathise.
  • However, it is a problem and in order to fix it, you will need to accept that the child isn’t feeling safe. Telling parents that a child is behaving in a certain way ‘for their benefit’ or ‘to get attention’ or ‘to manipulate adults’ isn’t okay or helpful. Instead, ask, ‘what could be done differently to help them feel safe?’ and be open to the suggestions that are made.
  • A child will feel safe in your classroom when they feel safe with you and in the relationship that you have. Get to know them and their individual likes/dislikes. Is there something you could bring in especially to show them? Could you give them a special job or responsibility? Could you find 5 minutes each day to spend 1:1 with them? Part of feeling safe in a relationship comes about when a child is really clear about what your boundaries are and knows what will happen if their worst behaviour spills out. Ideally they will know that you will be in charge even when they lose control; that you will be calm and that you will still like them. Often the only way they can find this out is by testing your boundaries. Expect some challenges. Don’t panic. Be firm. Consider your strategies carefully: avoid punishing dysregulation. Consider calm-down time and giving the child a break (in a physical sense of letting them use a quiet corner). Talk with them afterwards. Wonder aloud as to why they may have acted as they have. Empathise. Remember to separate behaviour from the child themselves – it is imperative we don’t shame children who already feel worthless. If in doubt, imagine you are them: consider the incident through their eyes.
  • (Little Bear’s teacher coming out of his classroom door in the morning and having a bit of ‘banter’ with Little Bear has made a huge difference to him going into the classroom. It’s a small thing but it’s completely overturned school refusal.)
  • I understand that it is difficult to cope with a child with social, emotional or mental health difficulties in your already busy classroom. You are already working hard trying to balance everyone’s needs with the demands of the curriculum, meeting targets etc. Our children needn’t be another challenge: with the right support they are pure potential. With the implementation of a few strategies and tweaks to your approach, you could be the difference in our child’s education.
  • (Now that Little Bear is back on track, he is on target for making more than a year’s progress in year 2. That’s amazing.)

Things for parents to think about

  • Be as quick to praise the good as to highlight problems. We are a vocal bunch and it’s only right that we expect a high standard of education for our children. However, let’s not be moaners or doom bringers. Let’s save our complaining for when it’s needed and be fair about it. Let’s balance our complaining with positivity: when school get something right, tell them. They need to hear the praise and affirmation as much as any of us.
  • As frustrating and upsetting as our interactions with certain teachers can be, always stay on the moral high ground. If we want to be respected as professional parents, we need to act professionally. I have sworn and cursed and badmouthed in the privacy of my own home but never anywhere else. I have been direct and I’ve shared my feelings but I have never been rude, raised my voice or been in any way offensive. If we hope to achieve good working relationships in the future (surely, always the aim?) we need to be careful not to do anything that would cause irreparable damage to those relationships. For that reason I think it’s wise to avoid venting our spleens in Whatsapp parent groups or Facebook groups or on the playground. Firstly, it’s not cool. Secondly, these things have a tendency of getting back to teachers and head teachers. Thirdly, why do anything to jeopardise the relationships we are working so hard to build?
  • (Note to self: be extremely careful when blogging!!)
  • I think the key to getting good relationships with school is communication. I’ve found that e-mail is not a great medium. Often you don’t get a reply which is pretty irking. When you write the email it is difficult to pick your words correctly so as not to leave anything open to misinterpretation. I certainly think I’ve caused defensiveness (totally unintended) with some of my attempts. I have now ditched email in favour of a face to face chat. I’m particularly partial to a playground ambush!
  • It is tempting to stop chatting when things are going ok. I think there is a danger in this that the teacher begins to associate a chat with you with a problem; further compounding their desire to avoid you. I think it’s good to keep up the chats and to be able to have really positive ones – they make everyone feel better.
  • Don’t be scared of spelling things out. I am an increasingly big fan of directness. Previously I have assumed it is obvious how I might be feeling but it seems it isn’t. I sent one email to Little Bear’s school team saying, “When you don’t ask our opinions or include us in big decisions, it makes me feel as though you don’t value our expertise as parents. This is upsetting because we believe that working together is in the best interests of LB.” This was swiftly followed by an apology from school and the penny seemed to drop about why I was ‘fussing’ again. People are busy; they probably don’t have time to stop, think or notice. It’s ok to explain how you feel.
  • Teachers are humans too. We need to remember that they don’t just have our little darling to think about but at least 20 others as well. They have ridiculous demands on them to meet this, that and the other standard and every professional who comes in asks them to do something else in addition to the myriad things they already do. I don’t think it hurts to acknowledge we are aware of this. It isn’t going to stop us asking them to put things in place for our children (they are our priority after all) or to give us their time but we can be thankful and empathetic when they do.
  • (I am genuinely grateful that Little Bear’s teacher found an hour and a half for me yesterday after being in school on Monday evening for a writing exhibition, having his class in the music afternoon yesterday and then needing to build a stage after I had gone for next week’s nativity, and I told him so. He has a home to go to too.)
  • As much as we want teachers to respect us and our knowledge of our children, we need to respect them. I’m not a teacher. I don’t know all the ins and outs of the curriculum or the different methods of teaching Maths. Ideally they bring their knowledge to the table and we bring ours – kind of like a bring and share work lunch. We aren’t aiming for us and them, we’re aiming for us.
  • I strongly believe that a consistent approach across home and school is the most effective way of supporting our children to feel safe and to reach their full potential. This is what drives me to keep politely approaching the teacher, keep repeating the same points, keep coming up with possible solutions even when I actually feel like crying or slapping somebody.
  • Remember to practise self-care. This whole managing school malarkey can be really bloody hard work. A bad drop-off can set a worrying tone to the whole day. You do need confidants who are safe to vent to (maybe people who aren’t involved with the school) and you do need to look after you. You can’t afford to run out of energy because who fights the fight then?
  • I also think it’s important to keep the Big Guns up your sleeve for when you need them. Don’t underestimate how exhausting this can be and how alone it can make you feel – like a tiny whisper standing up to the behemoth that is school. Sometimes it gets too big to do on your own. Don’t be frightened of bringing someone with you to meetings. I tend to wheel Grizzly out when I’ve had enough – he isn’t frightened of being extremely direct and sometimes that’s needed. I also know that we’ve got the post adoption support service there if we need it and we have called on them to be in meetings when things are going awry. Unfortunately, schools can be more likely to listen when the person telling them is a professional. That doesn’t make us feel good but as long as the message gets across, we need to not concern ourselves too much with how.
  • Equally, if you aren’t sure what is going on in the classroom and you have some concerns, getting another professional that you trust in there can be really effective. Many professionals (speech and language therapist/ OT/ educational psychologists) do school observations as part of their work. I know that when the speech and language therapist did an observation as part of her work with Little Bear, the feedback she was able to give me was really enlightening.
  • Ask for regular meetings and always book in the next one at the end
  • Make notes and keep your notes
  • Ideally have a home-school book for day to day information. We’ve had a few discussions about the type of information that is needed in there – “LB found it hard to sit still during the English lesson on expanded noun phrases” is a lot more useful than “good reading”.
  • Keep the faith. It is never too late to turn things around (though I totally see that in some situations the only solution is a different school or home-school. I don’t see that as giving up, but finding a workable solution)

 

I’m very sorry for another lengthy post. I promise to write something short and sweet next week 😉

Stop. Collaborate & Listen.

Control

I have to admit that I have been dithering this morning. I knew I needed to blog but it’s dark, rain is pounding the window as though the world is weeping and I feel like getting wrapped in a blanket and hibernating. Part of the problem is that I haven’t been particularly kind to myself with my choice of topic this week. I have decided to write about control and controlling behaviour but it’s quite meaty and I’ve needed to hit the books first. It is always easier to write the kind of post that just flows out of my head but sometimes a topic comes to mind because I don’t understand it enough and because I need to use the blog as an opportunity to learn a bit more. So, mind over matter, here I am, semi-researched and ready to type.

Controlling behaviour is certainly apparent in our house and it always has been, ever since Little Bear arrived. Admittedly, it isn’t as present as it used to be but there are certainly times when it is and it can be pretty tricky to manage. Initially, Little Bear sought control in every interaction. If we said ‘do this’ he said, ‘no’. If we said, ‘don’t do that’, he would say, “I certainly will.” He went further than that. If somebody sat somewhere he didn’t like, he would threaten them until they moved. If we gave him food, he wouldn’t eat it. If we didn’t want him to eat something, he’d eat it. His need for control made him contrary and oppositional in pretty much every interaction.

It can be extremely difficult, when faced with this type of behaviour, not to go head to head with it; not to threaten and shout and vie to be in control yourself. As a parent of a non-traumatised child, we were used to being in charge; to him pretty much always doing what we asked of him so this new world where a three year was attempting to rule the roost was shocking to say the least.

In order to properly explain why he was behaving like this, I’ve done a bit of reading. Bruce Perry (my favourite guru), says, “Because youth who have been through trauma often come from homes in which chaos and unpredictability appear ‘normal’ to them, they may respond with fear to what is actually a calm and safe situation. Attempting to take control of what they believe is the inevitable return of chaos, they appear to “provoke” it in order to make things feel more comfortable and predictable”. This rings true. From what we know of Little Bear’s birth family, life was chaotic. There was little or perhaps sporadic adult supervision. There were older siblings who may or may not have tried to exercise control over the younger ones but in general I suspect everyone ran wild and free. Unfortunately, this pattern continued in foster care, where Little Bear also received little supervision and seemed to spend his days entertaining himself in dangerous and risky ways.

This isn’t okay. However, for Little Bear, it was all he had known. To him, chaos and lack of supervision was normal. When he arrived here, to an environment of constant supervision (we literally didn’t take our eyes off him for the first months because we didn’t know what he might do) things must have seemed totally upside down. I suppose it might have felt smothering and claustrophobic. To him, this was chaos. This was abnormal. It must have felt very unsafe, hence his need to regain control by refusing to comply etc.

This is where things get a little tricky. Obviously, I wouldn’t want my son to feel unsafe at home. However, it isn’t healthy to allow a three year to control everything. That could only lay down the foundations for far larger problems later. As scary as this was for him, Little Bear was going to have to get used to environments where adults are in charge and where demands are made of him because otherwise school and work were going to be impossible. Hopefully, over time, he would learn a new type of safety, where grown-ups, not children, are in charge.

It is hard to pick apart how we succeeded in that because we did a lot of things that tackled a lot of different issues. Sometimes we got it right and sometimes we got it wrong. Vera Fahlberg tells us about how it should work: “The supportive approach to control issues is twofold. First, the adult demonstrates to the child that the child does not lose when he complies with reasonable demands, but instead everyone wins. Second, the adult provides as many opportunities for the child to be autonomous as is appropriate, given the child’s age.”

I think we were lucky that Little Bear could tolerate praise and in fact lapped it up. It meant that we could praise good decision making and co-operation. We were careful to praise every single tiny step of positivity. We didn’t just assume that he should put his shoes on when we asked. If he did co-operate, we made a big fuss (in a good way). If he didn’t co-operate we got pretty practised at ignoring a lot of the less positive behaviour (throwing etc.) and waiting, silently, for him to co-operate. We would always praise the part where he did do what was asked and try not to comment too much on the more negative bits that had happened first. We tried not to feed the control monster.

I can’t, hand on heart, say that we handled all situations as well as this. There certainly were times we went head to head with him and we learned the hard way that it is ineffective, as I suspect most new parents of traumatised children do. I can’t, hand on heart, say that there aren’t still occasions when I just want him to ‘do what he’s bloody asked’ and handle it less than therapeutically. We are human.

A lot of this is about relationships. As time went on and we were still there and we said sorry when we were out of order and we repaired things when it had gone awry and we talked and we wondered, Little Bear’s need for control itself gradually subsided.

Interestingly, Vera (I hope she doesn’t mind first name terms) also says, “Parents who know they can take charge whenever the situation warrants are not threatened when their children make decisions that don’t work out well. If a parent doesn’t know how to take charge when a child is out of control, the young person senses this and becomes frightened.” She goes on, “If the parent continues to be unable or unwilling to control the child in such a situation, the child’s inappropriate behaviours usually escalate.”

From the first day I met Little Bear, as well as being shocked by his behaviour (not mentioned in any paperwork, anywhere), I knew I should never show his behaviour any fear. I had met many families of children with complex needs through my work and many times seen parents so frightened of their children’s behaviour that their lives were ruled by it and it paralysed them from making changes which might ultimately help. From the onset, we reminded ourselves that Little Bear was a small child and we didn’t need to fear him. It did help us to remain calm when he was losing control. There were many times I held him and said, “I’m not going to let you hurt me” when he was lashing out. We did take control when he was losing control. We removed items he was too overstimulated to use. We stayed with him no matter what he did.

Again, I can’t pretend we always handled these situations appropriately. Tiredness, illness, hormones all impact your ability to stay calm no matter what. I know that sometimes it did feel like a battle for control and that Little Bear was trying to push and push to get a reaction because he felt out of control and he needed to check whether we were reliably in charge or not. Dealing with control issues is certainly not easy. I like to think we got it right enough of the time to make a difference.

In general, these days, I’d say we walk a line between encouraging Little Bear to co-operate (with reasonable demands) and giving him the autonomy Vera talks about. Depending on what else is going on, we make adjustments to keep us on the line. For example, if Little Bear is finding life a bit tricky, we reduce the demands we make of him. We might feed him his tea or help him get dressed so that he can manage the rest of the demands of his day.

Giving him autonomy is tricky because he may still exploit it. If we say he is in charge of a task, he would then think he was in charge of that task forever. He might also think that ‘being in charge’ of something means he can speak to people involved in a very bossy way. It can be hard to give him manageable autonomy that doesn’t lead to a spiralling need for more control. It tends to help if we give autonomy with very clear parameters. As an aside, we have always felt it important to put him in challenging situations with a high likelihood of success e.g. helping Grizzly with a job involving power tools or going canoeing or helping with cooking. They are often situations he can’t believe he’s been let into and in which he rises to the challenge. Being able to succeed in these highly supported but risky activities has many benefits, one of which is feeding his need for control safely.

We have noticed that Little Bear’s control issues come to the fore when he is anxious, frequently in the car. He makes irrational demands such as ‘take over that car’ or ‘drive into that field’ or he tries to control the songs we have on or which windows are open. I increasingly wonder whether journeys scare him and throw him back to a place where chaos ruled. I suppose that as a child, being put into a car and taken somewhere is totally beyond your control, especially if that place is a contact centre or a new home. As I write this I think there is more we could do to calm him at these points (visuals of where we are going, though we always tell him verbally, perhaps a task to be in charge of) but I have to admit this is a time we are firmly in charge and don’t tolerate his spiralling demands.

Another big challenge has been getting school – a place that is institutionally controlling – to understand and manage Little Bear’s controlling behaviour appropriately. There have definitely been times when they haven’t listened and they have tried to use a very authoritarian approach which has backfired spectacularly. Earlier this term, I noticed that Little Bear’s behaviour was spiralling at home and school. He was less co-operative and getting him to comply with any requests was becoming a battle ground again. Sometimes, when you’ve had a good period, a period of relative compliance, a change can put you on the back foot and you forget for a while that you have much better strategies up your sleeve than the ones you are reflexively using. Guilty of slipping into traditional parenting ways, I tried to step back and think. Why was Little Bear seeking control left, right and centre again? There was only one logical explanation: he felt out of control somewhere in his life. Coupled with school refusal I could only assume that place was school.

I continued to speak with school but wondered whether there was anything that could be done at home to keep us on the line I talked about. Little Bear’s bedtime routine had become difficult again, with refusal to comply with each part of the now very familiar routine. To try to reduce the demands, I tried a visual timetable. I explained to him that as he finds us asking him to do things difficult, he could be in charge of the tick list and hence the whole of getting ready for bed. In theory, it would be possible for him to do all the stages without me making any verbal demands at all (i.e. autonomously). I should really have anticipated that his need for control is such that he would have to test the parameters of the new system, rather than just using it. So far, he has tried adding more boxes, demanding things that are not on the list, rubbing out all the ticks half way through, using crosses instead, refusing to give the list back and writing on himself with the felt pen. This is a good example of him seeing what the parameters are. Rather than ditching the timetable, I am trying to be very clear about what is and is not part of the timetable process. If he can’t manage to stick within it, I guess it will show me he isn’t ready for this level of autonomy. However, I think he is. The other night, he had a wee, washed his hands, brushed his teeth, put his night things on, added a box which was ‘put clothes in the washing basket’, actioned that box and got his reading book all without me speaking. I was there though – I don’t want him to think he gets less attention for being independent – and gave lots of praise at the end.

Similarly, in the mornings, I used to give out commands, one at a time, until the routine was done. It worked for a while but then we started falling at the final hurdle. We’d get to going out the door and Little Bear would refuse to put his shoes on. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somehow Little Bear figured out (maybe with some help) that if he just did all the jobs that needed doing, one after the other, I wouldn’t need to ask him to do anything and he would get a longer period of uninterrupted I pad time (“the child does not lose when he complies with reasonable demands, instead everyone wins”). By some miracle he now does that and is fully ready, by 8:10am or so, teeth brushed, shoes on and can go on his iPad for 20 whole minutes without interruption.

At the moment, I make very few verbal demands of Little Bear at home but the expectations are the same. I’m still in charge but he has autonomy in how he meets the expectations. I suspect this could be the key to managing his need for control going forwards.

Right, sorry for that massive thought-vomit. Better out than in as they say. I’m off to ponder managing car journeys…

 

 

Control

Dear Teacher

Those of you who know me in real life or even on Twitter, will no doubt have heard me complaining on and off about Little Bear’s teacher. We got off to a pretty good start (see New Teacher ) but unfortunately things seemed to head downhill from there. Last week, I was feeling particularly exasperated and wrote the piece below. Efforts have been made on both sides since then though, to the point where I feel a bit bad posting it. However, last week it was true, so I’ve added a bit at the end to reflect what has happened since and hopefully provide some balance.

 

Dear Teacher,

I don’t think Little Bear likes it in your class. I think this because at bedtime he tells me he doesn’t want to go to school tomorrow. In the morning, he wakes me with “I’m not going to school today” and as we arrive at your door, he clings to me and says he wants to come home. I have to be honest: you leaning against the wall inside your classroom like you’re too cool to speak anyone isn’t really helping. Equally, saying “Get in, sit down” in a gruff voice is not exactly encouraging for a child who doesn’t want to come in. Perhaps if you moved yourself and crouched to Little Bear’s level (you are massive compared to him, you know) and said something fun or enticing, he would want to come in. I tried to help you the other day, I really did. “Mr. Teacher,” I said in a jovial voice, “Do you have something fun planned for today?” Unfortunately, you didn’t seem to get where I was going with this, replying, in your gruff (?grumpy) voice, “Well, I suppose we might be able to squeeze something in for 5 minutes”. I have to tell you that if I thought I was only going to have five minutes of fun in the whole day, I probably wouldn’t want to come in either.

I understand that Year 2 is serious and has SATS and blah, blah but you know, exaggerate, tell a little white lie. Pretend your Maths lesson is fun at the very least, even if you can’t summon the energy to actually make it fun.

You see, I need you to meet me in the middle. At the moment I feel as though I am the only one trying to solve the problem of Little Bear not wanting to go to school. It is me that tattoos a heart on his hand and my hand every day so that he knows I love him and he can still feel close to me when I’m not there. It is me chatting to him about his concerns and worries. It is me staying upstairs with him when he’s trying (but failing) to fall asleep at night. It is me trying to ensure I give him extra 1:1 time so he feels loved and nurtured and less worried. It is me bundling him into your classroom despite him not wanting to go there. It is me he gets cross with because I am supposed to be a trusted adult and am not supposed to make him go into situations where he feels unsafe or scared. It is me leaving drop-off every day feeling upset and worried about how his day is going to go. It is me the other parents see trying to entice my child out from behind a pillar or back from the other side of the playground because he really doesn’t want to go into your classroom. It is me causing a spectacle.

What exactly are you doing to help? I just wonder, because it kind of seems you are only leaning on the wall.

One day, it was pretty bad and I decided I had to speak with you. Do you remember that? I said, “Little Bear is really unhappy and doesn’t want to come in” and you said, “Well, we’ve been talking about this and we think he’s doing it for your benefit.” Mr. Teacher, I am not great when put on the spot. I had lots of witty and clever replies for you when I got home but at the time I was pretty stunned you had just said that to me. My first thought was, “Wow, he thinks Little Bear won’t come in due to bad parenting.” Of course, like any parent would, I then began to wonder whether that was in fact true.

As I stood ruminating on your doorstep, my child still hiding round the corner, I was struck by another thought. It was thus: I am a professional person with actually quite a bit of knowledge of trauma/communication/children and I have a very supportive husband, family and wider support network, including post-adoption support service. If you are immediately reducing me to a quivering, self-doubting wreck because my child is refusing to come in, what hope would I have were I a young mum, a single mum, a mum already on the brink of crisis? At that moment, the battle lines were drawn. I would not pipe down or accept your nonsense because if I did, what hope would there be for anyone less fortunate than myself?

Mr. Teacher, when a child is struggling in your classroom, it is not okay that your first reaction is to blame the parents. Similarly, it would not be okay for me to assume you can’t teach. I began the year assuming you were a good teacher; you should have assumed I was a good parent. Equally, when you began a sentence in a meeting with my husband with the words, “I don’t think you are going to like this, but…” perhaps that should have given you an indication that the next words were not wise and should not have been spoken. Those words were: Your son is getting very good at manipulating adults.

No, Mr. Teacher, my son has a traumatic background and is seeking a feeling of safety. Yes, he will test your boundaries, we told you that. If your boundaries are inconsistent with someone else’s boundaries, yes, he will exploit that because it makes him feel unsafe. Yes, sometimes he will get dysregulated and his behaviour will challenge you. Of everyone in the world, we know how challenging our son can be. Here’s a thought: instead of lashing out, why don’t you talk to us? I’m in the playground every single day. On the few occasions I’m not, you have both of our e-mail addresses. Talk to us about situations or behaviours. We. Can. Help. You.

When you don’t communicate, I will come and find you. When I approach you on the playground, don’t think I haven’t noticed the look of “Oh Jesus, what does this bloody woman want again?” crossing your face. Know this: you aren’t exactly approachable yourself and I don’t really want to come and have an overly polite interaction with you again either. However, I will, because I want the best for my son (and others like him) and I will not shut up until his needs are met appropriately.

I get that I’m probably pretty annoying. I don’t leave you alone. I keep sending irritating emails and copying the Head and SENDCO in and I can’t get my child into your classroom and you think it’s all my fault, I get all that. Do you know what though? Imagine that ferocity on your side. Imagine if we worked together. Think of the power we would have! I’m your greatest ally, if only you would allow it. If you would listen to me and at least acknowledge that we have a problem, we could move on. If you would work with me, I could stop involving the senior management team. This doesn’t actually have to be a battle.

If the truth be told, I’m tired. I’m already tired of sharing the same information again and again. I am tired of educating the educators. I’m tired of having to battle for my son to have his needs met at school. I don’t want a war. I want to be allies, but you need to meet me half way.

We are also busy, Mr. Teacher. Do you know how much time it takes to draft and send e-mails, getting the words just right? How long it takes to schedule meetings and re-arrange diaries to make them? We don’t want this, any more than you do.

Oh, and one last thing – when that little girl was crying this morning because she didn’t want to come into your classroom either, it was not ok for you to say, “sit down, there’s no need for tears”, like you were telling her off for crying. She’ll be the judge of that. She evidently felt like crying so there was a need for tears.

If you don’t like having children hiding behind pillars and crying in your doorway, may I suggest a change of approach? Because otherwise you’ll end up with parents crying on your doorstep and I can’t imagine you’ll enjoy that.

Sincerely,

That Mother Who Can’t Get Her Son Into School

 

Dear Teacher,

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me when I sought you out on the playground again. Thank you for not pulling the “Oh my God, it’s her again” face and for smiling at me – it really did make the chat easier.

I appreciate it is tricky for you that I am reporting one thing at home and you are seeing another thing in your classroom. I tried to be a bit braver in our chat this time. When you said, “With all due respect, he seems happy in school,” I managed to say that I understood that but that you need to understand that from my point of view, as his Mum, it is very unpleasant for me to hear him saying he doesn’t want to go to school all evening or pretending he feels sick when he should be going to sleep. It is also unpleasant when he wakes me before my alarm to tell me he doesn’t want to go to school today. That is difficult for a parent to hear. Thank you for acknowledging my viewpoint, when I said that.

I also tried to tackle the way you engage with my son on his arrival at school. I didn’t really know how to say it and I didn’t want you to feel I was attacking you. I’m glad that when I mentioned some small things that had made a difference such as having Golden Time to look forward to or when his TA asked him for help with the photocopier, you realised you might need to change what you say to him to something brighter or more encouraging.

It was helpful for me to get some insights into the issues you might be facing with him in the classroom and for me to see that you do like him and you do spend time puzzling over his behaviour. You said you appreciated me coming to speak to you, rather than e-mailing and I said I found it useful too – perhaps we could speak more often?

I think our chat helped because this week, I haven’t had to propel Little Bear over the threshold at all. I noticed you came outside of your classroom door yesterday morning which was nice. It made you much more visible and easier to speak to. It’s a lot friendlier than the leaning.

I know you felt bad calling me over at the end of school a couple of days after our chat to tell me that Little Bear had called someone a name and had been a little over-familiar with his personal boundaries. I didn’t mind you doing that at all. I would far rather you spoke with me. It meant that I could chat about personal boundaries and social rules at home (over dinner, as one does) and I could send a consistent message to Little Bear: the rules are the same at home and school. It is good for him to know that we talk and that we agree with each other. I suspect you will see improvements in his behaviour if we keep it up.

We’re taking it a day at a time but hooray for a better week so far!

Let’s speak again soon,

The Slightly Less Stressed Mum

Dear Teacher

A Thursday with Little Bear (aged 6 and a half)

Back in May of 2016, when Little Bear was just over 4, I wrote an account of a day we had spent together (you can read it here: A Friday with Little Bear ). Today I was struck by the idea that it might be interesting to do it again – to reflect the progress he has made as well as the types of challenges we experience now he’s a bit older. I’m not 100% sure of the wisdom of this but here we go:

I was woken at about 8am by Grizzly’s alarm and a throbbing headache. The rest of the house was silent. When Grizzly got up (he was working at home) I could hear him speaking to Little Bear who had been up a while but had entertained himself with his I pad. We had a slow start because its half term.

When the boys had had quite enough screen time, I attempted to complete Little Bear’s holiday homework with him. Apparently he is supposed to write a whole side of A4 about what he’s been up to in the break, being sure to include conjunctions, adverbs and expanded noun phrases. In order to make the task slightly less ridiculous for him, I first read him his new social story about making mistakes and then we had a chat and I drew some pictures/ wrote some key words to make the task more visual. It looked like this:

IMG_0924

 We began the writing task using the visual to support us. Little Bear did well for the first sentence then quickly lost concentration during the second. He wasn’t keen to say the sentences out loud first which meant he wrote things that didn’t make sense. He quickly became annoyed and threw his pencil across the room. He was able to using a breathing technique when I pointed at his social story and we did manage to complete the second sentence. After that, it seemed wise to take a break.

Little Bear got himself a snack and lay down on the sofa and put the TV on. He stayed there quite a long time while I got ready and did a few jobs. I explained we were going out soon and gave a ten minute then five minute then every minute for about five minutes warnings. When it was time to go, Little Bear refused to turn off the TV or get off the sofa. After some persuasion/ negotiation he switched it off but refused to go for a wee or put on his shoes. I helped him with the shoe part so that we might actually leave the house today.

When he finally got outside, he didn’t want to get into the car.

In the car, Little Bear tried to tell us which songs we were and were not allowed to listen to. I made sure we took turns to choose a song.

When we arrived in town, we met my parents. Little Bear ran over to greet them and measured himself against my mum who has not been blessed with tallness. “I’m bigger than your mum’s boobs now!” he yelled, loud enough for half the town to hear. I don’t even bother to blush or check if anyone is looking any more.

We went into a clothes shop because the boys needed some tracky bottoms and they quite like looking at clothes for themselves sometimes. Little Bear chose some tops with those sequin designs that brush forwards and backwards which kept him busy for a couple of minutes. He was soon running around the store and trying to engage one of us in hide and seek. My Dad took him to the toilet while we paid. We met them at a restaurant but Little Bear had found a piano and my Dad was having some difficulty getting him to come away from it. When he did manage to extricate him, Little Bear found a triangle of landscaping to run up and down and round and round. I said he could have one more circuit then we’d go into the restaurant. He had one more then tried to negotiate for 5 more. He would only come when I started to go into the restaurant.

I had brought an activity book which kept Little Bear fairly busy while we waited for food though he mainly stuck stickers to himself, not the pages. He sat and ate surprisingly well but as soon as the last bite was in his mouth he was up out of his seat and heading for the door. He wasn’t pleased when I asked him to come back and explained not everyone had finished yet. Little Bear began hanging on the back of his chair and jumping around. I took him to the loo for a change of scenery and little walk. On the way back to the table he tried to push me then tried to jump onto me while we were close to people’s tables. I had to crouch down and explain to him (again) how we should/shouldn’t behave in a restaurant. He told me he hated me rather loudly. He sat on me while I was crouching which nearly knocked us both over backwards. I managed to persuade him to wait until we got to the table and then he could sit on my knee. He did and I asked him if he wanted a squeeze. He did and this calmed him a little. We also did some pushing with his hands pushing down on mine. I do try to use a bit of calming sensory input when we’re out and about – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. This time it bought us a few more minutes for the others to finish their drinks/ pay the bill.

Little Bear didn’t want to put on his coat and shouted at me again. When we got outside, he ran around his triangle again and seemed much happier.

Next stop was the shoe shop. Little Bear loves going there, but only if it ends in new shoes. I kept explaining that it would depend what the lady said and his feet might not have grown –forewarned is sort of forearmed but I rather suspected there would be some fallout if shoes were not needed. Thankfully, they were. Little Bear told the lady he is a year older than his is (purposefully) and did try to control the situation by taking hold of her tablet/moving her seat around/ not letting her put the shoes on his feet. I had to remind him that it was her shop and she was in charge. He tolerated this and did say please and thank you. There was a time when he wouldn’t have spoken to her at all so overall, I was pleased with how it had gone.

We went in two more shops. Little Bear wanted something in each one. He didn’t tolerate me saying ‘no’ too well and told me he hated me a few more times. Outside he saw a balloon on a stick someone had stuck into a flower bed. I asked him not to touch it. He pulled it out of the soil and waved it about. I explained it was dirty and not to touch it. He waved it about some more. I told him to put it back. He waved it about. I got a bit cross and told him off. Little Bear tried to run off. As I took hold of his hand to stop him, he hit me then pressed his nails into my hand as hard as he could.

We went into the library because there was supposed to be an activity on. There wasn’t. Little Bear found a lion statue and sat on it. I explained it wasn’t for sitting on and asked him to get off. He did but shortly got back on. I asked him to get off. He said, “But that baby over there is sitting on one.” I explained the baby was small and he was big and needed to get off. He got off then three seconds later got back on again. I re-iterated the need for good listening and asked him to get off. He did but the next thing I knew he was sitting on it again and a librarian was telling him off.

I told him we were going because the activity wasn’t on so we’d go for some pudding instead. Little Bear didn’t want to leave. There were negotiations. When we were finally going in the right direction, Little Bear saw the security barrier and began climbing it. Every time we are there he does that and every time I explain why I don’t want him to do that. I got a bit stern. Little Bear hit me.

We went past the pet shop and I had to stop Little Bear getting inside a rabbit hutch. Then he fell into step with Big Bear and suddenly hollered, “King Kong’s got massive balls” at the top of his lungs. My patience was really beginning to wear thin at this point.

We went for a drink in a café that has toys. Little Bear was entertained for a while and the grown-ups managed some civilised conversation. After a while, Little Bear announced he wanted to play the piano again. I told him the piano was finished and we were going home. He didn’t want to go home. He began jumping and swinging on the back of his chair. I suggested we go for a wee then home. Little Bear hit me and ran off. When I found him he wouldn’t come. He told me he hated me and it was the worst day ever and I was the worst mum in the whole world. I took him to the loo then when I got back from going myself, my Dad was having a word with him about not kicking the café wall. There were issues leaving the café/ getting his coat on etc.

We finally got into the car. My parents decided they would come to our house for a short time so we both left the same car park to go to the same place but they were slightly ahead of us. “Take over them,” Little Bear demanded. “I can’t,” I said, explaining it wasn’t the right kind of road. He continued asking me to do this and when I wouldn’t got quite upset. “But they will get there before us,” he said, “if you don’t want me to be upset, take over them!” The tears were coming now so I had to calmly explain that it didn’t matter who got there first and that it was my main job as the driver to keep us safe, which meant no overtaking on little roads. I tried to distract him with some singing. Little Bear evidently began to reflect on his behaviour in town and started saying I shouldn’t have bought him any shoes. I tried to empathise that it must be hard if he felt he didn’t deserve them but that even though he hadn’t been totally sensible in town, that could have been because he was tired and despite any behaviour, I still felt he deserved to have new shoes which fitted his feet and I was glad I had bought them for him.

“I bet Grandpa doesn’t even know the way to our house anyway!” he said.

At home, Little Bear asked me if he was allowed to go on his I pad. “Yes”, I said. “Phew,” he said, “That was close, I think I nearly wasn’t.” He sat down with his brother and peace was restored.

At tea time he couldn’t sit still and did everything other than eat.

After tea he played Lego at the table, a game with his Dad and brother and then we played a game altogether. It was lovely. Little Bear understood all the rules and was really sensible. He didn’t mind when he didn’t win.

Little Bear was not especially co-operative for bedtime – I could hear Grizzly having to repeat instructions and giving warnings but when he finally got into bed, he read the whole of his school book because he wanted to, all 20 pages. He shouted for Big Bear and I and we made a big fuss.

Grizzly settled him and came down. We could hear kicking the bed noises and intermittent shouting noises but then he quietened down.

*

In the two years since I last wrote out a day, everything has changed yet nothing has changed. Being out is still harder than being in (in some ways). There are still times when my patience is sorely tested (and surely anybody’s would be?). We are still more visible/ louder/ more inappropriately behaved than other families. There is progress though: regulation is better on the whole and self-regulation is creeping in. There is heaps more verbal communication. Little Bear’s interaction with strangers is more appropriate and his situational understanding is generally good now. He does know what the expectations are, even if he can’t quite manage to stick to them. Little Bear’s anxiety is more obvious because he can express it verbally now – it is less likely to get misinterpreted as bad behaviour. Little Bear can reflect on situations afterwards and can feel very remorseful, in a way that he didn’t used to.

There are good bits and there are bad bits. I don’t worry too much about the less than good bits – they’re par for the course and we’ve got pretty good at taking most things in our stride.*

No matter the behaviour, he’s still gorgeous, just as he is.

 

 

 

*Just off to lie in a darkened room

 

 

 

 

 

A Thursday with Little Bear (aged 6 and a half)

High School Visits

It’s very hard to believe the time has come for me to be thinking about this but now that Big Bear is in Year 5, apparently it has. The deadline for completing the high school preferences form is early in the autumn term of year 6 so most high schools recommend you look around in year 5. So despite the fact that Big Bear is only 9 years and 1 month old, we have visited two local high schools this week. It has been enlightening to say the least.

I have had many chats with other parents in similar positions and have asked them their thoughts. A common theme has featured in the conversations: parents are keen on discipline in high schools and look for those where lessons will not be disrupted by the behaviour of others. They want a strong focus on academics and opportunities for extra-curricular activity. Apparently performance in GCSEs is also important.

When I think about my own education, there was a strong focus on academics. We sat exams twice a year, every year from year 7 onwards. Exam results were impressive, ranking well in comparison to the rest of the country. I was a diligent student and placed a high level of pressure on myself to achieve. My academic performance was important to me and I set exacting standards for myself.

Why then, when other parents were describing the education they wanted for their child, an education not dissimilar to my own, did I feel a sense of discomfort and dissonance? What was it exactly that I wanted from a school for my boys, if it wasn’t that?

We visited the first school. I’ll call it School A. I tried to assess it objectively – what did I like about it? What didn’t I like? I liked the building. It was clean and fresh. It had good facilities. The staff were friendly. We wandered around and there wasn’t anything especially wrong or right about it. It seemed fine but I had no idea at all how we were supposed to make a decision. Big Bear didn’t look too comfortable though. He looked like a rabbit in headlights. Observing his reaction was important because it would be him going there every day, not me.

The Head was doing a presentation in the Hall so we went to listen to that. She began by saying, “We are not an exam factory. That is not what we are about.” She went on to describe a very well-structured and comprehensive pastoral care system. “If children don’t feel safe in this school and they don’t feel valued and they don’t feel loved, we know they won’t be able to learn,” she said. She went on to talk about the importance of building self-esteem and giving children a belief that they can achieve. She talked about personalised learning journeys and matching support to need. She spoke passionately, saying that when these fundamental things are in place, the academics will naturally take care of themselves.

Feeling a little tearful, I had a mini-revelation. I looked between Big Bear sitting beside me, pale with anxiety, and the Head extolling the virtues of pastoral support and I thought: I have two very different children and one school may not meet both of their needs. School A didn’t seem a good fit for Big Bear, but it was hard to imagine anywhere better for Little Bear.

We should keep an open mind but now it would be really interesting to see what School B was like. We went there this evening and the first thing we did was listen to the Head speaking. We had been given an information pack on arrival. We flicked through it while we waited for the speech and noted there was a leaflet about how they extend learning for those who are gifted and talented. I asked Grizzly to pass me the one about SEN. He couldn’t because there wasn’t one.

The Head began to speak and her first point was around their outstanding exam results. She talked about how they always strive for more and push students to the next hurdle where they can. She talked of twice yearly exams and practice interviews and preparing for future careers. She talked about setting aspirational targets and achieving them. I knew I was supposed to be impressed. I sat amongst a sea of other parents who were no doubt impressed and keen for their child to be a part of this educational wonderland.

I know I was once a part of this academically focussed world and I suppose it has done me well. But I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with what I now often find to be academic snobbery. Yes, it is great if you are gifted with intelligence and you work hard and you go on to achieve fabulous grades. But what if you are not? What if, through no fault of your own, you have been dealt a different hand? What if you have various life-induced hurdles putting blocks in your academic path? What about you? How do you fit into this daunting and challenging world?

I found out how you fit. You don’t.

The Head at School B said this: “I will not tolerate anybody disrupting lessons. Stealing other student’s learning time is selfish. It is selfish and it will not be tolerated here.” At this point, Grizzly and I exchanged a look. The look said, “There is not a chance on God’s green earth that we will be sending Little Bear here.” People like discipline, they do. I like discipline when it is about clear boundaries and predictability. Other people like discipline when it prevents their child’s learning getting disrupted by another child. The problem is everything feels very different when the child doing the disrupting is yours.

Little Bear would never purposefully disrupt a lesson. He would never disrupt a lesson for the pure reason of being selfish. But he might disrupt a lesson and yes, he might disrupt your child’s learning. By saying he, or anyone else who might find school difficult, disrupts lessons selfishly and then sending them to the ‘internal exclusion zone’ places the blame squarely on the child. It assuages the adults of having had anything to do with it and it suggests there is no reason to consider why the child behaved like that. They were selfish. That’s why they did it.

In reality, Little Bear would disrupt a lesson because he was dysregulated, anxious or overwhelmed. That being the case, I don’t want him to be punished by being sent to sit alone somewhere. I don’t see how that would help him or how it would make something different happen next time. If anything it would increase his anxiety or frustration and increase the likelihood of future disruption. I am not suggesting that all children are angels or that they shouldn’t be taught to take responsibility for their actions. Of course they need to learn to self-regulate and to behave appropriately but with the best will in the world, not all children can, all of the time and I don’t see how its fair or appropriate to punish them when they lose control. When it is your child who struggles with behavioural and emotional regulation, you feel very differently about behaviour policies. You also feel pretty uncomfortable when other parents tell you how important it is to them that their child’s lessons are not disrupted by ‘bad behaviour’.

As things stand, with Little Bear’s needs as they currently are, we couldn’t consider sending him to School B. I don’t think he would be able to reach his potential there because he might not feel safe and there’s a good chance he wouldn’t feel loved. Big Bear, however, was visibly happier there. He felt safe, comfortable and interested. He will cope with the academic focus. There is very little chance of him disrupting lessons or ending up in the exclusion zone. Ironically, he would cope much better if he didn’t witness disruptive behaviour, a point which ties me in complex emotional knots. We can imagine him at the school and I’m sure he would thrive. This time it is about Big Bear and we all think the right school for him is School B.

It is another 4 years until we have to make a proper decision about Little Bear. His needs could change immeasurably in that time (as they already have done over the past three) and maybe School B could be right for him by then. But maybe it won’t be. Perhaps School A’s ethos and sporting opportunities and tailored curriculum would suit him much better. It doesn’t matter because I have two very different boys, each with their own set of strengths and challenges and now I know what I want from their high school education. I want them to be happy there. I want them to have access to teaching and pastoral support that meets their individual needs. I want them to be supported to reach their full potential because I know they can both achieve great things. I’m not really interested in those achievements being measured in terms of letters or numbers but in terms of working their hardest, doing their best and being satisfied with their own efforts. I want them to enjoy learning. I want them both to gain a sense of self-belief that will allow them to go on to further education or employment. I want them to be proud of themselves.

If that involves sending my children to two different high schools, so be it. But I certainly won’t allow Little Bear to be blamed for having the needs he has. He didn’t ask for his start in life and it isn’t his fault it has impacted him. If a school can’t understand this, he won’t be gracing their corridors.

 

 

 

 

High School Visits