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.

 

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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

Schools Out

For the past fortnight the Bears’ school has been in transition, with each class getting settled in their new classroom and with their new teacher. Things seem to have gone fairly smoothly but I checked in with Little Bear’s teacher yesterday, just to be sure.

I wrote a few weeks ago in Support about school (and us) having secured funding top-up funding for Little Bear. I have recently found out that the school have been able to advertise for a TA and that they have employed somebody and this person will provide Little Bear with 20 hours of support per week. Obviously this is great. They will work from 8:30 am so will be able to greet him and will finish at 12:30 meaning he gets support for some of his lunch time – a flashpoint when things often go awry. He will have 1:1 or small group support available for all his core subjects.

I’m very pleased about this.

Things are never perfect though and there are a couple of little niggles at the back of my mind. Firstly I didn’t expect the TA to be anybody that I knew. It turns out she is a parent of children in the same school. I don’t know her but I know of her as she has previously volunteered in the school, in fact in Big Bear’s class. She used to hear them read and was quite infamous amongst the parents for making slightly judgemental comments in their take home books.

I have noticed that if you smile at her she tends to look the other way.

I feel a little uncomfortable that she is a parent too and that she is going to know lots of things about Little Bear’s background and his behaviour and his learning needs. I have to assume that she is a consummate professional.

I am going to need her to start speaking to me though because I consider there to be a team around Little Bear, consisting at the moment of the teacher and myself & Grizzly, and Mrs. C will soon be an integral part of that. We will need to work closely together and will need to be consistent in our approaches. I am trying to keep an open mind and am hoping that we can achieve the partnership that I’m aiming for.

Little Bear’s teacher and I have agreed to let Mrs C settle in and get to know Little Bear and then for us to have a meeting in maybe the third week. This will help us all get up to speed and hopefully signal the start of a good working relationship.

Unfortunately Mrs C has been tied up in her old contract and has not been able to meet Little Bear during his transition weeks. The school have provided a different TA for the interim. Little Bear has bonded with her well and has been happy to work with her. His teacher and TA have been impressed with what he has been able to achieve with support. He has concentrated well and been co-operative.

There is an obvious risk that the inconsistency of returning to a different TA could throw Little Bear. There is a risk that he may not bond with her as easily and may not be as keen to work with her. I hope this is not the case and it is just my natural tendency to think of all the things that could possibly go wrong talking. I am keeping everything crossed that Mrs C’s firm approach will be ideal for him and that he will work with her quite happily.

My chat with the teacher also revealed that whilst things are going pretty swimmingly in the mornings, the afternoons are a different story. Little Bear does not have support in the afternoons. He seems to be doing ok with accessing the carpet time plenary session but when the children are meant to be doing some independent recording it sounds as though he is doing whatever he fancies. I can see why he would because he cannot do independent writing yet and it sounds as though he is struggling to occupy himself with something constructive and is tending to get into a bit of bother instead. The reduced supervision will be difficult because we know he has a tendency to lash out where verbal negotiation is needed and we also know that the other children have a tendency to purposefully push his buttons. With the best will in the world the teacher cannot see everything at once and it is quite a full on class. I can see why things are going belly-up.

It sounds as though the one thing that will occupy him is the IPad… I really don’t want him to spend every afternoon glued to a screen. Hmm.

Also, it seems as though Little Bear is not being particularly co-operative with things such as tidying up when asked. This is interesting because he generally will tidy things away if I ask him to at home. Ever the opportunist I suspect he is just doing what he can get away with. It is so important that we all handle situations like this in the same way otherwise Little Bear picks up on the inconsistency. When he detects that the boundaries aren’t particularly clear or firm I do think that his anxiety rises and his behaviour deteriorates.

My plan is to let the holidays happen and to send an e-mail ready for the start of term with some thoughts on things that might help. Perhaps it would be helpful to have a bank of activities that would occupy Little Bear when he can’t access the work – things that would provide him with a bit more variety and learning potential than the IPad alone. I’m also wondering about alternative recording options for him such as recordable switches and talking tins, until his writing has developed a bit more. I will need to be clear about how we manage it if Little Bear refuses to tidy up or turn the IPad off when asked.

It could be that afternoons without support are not ok but we’ll have to see how things go.

The conversation made me even more thankful that we got the funding that we did and made me shudder to think what things could have been like if Little Bear was trying to manage whole days without tailored support.

I need to forget about it all for now though: school’s out! I have no idea how a whole academic year has gone already. Time really does fly.

When I tucked Little Bear in tonight I told him how proud I am of him and how well he has done at school. I know it hasn’t been plain-sailing but overall I am very happy with how his first year has gone. He’s done brilliantly. Over the summer we can really focus on his speech and keep trucking with the reading and writing. I know school is out but the learning needs to continue. He’s pretty keen these days and we can easily weave lots of learning into the things he chooses to do.

So far I am feeling keen and enthusiastic for my task ahead but I think we should take bets as to how long I will last before I’m tearing my hair out and counting the days until term starts again!

 

 

Schools Out

Reports

It is school report time here at Bear HQ and once again it has got me all reflective. This time last year in Achievement I wrote about how standardised assessments and age-related expectations are not going to be the right way to measure Little Bear’s achievements.

Back at the start of his time in Reception class I had a bit of a wobble about how much was expected of him and how unrealistic it would be to ask him to meet those expectations by the end of the academic year (you can read about that in Little Bear Starts School). The expectations that are in place do not take into account a neglectful first several years of a child’s life or the significantly lower starting point that they are beginning from. After all, it would be impossible to expect a child to go from not being able to count to knowing all their number bonds to 20 in one year; or expecting a child who cannot write their name when they start school to be writing little narratives by the end of term. You wouldn’t expect a child with significant speech processing difficulties to be able to read fluently in one year or a child who is extremely resistant to adult direction to be fully compliant every day.

We did not expect Little Bear to meet the expectations as it was an impossible ask. I am not surprised therefore that he hasn’t met them. However, it would seem that I do have a little bit of an issue with the way the information has been shared.

The Bear’s school have switched to new-fan-dangled online reports. I understand why: OFSTED must love it and it must be much more time-efficient for teachers. However, call me old-fashioned, but I would much prefer an actual piece of paper (you can’t even easily print our ones out to keep for future posterity). There are lots of tabs along the top and you have to click on each to get different information.

The very first tab is a summary of where your child is at compared to expectations. On the left there is a scale with the following descriptors: well above expected, above expected, at expected level, below expected and well below expected. The core subjects are along the bottom and your child’s level is shown through coloured traffic lights. For Little Bear that means a row of red lights across the ‘below expected level’ line. They may as well flash and sound an alarm alerting you to your child’s lack of achievement.

Grizzly and I had a chat about this and he thinks I’m being oversensitive. He thinks it makes perfect statistical sense to do it this way otherwise what are you comparing your child to? My issue is that I don’t understand the point of comparing him to targets which we have already established to be unobtainable. Surely that is setting him up to fail? What I would like to see is a comparison between where he was at when he started the year and where he is at now. I don’t care where he is at compared to average Joe Blogs, that information won’t make any of us feel good. I understand that what I’m asking for is probably a complete data nightmare but in theory it would be a much more positive report because it would show the massive progress that he HAS made not what he hasn’t.

I asked Grizzly how he would feel if Little Bear were scoring right across the “well below expected range” or how he would feel if every report we ever get for Little Bear shows him to be in this “below expected” range. He’s much more pragmatic about these things than me and said well if that is where he’s at it’s where he’s at. Which is of course completely true but I can’t help feeling that this way of displaying data makes getting a report for a child with any level of additional needs a fairly negative experience. It certainly felt different to opening Big Bears and seeing his neat row of green lights.

The rest of the tabs offend me less. There is one with the teacher’s comment, one about behaviour and ones where you can see a list of targets your child is working on and which descriptors they have already met. I do find it a bit odd that the focus is on Maths and English and little else. What if your child excels at PE? Or Art? Or Music? There isn’t anywhere in either boy’s report where that can be reflected which could potentially add to the negativity for a child like Little Bear who struggles most with the core subjects.

Anyway, having come back to look at the reports again, I can see that maybe my opinion of Little Bear’s as a whole has been tainted by the red lights. The comments from his teacher are lovely and do mention “superb progress” and that he “has worked extremely hard”. It says he is polite and respectful to grown-ups but his attitude to his peers “needs to improve”. It says that he is happy and settled but that he does test boundaries and is still learning to remain focussed.

All of the above is true but what it doesn’t really reflect is just how spectacularly wrong this year could have gone and in comparison how fabulously he has done. That version might go something like this:

Although Little Bear does not always listen and sometimes hits his friends, he has had less than 20 red cards, he has not been sent to the Headmaster and has avoided getting himself excluded, all of which were real possibilities in September. The fact that he is described as being polite and well-mannered is nothing short of an actual miracle. He could easily have bitten/ scratched/ kicked or thrown something or told his teacher how stupid she is each and every day of term time. The control and self-restraint he has developed is fantastic.

On beginning school Little Bear could not count to 4 for the love of God and we were driving ourselves mad chanting the numbers over and over. He can now count easily to 10, forwards and backwards and is just a tiny bit more practise away from making it to 20. He can recognise all the number shapes to about 13 and is managing some very basic adding and taking away.

In September Little Bear was pretty much unintelligible to people outside of the family. He could just about recognise his name written down but couldn’t recognise any other words. He knew maybe 5 letter shapes. He couldn’t tell you if words rhymed or what sound they began with. He most definitely couldn’t blend sounds together. Now, he recognises all the letter shapes, which he learned surprisingly quickly. After a lot of hard work and perseverance he has mastered blending which is no mean feat and can read at a basic level. He has even gone up one reading level on to Red books which he is extremely proud of. Considering the fact that Little Bear was attending a Special Needs nursery before he moved here and the likelihood of literacy in his future was slim to none, his progress has been phenomenal.

At the start of term Little Bear could hold his pen well and could scribble but his pictures didn’t look like people and he couldn’t write at all. He can now write his name and draw a picture of himself with most of the right body parts. He can form letters really well and can copy from a grown-ups model. He can make some attempts at independent writing.

Little Bear is happy and settled at school. He has learned all the routines. He loves show and tell and is now confident enough in his communication to stand up and talk in detail in front of the class. He has taken part in assemblies and school trips and has behaved appropriately.

The year could have been a complete disaster. Little Bear could have been like a fish out of water. His behaviour could have been out of control. He could have struggled with all the learning and not made any progress.

Instead, I feel he has achieved above and beyond any expectations we could have had for him. If there were a chart for progress, he would have a row of bright green lights in the “well above expectations” row. Instead the row of red lights he does have seems to figuratively piss all over his bonfire. I am not finding some of the other parents’ bragging about how advanced their children are particularly helpful either.

Anyway, I shall brush myself off, endeavour to develop a slightly thicker skin and focus on what I know really matters: Little Bear has had an extremely successful first year at school. We have secured the funding we need to build on his progress next year and I have no doubt he will continue to exceed the limited expectations his early life tried to saddle him with.

Reports

Jigsaws

I know this seems a slightly strange blog topic but Little Bear has taken a real interest in jigsaws recently and in doing so I have learned a lot about how he learns and how he needs to be taught.

Up until very recently Little Bear has not shown an interest in activities that require sitting still and concentrating, such as jigsaws. He has had lots of other needs in terms of developing his play skills so I haven’t been too concerned. Having a bigger brother who does sometimes (not a lot as he too doesn’t like sitting still) do these types of activity has helped Little Bear a lot though. If Big Bear is doing something, Little Bear generally wants to do it too. As I have got really strict with screen time and have been encouraging Big Bear to find other things to occupy himself one evening he did sit down and start doing a jigsaw. Of course Little Bear was in hot pursuit and got one out for himself too.

I had to intervene as I knew that the one he had chosen was too difficult. We swapped it for a very simple one with 4 large pieces. At that stage, it was too much to ask of him that he try to complete it on his own. Little Bear put the first two pieces he found together, couldn’t make them fit immediately, growled and chucked them across the room. It would have been easy to abandon ship at this point. However, I was feeling particularly resilient that day and decided to persevere. “Come on, you can do it” I cajoled, shifting the pieces about so that two that went together were close to one another. Little Bear managed to put them together with a surreptitious jiggle of the bits from me. I made a big thing of how clever he was. Could he stick another piece on I wondered aloud.

I began to get concerned because he didn’t seem at all able to see that we were making a picture and with only two pieces left there weren’t many options. He would try to put a straight edge into a hole or a corner piece into the middle. Each time he perceived himself to be failing at the task (which happened every few seconds), he would lose his temper and throw the pieces and sometimes break the ones we had already done if I wasn’t quite fast enough. Rather than losing my temper (which would be easy to do if feeling frazzled) it made me even more determined that he should feel success and complete the task. I think at one point he got up to wander off and give up. It was hard to know how far to push him but I knew that he wouldn’t think he could do jigsaws unless he actually did one so I pretty much made him come back and finish it off. I gave a lot of help and short of actually putting the pieces in place for him, heavily scaffolded the task. All the while a part of me wondered if I was placing too much pressure on him as perhaps he actually wasn’t capable of doing it?

However, jigsaw finally completed, we were able to high five, applaud and do lots of bows. Big Bear is always fabulous in these situations and spontaneously joined in with the praise. Now that the marathon of completing one 4 piece jigsaw was over I thought we could tidy up and go to bed. However, to my surprise Little Bear had other ideas. He wanted to do another jigsaw. So off we went again. It wasn’t much easier the second time and Little Bear certainly wasn’t a natural at ‘seeing’ the picture and matching bits together. I thought back to the discussions we’d had with the Educational Psychologist in which he said that Little Bear’s language scores were in advance of his visual skills, a statement that at the time I had felt must be wrong. However, was this the type of thing he meant? I had to agree that what I was seeing was concerning and that without a significant amount of adult support, Little Bear would not be able to complete even a very simple jigsaw at the age of 5.

We persevered and geed on by his previous success Little Bear was pretty determined to complete the next one. That is not to say that he didn’t lose his temper or become easily frustrated but with encouragement and a calm approach and I have to admit, an element of me refusing to allow him to fail at it, we completed another and another and about 5 more. In the end I had to call time on it and put him to bed.

I was astonished when in the morning he wanted to do more still. He got out every jigsaw we own one by one and we painstakingly completed each of them until the playroom floor was covered. I tried to teach him strategies to make it easier e.g. that one has a straight bit. It is an edge. It goes at the side. Or that was has two straight bits. It is a corner. I pointed at similarities between pieces. Look, that one has purple on it too or the cat’s tail is missing, I wonder where it is.

I repeated myself a lot. No matter how much I said it, the task didn’t seem to be getting any easier for Little Bear, not least I suspect because ‘edge’ and ‘corner’ were new words for his vocabulary. But I had to admire his persistence. I don’t think there are many children who would want to keep going and going at something they are finding so hard. I kept the praise level high and despite Little Bear repeatedly saying “I’m rubbish at jigsaws” I tried hard to re-frame that thought and help to show him otherwise. Once the floor was almost entirely covered, he began to admit that he might be The Jigsaw Master.

This was just a couple of weeks ago. Little Bear still likes to get the jigsaws out but now he can complete a 30 piece jigsaw on his own.

Nothing about this situation is as I would have predicted it and it has taught me several things:

Firstly, when Little Bear doesn’t appear to be able to do things, is it because he really can’t or because he doesn’t believe he can? I rather suspect that he often gives up at the first hint of failure as his default position is to assume that he can’t. This leads me to think that sometimes putting a bit more pressure on him to complete a task the first time he encounters it is the right thing to do to show him that he can (with a high level of support of course).

However, it is hard to know which tasks to target and whether it is realistic to expect him to achieve them. Taking a hard approach to tasks that he might not be able to complete would be really damaging.

Secondly, I do feel there was an element of Little Bear having difficulties learning the task. I don’t think he was ever going to spontaneously figure jigsaws out by himself. However, it has shown that with specific teaching he can learn and he can generalise his skills pretty quickly. He needs specific teaching of strategies e.g. he couldn’t notice the similarities between pieces so I had to verbalise things that seemed obvious. Once he has been taught these strategies and there has been a lot of repetition of them, he can apply them well. I suspect this is due to differences in his neural pathways, caused by years of neglect. However, just because he can’t learn something the usual way, doesn’t mean we can’t find a way around it and create a new neural pathway for him.

Thirdly, because of the first and second point, Little Bear can’t really be expected to try new tasks by himself. He needs a grown up by his side to keep him regulated, focused and to give him heaps of positive feedback. I really hope we get the EHCP funding we have applied for as this is the very reason why he needs it.

I have found at home that if I get the support wrong the first time we try a task that can be the end of his engagement with it forever, so good support for new tasks is essential.

I am genuinely shocked at his progress with jigsaws and at what he can do now. The fact that he was so motivated to succeed, despite all the barriers, is nothing short of inspirational. He allowed countless repetitions of the task over the course of a few days which will undoubtedly have cemented his skills much more quickly. He even sat and helped with a huge jigsaw of the world that the 4 of us were working on the other day. It was hard for grown-ups but he now believes he can do jigsaws so wasn’t unduly phased. He did brilliantly and Big Bear got bored before he did.

I am now thinking about what other tasks we could tackle in this way. We have managed it with Maxi Hama beads – we had the same “I can’t do it”, “you do it for me” situation the first time we tried those but by the end of the morning he was pushing my hand away saying “I do it myself”.

I have also noticed that once Little Bear has mastered a task his attention span suddenly increases beyond recognition. His teacher called me in the other day as she was shocked that he had sat on the rug in a corner of the classroom for a whole hour by himself doing jigsaws. They had all been muddled up and he had painstakingly sorted and completed them. She had never seen him concentrate for more than 10 minutes on anything and didn’t know that he could.

This weekend, Little Bear spent several hours making Hama bead creations until he had used every single bead and I had to make a hasty Amazon purchase.

Evidently confidence is playing a huge role in Little Bear’s ability to learn. Little Bear, you really need to believe in yourself as much as I do because what you have achieved so far is nothing short of astounding.

And thank you to the humble jigsaw, who knew I could learn so much from you?!

 

 

 

 

 

Jigsaws