Behaviour – a dirty word?

Around this time last year, I wrote this post – High School Visits – about our experiences of looking around high schools for BB, and how, although it wasn’t about him, I began to think about LB’s future needs and how they would be supported by the schools on offer. I drew the difficult conclusion that the boys may well end up at different secondary schools.

BB – my first born, my baby – is approaching teenage-hood fast. He’s officially in the final year of primary school and now we really do have to choose a high school for him despite this all having happened far too quickly (and me not being ready and wanting to weep into my cup of tea). We are re-visiting schools A and B from last year’s post as well as adding school C into the mix, to help us choose before the October deadline.

It’s looking like a choice between B and C for BB but in reality, he could go to any of them and I’m sure he’d be fine. Although we are going to have some worries about catchment areas and places filling up, the reality is that the world is BB’s oyster. All options are open to him and its largely going to come down to preference.

However, the more schools I view, the more concerned I become that LB will not have such a choice. The picture I’m getting is that schools are inclusive to a point, but not beyond. None of the schools we have visited are ‘selective’ though one is independent. They are all therefore, theoretically, inclusive. However, when you scratch even lightly at the surface, you soon realise that they are not. What they are is inclusive with exceptions, which is pretty weird when you start to consider it more deeply.

What I feel they’re really saying is that some special educational needs are more acceptable to them than others. That if your child has Dyslexia or Dyscalculia or Autism (certain presentations only), or a physical disability, perhaps a mild vision or hearing loss, they’re ok. They can come in. However, as soon as there’s a whiff of the unspeakable ‘b’ word, no thank you very much.

I touched on this in last year’s post – that some schools see behaviour issues as selfish, disruptive to others, and stemming from a flaw within the child displaying them. I can tell they do, from the way they lean forward conspiratorially when they mention it, lower their voice slightly, just automatically assume that you will agree with their view point that we don’t want Them in This School. It is always delivered in such a matter of fact way that you know the deliverer can’t possibly envisage a scenario where the child with ‘the behaviour’ is anything other than a huge problem, to be avoided at all costs.

Today, we presented smartly, we talked about BB with his good academics, his good social skills, his extracurricular activities, his all-round sunny disposition. We must have seemed a safe bet for the ‘not in our school’ behaviour chat. We evidently didn’t present as the sort of people who would have another child with behaviour challenges. But we do. That’s because there are many reasons for a child to struggle with their behaviour and generally it is not that they come ‘from a bad family’ or whatever it is people assume.

I get that schools want to cultivate a certain image and maintain certain standards. I get that if it is a fee-paying school, other parents will expect certain learning conditions for their children that perhaps don’t involve disruption from a classmate.

However, as a parent of a child with behaviour challenges – which, incidentally, he gained from having a really shitty start in life (very much not his fault) – it all feels pretty exclusionary. The reality is that neither school B, nor school C will be welcoming towards LB and his specific set of needs. Grizzly assures me it’s fine, because we will consider each boy individually and attempt to get them into the best school for them.

While this is all well and good, another part of me wonders why it is ok for BB to have three good options available to him but LB, so far, has one. It makes me feel that his background continues to limit him because as hard as we work to improve things for him, and as prepared as I am to fight for his needs to be met, he isn’t going to have the same choices. For me, a school that talks about behaviour like it’s a dirty word is never going to be appropriately understanding of it. Those schools may be inclusive on paper but they aren’t in reality. And if they’re not truly inclusive, they’re not truly an option.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if you went to view a school and when they talked about behaviour they said something along the lines of being committed to understanding the underlying roots of it? Something about how they see the potential in every single child, no matter how they present? How they are committed to tailored approaches and working in partnership and thinking about the things children can excel in, rather than excluding them for the things they can’t help? What if they said every child is a success waiting to happen?

What if it wasn’t just the occasional school, but every school which had that opinion?

What if, and imagine this, children with any additional need could be supported to have an equal chance at life?

What if we ditched this weird concept of a hierarchy of acceptability of need? Stopped thinking that struggling with literacy was in some way more okay than struggling with emotional regulation. As a society we don’t appear to blame children who can’t read – it’s pretty obvious to most that it’s due to brain differences or lack of appropriate support. Why, then, do we think it acceptable to pin the blame for a children struggling to regulate their behaviour on the child themselves? Why don’t we think it’s due to brain differences or lack of appropriate support for them?

I suspect it’s just more convenient this way. Children who can’t read impact other people a lot less than children who struggle to regulate their behaviour. That’s an unpalatable but true fact. Children with behaviour challenges can disrupt classrooms, they can be hard work, they can hurt people, they can turn people grey, but do we really think that they are less deserving or worthy of the right support than a child with literacy difficulties? And if we do, what exactly is the justification for that stance?

Our recent visits to schools would suggest that the prevailing viewpoint is just this: that children with behaviour challenges are less deserving of a good education. As a society, we seem to think it’s acceptable to keep them away from others, to isolate them, to exclude them, to send them to schools where restraint is regularly used and when all that fails, lock them up in an Assessment and Treatment Centre (ATU).

I’d say we’re failing them.

We’re thinking of the majority and excluding those who don’t conform enough. Shouldn’t we be thinking of each child as an individual? The herd mentality is not really any good for anybody – just one approach is never going to work for all. But if we had many approaches that could be moulded and tweaked for individuals as needed – might that not be inclusive?

It’s really about a shift of attitude. These children with behaviour difficulties aren’t at fault – they have neurological or emotional or sensory or psychological reasons behind their behaviour. We are not affording them empathy. We are not getting things right for them. Schools are not getting things right for them. Inclusion is not including them.

These children are some of the most vulnerable in our society. They are already at risk of poor life outcomes so why do we think its ok to alienate them further?

I don’t know the solution but I know I’m pretty fucking mad about it.

Behaviour – a dirty word?

Mislaying The Positives

I think everyone knows that the last few weeks have been a little trying. Between school residentials and transition, there has been plenty to get my knickers in a twist about (if you somehow missed it, see Hysterical , The Big Trip and Is Dysregulation Rocket Science? ). This isn’t unusual, I’m frequently banging on about some issue or other, more often than not relating to LB’s education. I’m aware though, that in getting caught up dealing with the myriad issues, it can be all too easy to skip over the positives. It means that things, that when you stop to think about them are actually amazing, can pass you by with barely an acknowledgement. I don’t want to skip over these things – these achievements of LB’s – because they are massive within the context of his history and should be given the credence they deserve. I’m going to share one thing, in particular, today. First, I need to tell you some facts.

I don’t like bragging. That’s a fact. I can’t bear it when people go to parents evening then write #giftedandtalented on Twitter or Facebook. Or when someone asks you if you’re concerned about your child and you say yes, and then they say how they aren’t at all worried about theirs because they are exceeding expectations in every area. I don’t like it when people brag about how expensive their house is or how much they earn or how clever they are or any of the others ways that people try to seem better than other people. Just, no.

Here’s another fact. When LB started pre-school, his development was measured to be two years behind the typical expectations for his age – so he was functioning round about the level of a two year old, when he was four. That’s a very tricky educational starting point. There were many barriers between LB and formal learning – behavioural, emotional, linguistic.

When LB started reception class, he couldn’t count. I’m not exaggerating – he literally couldn’t count to three in the correct order. This was not through a lack of trying on anyone’s part – it was mainly due to his Developmental Language Disorder (DLD See Developmental Language Disorder or DLD & Education ), as well as his tricky start. It did mean that numeracy was going to be extremely difficult. It is impossible to do sums if you don’t understand the currency you’re dealing with. It literally must have been like adding apples and pears for him.

By the end of year 1, though LB had made incredible progress in all areas, he had never quite managed to hit an expected level in any subject. It didn’t matter. We were extremely proud of him because of all the things he had achieved and really, from a starting point of 2 years behind, how could he?

Year 2 felt like a big jump. Year 2 had SATS. SATS were going to be hard for someone working below the expectations of the curriculum; someone who had only been able to count for 18 months or so. Fact. We didn’t even know if we’d let him sit the SATS – if they were going to feel too big an obstacle.

Somehow, despite all those facts, at the end of Year 2, LB managed not only to sit his SATS but to pass his Maths SATS. Not only that, but he smashed it, gaining close to a ‘greater depth’ score. He has also been deemed to be working at the overall expectations of the curriculum in numeracy, so in his report, he got his first green light. In fact, he got one for science too.

Why are you telling us this, if you don’t like bragging? I hear you whisper.

I’ll tell you why.

The ACE’s index (Adverse Childhood Experiences index) came about as a way of measuring the impact in later life of various different adversities that could befall a child. This is important because it is only fairly recently that society has begun to acknowledge that things that happen during childhood can continue to impact a person throughout their life. It is important we understand that childhood abuse, neglect or the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death, imprisonment or moving into the Care system doesn’t stop impacting a person once the event is over. It is really important these things are widely understood. The old adage that ‘the child is safe now so the past can be forgotten’ really does need eradicating and something like the ACE’s movement helps with this.

The ACE index also tells us that the more ACEs a person has experienced, the greater their risk of mental and physical health difficulties, substance abuse and unemployment. In short, the worse your start in life, the higher the likelihood of your life outcomes also being poor. A double-whammy body-blow.

ACES another one

 

It is beginning to be recognised that though this information is well-intentioned and to some extent needed, by encouraging people to count numbers of ACEs, you are really misunderstanding the way trauma works. It’s feasible that a person could score just 1 on the index, for an event that may only have occurred once, on one specific day. The index would suggest that this event would only have a minor impact on the person. However, from what we know of trauma, this is isn’t accurate. Depending on the person and their own reactions, that single event could have anything from a minimal to a profound lifelong impact upon the person. Similarly, because you have a large number of ACE’s, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will end up homeless, addicted to alcohol and drugs and suffering several health complaints, and I think there is a danger in suggesting you would.

ACES

 

For a young person, growing up with the knowledge they have a high ACE score could well make them feel hopeless about their future, and is that really what we want for our most vulnerable children? Surely the message should be that, yes, rubbish things that happen in childhood can impact upon a person and as a society we acknowledge it. We should also be offering all the extras a child could need – therapy, education, social/behavioural/emotional support – to help them in overcoming the impacts of those ACES. We should be acknowledging that children with any ACE score need more from us – more care, more love, more support. We should be flagging them up as at risk of the future harm the ACE index suggests whilst providing them with what they need to negate that risk.

I think there’s a danger in suggesting that something that happens early on will categorically lead to x or y later. These things are not set in stone. With the correct support, children who’ve had adverse starts in life can and do overcome the barriers their early lives attempted to block them with. I’m not saying it’s easy – it will undoubtedly be harder for them than for children without ACEs – but shouldn’t we try? Shouldn’t we aspire for the best we can for all children?

So, when a child comes from two years behind expectations, having experienced neglect and the severing of links with their biological family, and several moves, and despite all that catches up with expectations for children who have dealt with none of that, shouldn’t we be shouting from the roof tops? I think so.

Often, it is the most privileged who brag the most. It is hard to be impressed by the gains of those who already had a head start, but when the one who was lagging behind, who joined the race a long while after the others and kept on running despite being so far back, manages to catch up, that’s truly brag-worthy.

This is not all about catching-up though. Even if LB hadn’t have caught up, but had kept running, that would be a significant achievement too. He’s still running when it comes to literacy and he may always be, as may many of his other adoptee peers who have educational mountains to overcome, and I think it’s important we acknowledge that every next reading level, every percentile, every point on every scale, is harder won for our children with ACEs. But they’re doing it. They’re out there, surpassing expectations all the time. And I don’t want that to be lost in schools that don’t understand their behaviour or in parents having to fight or getting dragged down by the multitudinous battles they’re facing. We mustn’t mislay the positives. These positives are huge and indicative of something bigger even than ACEs. They’re about human fortitude and our ability to overcome. And a beacon of hope for what can be achieved, when we properly support our most vulnerable.

 

 

 

 

 

Mislaying The Positives

Hysterical

One of the biggest problems, I find, with attempting to get other people to understand the emotional and behavioural needs of your child with SEMH issues is getting your points across without those people drawing the conclusion you are hysterical. I’m pretty sure I’m not being paranoid about this – I have read it frequently in people’s body language, facial expression and even in their choice of words. Here she goes again, being all over-anxious and fretting unnecessarily, they think. When I say people, I mainly mean teachers, though this isn’t exclusive to them.

When you do have a child with SEMH issues, you become adept at predicting their triggers. You know the sorts of situations that may challenge them and, in an attempt to parent them the best you can, you try to anticipate potential problems in advance so that tweaks or alternatives or supportive measures can be implemented to minimise their stress. For me, that just makes good sense. Why leave a child to flail and panic and worry, when you could prevent that with a bit of forward planning or heightened awareness? Obviously you can’t predict everything, but where you can mitigate potential problems, why wouldn’t you?

It’s this attitude that brings me to teachers, raising possible problems with them in advance of them happening. Unfortunately, what I see as a wise anticipation of issues is more often than not interpreted by them as over-anxious parenting. I’m pretty sure they have conversations about how I’m creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and bringing LB problems where he didn’t have any before. “Her anxiety will be rubbing off on him,” I can imagine them whispering, “It’s not him, it’s her”.

This has come to the fore because next week LB is going on his first residential. I do not feel it is excessive to say this is a big deal for him. Staying away from home without any of your family would be a big deal for most 7 year olds but is even more so when your early life has involved moving from place to place: staying away might trigger all sorts of difficult feelings and anxieties, not least whether you will actually return home again. This is compounded by embarrassment that you wear pull-ups at night when your friends don’t and the trip will involve you staying up way beyond your bedtime; a time that you already struggle to stay regulated for in your own home.

So yes, I think there are some very real concerns about the trip and in an attempt to help LB as much as possible, I have been pro-active in discussing my concerns with his teachers. I wanted them to be aware of his continence issues so they could help him subtly. I wanted them to know his bedtime is early so that when he starts to spiral they will be able to recognise it as dysregulation due to tiredness, not bad behaviour. I wanted them to be aware of the reasons why a trip away from home might trigger feelings from his past. I wanted them to be aware of all this so they could support him through it.

I thought this was all tickety-boo. They had seemed to listen and had been reassuring about how they would deal with it all.

However, as the time draws closer, LB’s behaviour is beginning to spiral. I have noted it at home. They have noted poorer listening, poorer compliance and an increase in fidgety behaviour at school. LB has started saying he doesn’t want to go on the trip. To me, it is obvious he is anxious about it. This anxiety is being expressed through the changes in his behaviour.

School, on the other hand, are scratching their heads about this change of mood. Why is he all of a sudden throwing things and threatening to kill his TA, they wonder. To help them out, I’ve tried to make the link between the two things for them. This has involved me having to elaborate on why exactly the trip might be anxiety-provoking now, before it has even happened. The problem is that I don’t think they’re really getting it, so I find myself harping on more than I’d really like. The more times I even reference the trip, the more convinced they become that I am a hysterical, over-reactive mother.

This morning, as a small part of the coherent explanation I was trying to weave on the spot, I mentioned that LB has only ever stayed with us or his grandparents (I thought the ‘since he’s been here’ part was obvious) so staying somewhere else might be quite triggering. “He won’t be alone in that,” his TA says, “many of the children won’t have slept anywhere else”, as if I am being quite unreasonable by making a point out of something common to all the children. What I want to say is something along the lines of, “Yeah, but, before these other children moved to their forever home, did they live with foster carers who randomly took them to other houses for respite, with people who were not always registered as carers? Did they get left there without explanation for inordinate periods of time? When they came to their forever home, were they just dropped off by people they had lived with for several years who would then just disappear never to be seen again? Before that, were they suddenly removed one unpredictable day from the family who conceived and gave birth to them? Where they? No? THEN IT REALLY ISN’T THE SAME!”

Obviously I said no such thing, smiled sweetly, took a deep breath, and attempted again to explain things in a calm manner that might actually get my message across. That’s how it was from my point of view anyway. I suspect that from theirs, they thought, “Oh, she’s still going. I’ve covered off that point so she’s trying to concoct more. Definitely hysterical.”

What’s infuriating is that when you don’t feel heard, there aren’t many options. I don’t believe in shouting or being rude (it’s all about the long game and building relationships) so I’m really left with repeating myself or trying to find other words or other arrangements of words to get the ideas to strike home. I often find myself reaching for more extreme or more shocking examples when the tamer ones don’t resonate. It is as though I have to escalate the severity of what I’m saying to get my messages heard. The thing is that if they are still not heard, I am surely seen as increasingly hysterical.

I suggested today that we must monitor LB. Yes, some anxiety is to be expected. But as he is already at threatening to kill people levels, perhaps we don’t want him to escalate much more. Perhaps, if he does seem to be spiralling out of control, we might need to come up with a plan to soothe his nerves. Perhaps, and I was just throwing things out there, we could reassure him that we would not make him stay somewhere he doesn’t want to (trust and all that) and we could offer to pick him up from the day-time part so he can sleep where he feels safe: at home. Though, to me, this makes perfect sense, I can see that school find it an outrageous suggestion – the kind that would only be made by a mother struggling to loosen her apron strings. “She doesn’t even want to let him out of her sight for one night, for goodness sake,” I can imagine them commenting. The response from the TA only confirmed my feeling they had been talking about me in this way – “Mr Teacher doesn’t want you to do that,” she said, when I suggested it.

It really is quite a challenge to remain dignified in these situations. It is a constant balance between persisting in getting messages across and presenting like a non-hysterical, credible source of information. I do a lot of internal swearing.

I understand that they have taken hundreds of children on trips and that every parent gets a bit worried about it and that they will do their best to look after LB and that if he gets upset, they will deal with it. I know they haven’t had to call anyone’s parents before, but, if we’re honest, that’s more of a gauntlet than a reassurance. When they say, “he’ll be fine,” I hear, “we’re not taking this seriously enough”. If only they could acknowledge this is a huge deal for him, we’d be grand.

Obviously we are doing all the prep stuff and giving reassurance at home. LB does seem to be coping better now he’s realised they aren’t camping outside (you really can’t anticipate all the issues) but I am typing this outside of his door as we have another tricky bedtime. I intend to monitor him/ his behaviour over the weekend and should things have worsened, I shall be back at the classroom door, making myself look hysterical again. And I don’t really care what Mr Teacher thinks about it – should LB be crying and hanging from my leg when I drop him off for the trip, I will be picking him up at bedtime.

As tempting as it is to just pack LB off with them, with little instruction, to let them deal with whatever happens themselves, I can’t shrug my shoulders of all responsibility. He’s our son and it’s our job to meet his needs as best we can. If that means occasionally having to overrule school and to lose street cred over being anxious parents then so be it. LB’s needs are paramount and if that makes me hysterical, then I guess I am.

 

 

*The irony of me writing last week about how much I love the school is not lost on me. I should have known that singing their praises would nudge the universe into trying to prove me wrong

**The word ‘hysteria’ derives from the Greek word for ‘uterus’, suggesting that to be a women is to be hysterical; that being overly emotional is an intrinsic failing of having a womb. Marvellous. I wonder whether any of the dads out there experience a similar thing when they have worries or if this shrugging off of concerns is more prevalent when they are raised by mothers?

I’m not really trying to make a feminist point, I’m genuinely wondering.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hysterical

When is a school a good school?

It’s the twenty million dollar question isn’t it? How do you go about picking a school for your child that will do all the things you want it to? Do you go on their Ofsted: outstanding schools only? Or on their league tables? Pick the one with the best SATS scores? Do you go on recommendation? Do you consider staff turnover? Or exclusion figures? Do you avoid the ones with chequered pasts?

Which measures should you look at to get the most accurate indication of an establishment’s ability to educate your child? This is a huge question and I fear this blog is going to mess with heads more than answering it.

The thing is, on paper, the boys’ school might be considered dubious. It is currently rated ‘good’ by Ofsted but before that it ‘required improvement’. There is an on-going question over leadership and all sorts of political shenanigans happening that I really can’t go into. It does fair to middling on league tables. There is quite a bit of muttering in the playground and some parents have decided to talk with their feet in recent months.

However, despite all that, I bloody love it. It isn’t that we’ve always had the easiest time or that relationships were built immediately or that they just ‘got’ LB because none of those things happened. In fact, at times, I’ve been tearing my hair out. If you want to know more about our history with school, you can read these posts: Adoptive Parent: Behaviour Detective 

School Worries

Alleviating School Worries

Dear Teacher

Stop. Collaborate & Listen.

There are several factors that have led me to having the warm, fuzzy feelings I have towards them now. First of all, despite LB’s behaviour being difficult to understand, difficult to cope with in a busy classroom and it requiring novel practices, not one member of teaching staff has ever given up on him. Not at any point. They have never rang me and asked me to bring him home. They have never made us feel that they can’t/ won’t help him or us. His TA, who has to get a special mention because I wasn’t always sure she was the right appointment, has been there for him, day in, day out, for two years now, even though he has hurt her and called her names and refused to do anything she says (at points). She could have handed her notice in and gone to find a much easier job, but she hasn’t. She’s changed her days when LB has needed her to and she has put up with uncertainty over the funding which pays her. She has visited him at home during the holidays and brings him things from her home she thinks he might enjoy in school.

I don’t know how to quantify that sticking power/commitment or which sort of league table or report would validate it.

And the teachers/TA don’t just tolerate LB, they love him and it’s obvious (to him as well, I imagine). At least two members of staff have cried with pride at what he has achieved. Unlike some schools which have strict ‘no touching’ policies, they are all willing to show LB he is loved through cuddles and physical reassurance if he needs them to, including his current rugby-playing male teacher. It’s hard to do that in this day and age but LB needs it, and the teachers know that.

They are very instinctive about his love for animals too and don’t bat an eyelid about him going into assembly with two guinea pigs, or spending some time with the school dog. They do forest school (big tick), plenty of sport and are happy to fly in the face of convention or go above and beyond if necessary. Two members of staff will visit us at home, as part of transition, for example.

I think much of what makes me so happy about the school, comes from the genuinely caring people who work in it. We’ve now worked closely with four different teachers and the TA and every one of them has cared enough about LB and about meeting his needs the best they can, that they’ve been willing to listen and to do things differently. Again, I don’t know how to quantify that willingness but it is essential. Without it, I would still be tearing my hair out. In fact I’d probably be fully bald and rocking a rebelliously coloured wig.

The teachers were not experts in trauma when they met LB. I would say their knowledge has ranged from none to some but, crucially, they have been open to other professionals coming in (post adoption support & a psychologist) and to listening to them. Over time, though I won’t lie about the difficulty in achieving this, they have become willing to listen to us too.

One of the biggest journeys we have been on has been with LB’s current teacher. We have gone from inappropriate comments about ‘attention-seeking’ and ‘manipulating adults’, born out of not knowing any better, to him pro-actively passing on key, attachment sensitive strategies to the next teacher. He has literally turned things around from LB refusing school and being anxious in his classroom, to LB being happy, making accelerated progress and having a warm, trusting relationship with each other. That willingness – to admit there’s a problem, reflect on it, take advice on it and action change – is immeasurable. As a human, it is uncomfortable and can be confidence-shaking to go through that sort of process. Many teachers are not willing to lay themselves bare in that way, instead becoming entrenched in how they’ve always done it.

We all sat in a transition meeting yesterday – him, us, LB’s next teacher, his TA and the acting SENCO (reception & yr 1 teacher) – and it actually felt like a team meeting. Like we were LB’s team and we were all working together to make sure the transition is as smooth as possible for him. It wasn’t combative, there wasn’t disagreement, I didn’t leave despairing or feeling they think I’m neurotic – all of which have happened many times before. It felt like a collection of people, each with their own set of knowledge and skills, and a mutual respect for the others, brought together by their shared commitment to provide the best they can for LB. It has felt a long time coming, but my goodness I’m grateful for it. And not only that, I’m proud of it.

I’m proud of our persistence and unwavering commitment to being friendly even when things have been tough – these relationships would not be so solid otherwise – and without somehow building up a foundation of respect and trust, it is almost impossible to effect change. I’m proud of the teachers for their openness, commitment, willingness and genuine care. I’m proud of LB for teaching a bunch of grown-ups the most they’ve learned in a long time and for persevering when the strategies have not been right for him. I’m proud, that with the support of his exceptional school, LB continues to confound expectations.

I don’t give a fig about the Ofsted report, the league table, the SATS scores or even the political shenanigans (though we could do without them) because none of it really matters. Its people and relationships that make the difference and LB’s ‘team’ rocks.

 

When is a school a good school?

DLD & Education

Today there has been a web chat run by @DLDandMe all about the impact having a language disorder has on a child’s education. It is part of their wider work to raise awareness of Developmental Language Disorder  (DLD) and to spread the word to a broader audience, about what DLD is, how to recognise it etc. I joined in a little, although late, but I thought it might be useful to share more detail about this topic, from our own personal experience.

As most readers already know, I am both a speech and language therapist and Mum to our seven year old son – LB – who has DLD. There is a complication to our story, which is that LB experienced early neglect and didn’t come into our lives until he was three and half. It is pretty impossible to pick apart the different impacts of neglect and DLD, with both having made their mark. However, it was clear from fairly early on that the communication difficulties LB experienced were more significant than delay alone and where progress was quite quick in some areas, speech and language has always proved more challenging for him. As much as possible in this post, I’m going to focus on the specific ways DLD has affected LB’s educational progress, notwithstanding the separate effects trauma has had.

LB’s DLD impacted on all areas of his communication development when we first met him – including his ability to understand language (comprehension), his auditory memory, his ability to use words and make sentences (expressive language), his ability to listen and pay attention, his ability to speak clearly and his social communication. When I talk about his presentation back then, in workshops and the like, I can see that it shocks people. And it was shocking, because LB’s language system just couldn’t do what he needed it to – not one part of the complicated whole functioned as it should have. He was very much trapped inside of himself and he wasn’t left with many options other than to express himself through his behaviour.

In the early stages of his pre-school education, this impacted him in a myriad different ways. He was certainly delayed in learning concept words such as his colours, size words, same/different etc. which meant he just couldn’t follow much of the teaching or express answers to what nursery staff would likely consider easy or every day questions. That said, with specific teaching of one concept at a time and plenty of reinforcement in everyday activities and play, LB was able to close the gap pretty quickly. It isn’t that LB can’t learn, because he has developed phenomenally quickly, it’s just that he couldn’t pick these concepts up from the ether, as children with typical language skills would. He required specific teaching, repetition and showing, to get them to stick.

Obviously, struggling with comprehension made it even harder for LB to learn new things. There must have been much of what went on in Nursery that he couldn’t follow. This no doubt exacerbated his difficulties with listening and attention, because it is extremely hard work for anybody to focus on language they don’t comprehend. Imagine having to listen to French or Urdu or Finnish or any other language you aren’t familiar with, for large swathes of each day. It would be exhausting and it wouldn’t take long until you stopped listening. Therefore, in some ways, LB’s DLD exacerbated his DLD. He certainly coped better on a 1:1 and thankfully we were able to provide him with this because I was on adoption leave and he just went to pre-school for a few sessions (and now he has TA support). Keeping distraction levels down and matching our language to the level LB could cope with, was imperative. It meant we could keep language accessible for him most of the time and choose which concepts or structures we wanted to stretch him with. I guess this is where my professional background came in – I suspect creating these ideal learning conditions would be much more difficult for a child whose parents are new to the idea of DLD and whose pre-school setting don’t get it.

Certainly as LB’s comprehension developed, so too did his ability to learn. I know it sounds a bit ridiculous but he did appear to be growing cleverer. I maintain that had he have had a cognitive assessment at the beginning, and one a couple of years later, he would have climbed the percentiles. This is because learning and education is generally acquired through the currency of language. As he acquired more words, he knew what more things were. He was able to express how things work. He was able to enquire and find more information out. The more language you have, the better you become at gaining it. Initially, we just couldn’t have talked about complex ideas such as electricity or natural disasters or endangered animals or health conditions. LB didn’t have the vocabulary to access a discussion or explanation about such things so he essentially wasn’t able to learn about them. It was only when he had gained sufficient depth and breadth of vocabulary and could listen to and follow longer structures, that he was able to develop his knowledge of the world around him. And when this did happen, it was amazing to witness the world opening up to him.

Vocabulary acquisition was a huge ongoing challenge for LB (and me) for a long time. Initially, even though we used lots and lots of modelling strategies, he didn’t seem to be growing a larger vocabulary. Again, like with other aspects of his language system, the more he heard a word used and the more times he managed to store a new one, the better his language processing system got. He has certainly got quicker at acquiring new words, even if this continues to be hard for him. Evidently LB’s language processing system (the bit of our brains that hears words, de-codes them, decides what sounds are in them, and their meaning, and stores them in an organised way, ready to be spoken) was not well-developed. It was laborious for him to use it, meaning that getting his vocabulary as big as he needed it to be must have been an exhausting task for him.

Where LB would once have needed to hear a word used around him for several months, with a high level of repetition, before being able to store and use it, he can now store a new word almost immediately. This has had a huge impact on his ability to be able to keep up with the curriculum. Each new topic brings a cornucopia of new words, which children are expected to immediately absorb in order to follow teaching. If you can’t understand the new words, it’s extremely difficult to follow the new lessons.

Although speedier, LB’s processing system remains inaccurate – he struggles to de-code words so that, without help, he might store ‘Corvette’ as “courgette” or ‘submarine’ as “subramine”. He is aware of this so often requests help – just having someone break a word down into bite-size syllables is a huge help to him and allows him to store a new word correctly. At school he has word webs for new words and is building up a personalised dictionary with his TA.

Despite all the hurdles, LB’s comprehension skills have caught up. He seems able to access the vast majority of teaching in his year 2 classroom without too much difficulty. He does cope better with multi-sensory teaching and visual supports (such as narrative grids, Mind Maps etc.), not least because they help to hold his attention. When LB is tired, his skills in this area do diminish a little and he might need a bit more repetition but overall I think his progress underlines what the right speech and language therapy input can achieve for children with DLD.

LB’s difficulties with auditory memory have impacted in several ways – most notably on his ability to blend sounds together and to learn listed information. Literacy acquisition was always going to be a challenge for LB, as his speech continued to be unintelligible well into year 1, with vowel distortions, and his sound awareness skills (identifying the first sound in words, rhyme, syllables etc) were poor. Even the pre-reading task of describing what’s happening in a picture was ridiculously difficult, because LB didn’t have the sentence structures or vocabulary he needed in his expressive language – something else we taught specifically.

We worked hard on sound awareness in a stepwise manner – identifying the first sound of short words then longer words, then the last sound of short words etc., alongside attending speech and language therapy. Again, I feel that good phonological awareness skills are something LB wouldn’t have been able to acquire organically, but he was very much capable of achieving on a 1:1 basis with a personalised approach.

We stumbled at the point of blending sounds together – a critical final step before literacy could be gained. The difficulty it turned out, after a bit of ‘diagnostic therapy’ (again, thank goodness for my career) was the blasted auditory memory which was struggling to hold three sounds, let alone stick them together. Once more, practise paid off and eventually LB could blend. Which, having already learned his letter shapes – pretty easily, it was a visual task – meant he could read. Progress has been steady since that point, with him progressing through the reading levels as you’d expect. In my opinion, a good phonics approach is essential for a child with DLD. It was a challenge to establish that strong foundation but once it was in place, it served LB well. He is not yet meeting the expectations of the curriculum but his reading is good; he understands text and he can apply his phonic skills to decipher most words. Crucially, he loves books and listening to stories. Keeping things as fun and engaging as possible is another essential tool in encouraging a child with DLD.

However, LB is not yet ready to apply his phonic skills to writing, finding this laborious. The addition of SPAG requirements such as including a noun phrase, or adverbial, pretty much renders writing the very worst aspect of school life for LB and, in my humble opinion, totally takes the fun and imagination out of it for all children.

It is hard to get LB’s teachers to understand just how many demands writing places on the language system of child with DLD. My hunch is that when his reading skills are better still and he’s had more specific phonics teaching, his ability to spell will improve. I suspect that expressing himself on paper, with appropriate grammar, will always have its challenges.

The other area auditory memory difficulties have impacted is LB’s ability to learn listed or sequential information such as the days of the weeks, months and, perhaps most crucially, how to count. Learning the numbers to ten proved extraordinarily challenging for LB so that when he started school, aged 4 and half, he couldn’t count to three in the correct order. The knock on effect of this was that Maths was pretty much impossible. How can you do sums when you haven’t the basic language for it? When “4” or “732” are just as meaningless and unquantifiable? This certainly held LB back and for the first year, perhaps two, of his education, his literacy skills appeared better than his numeracy ones, which lagged significantly behind. However, all the repetition and visual representation eventually paid off and LB learned to count to 10. And then 20. Very soon after that, probably because he could use his logic and ability to see patterns, he could get to 100. Once he had the language, Maths wasn’t so hard at all. In fact, it looks as though LB will meet the expected levels of the National Curriculum for the first time this year, which is no mean feat, given his starting point. Now that he has the language, even the reasoning SATS paper is accessible to him, despite the problems being presented in word form.

Having DLD has made every aspect of LB’s education more challenging for him. However, with the right support, LB has proved over and over again, what children with DLD can achieve and how crucial getting that support in place is. Language underlies all learning and we ignore that at the peril of children with DLD.

 

 

DLD & Education

A Therapeutic Week

It’s funny how you can have periods of time where everything feels difficult or like you aren’t making headway, then several positive things happen at once, making you feel as though you are taking a bigger than average leap forward.

A big positive last week, came in the form of a meeting I had with Little Bear’s teacher. We needed to update his SEN targets, both because they were due but also as part of our funding application. The teacher could have just written them by himself and wafted them under my nose to sign. However, he didn’t, inviting me to meet with him and write the targets together. We pored over the recent psychology report (see The Right Eyes ), agreeing how to group the advice into targets and how to apply the advice, in real terms, in the classroom. It felt truly collaborative, as though my knowledge as a parent was respected and even, dare I say it, valued.

Part of the reason I sound a bit disbelieving about this is not only because this level of collaboration is so tricky to attain but also because this is the same teacher I wrote Dear Teacher about, earlier in the year. I put our improved relationship down to perseverance on my part, an open mind and willingness to listen on his and probably a few of the things I wrote about in Stop. Collaborate & Listen.  It’s reassuring that these things do (can?) pay off in the end.

Irrespective of what has gone into achieving it, the outcome for Little Bear is surely more favourable, now that we are all working to the same advice? As most of the advice is around emotional, behavioural and sensory supports, the final targets did have a very therapeutic feel about them. And it’s reassuring that he’s getting a lot of that sort of support all day at school as well as at home.

The meeting also led to a second therapeutic development: a sensory/calm box. It was one of the recommendations from the psychologist, although she said ‘sensory box’ and I slightly took it in my own direction. I maintain that Little Bear’s sensory presentation is complex and often when he appears to need more movement, he actually needs help to calm. So far, this is something we have struggled with and I have found difficult to get right for him. Little Bear’s TA is very good at knowing when he needs a movement break and taking him outside to bounce a basketball or have a little kick about. However, it’s the times when he needs some comfort/ soothing to calm that we all struggle with. This is where I saw the sensory box coming in and half-inched it as more of a ‘soothing box’. We have managed to establish, after longer than you might think, that Little Bear finds fluffy things soothing so I mainly went for tactile items in the box – things to squeeze, stroke etc. I did add a kaleidoscope for a bit of calm visual distraction and also some photos of us in case he needed the reassurance of seeing us during the school day. Here’s the box before Little Bear decorated it and we added the personal bits:

IMG_3170

 

I found that The Works was a great shop to go to for little squeezy things and much cheaper than if you look for ‘sensory toys’ on Amazon. I also got the wooden box from there, which is the ideal size and personalise-able – something Little Bear really enjoyed.

Early feedback suggests the box does offer him comfort at school, which I’m really pleased about – could that be another sensory hole plugged? There have been some issues with him not wanting his access to it to end, but hopefully they will be solved with a bit more structure and a sand timer.

A fluffy beanbag, a fluffy blanket and jackets/zippers with fluffy linings inside have all brought comfort at home over recent months so maybe we have finally hit on the right modality for soothing? I hope so. It certainly feels more effective than letting him run wild and over-stimulating himself.

The third and final therapeutic development has come in the form of massage. I’m not too sure how this came about, although I know someone has mentioned it to me previously as a good approach but I can’t exactly remember who. Somehow, Little Bear has started asking for a massage at bedtime. It has felt like an exercise in trust, communication and consent, as well as an intrinsically soothing exercise. I’m careful to ensure Little Bear is in control of the massage and that I listen carefully to him and heed his requests. He has got quite specific in expressing what he wants e.g. ‘rub my leg but not the back of my knee’, ‘more firmly please – not as hard as this but harder than this,’ (while poking my arm to show me). It feels imperative that I adhere to his boundaries in this way – not just because I clearly should respect anybody in that way, but to strengthen our bond, and as a reference point for his own behaviour e.g. when he’s holding onto my hair and refusing to let go, I can say, ‘when I give you a massage and you say, that’s enough, or not my toes, I always stop. When I ask you to let go of my hair, you should listen to me, like I listen to you’. It has also given the opportunity for me to clarify the rules on ‘private places’ i.e. ‘no, I won’t massage there, it’s a private place, nobody is allowed to touch you there’.

And even more than all that, it feels like we’re doing something fundamental: repairing gaps in Little Bear’s development.

Although Little Bear has always been affectionate, this feels different – as though he is allowing himself to be vulnerable. It has made me think about the early months when he pushed us away at bedtime, not wanting goodnight cuddles or kisses. I remember trying to respond playfully – pretending I had lost him in the bed, patting the bedsheets to try to find him. I’d mainly pat the bed but occasionally get his feet and pretend I thought they were his head. He found this funny and over time, would ask me to play the game until we eventually, after a long time, got to the point of me patting his head or chest and eventually planting a sneaky kiss. The contrast between that – me earning his trust one baby step at a time – and him asking for a massage, feels vast.

I’m reminded that we’ve come a long way – we really have.

A Therapeutic Week

Adoption’s a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it

Sorry to quote Ronan at you, but that song has been playing on loop in my head for the last few days – no doubt my subconscious talking – and it really is the most apt musical accompaniment for how things are at the moment. I have always likened adoption to a rollercoaster – the ups and downs are undeniable. It’s just that usually there are a couple of weeks or months that are good, followed by a trickier patch – a kind of long distance rollercoaster dipping and looping through the years. Not so this week. This week, we have been up and down several times, all in the space of five days and it’s hard not to feel a little dizzy.

I mentioned last week that the start of 2019 wasn’t particularly easy for Little Bear and therefore not for us either. When we arrived at the Easter holidays, we were all flagging and a little more in need of a re-group than usual. We didn’t do too much – a few days out but lots of time around the house too. Pretty much everything we did was low-key, together, and involved a lot of quality time. We have got much better at knowing what salves are required to sooth tired nerves and these tried and tested methods do work for us. By the end of the two weeks off, all was good with the world. The sun had shone a bit, we had all relaxed and re-charged and we all approached the back to work/ school situation with enthusiasm and good cheer.

I was certainly aware of the re-found bounce in my walk and the looseness in my shoulders and the lack of furrow in my brow. Had we turned a corner? In my sunny and optimistic mood, I thought so.

On the first day back, Little Bear knuckled down, worked hard and got himself onto the next reading level. This was brilliant. Not only that, but he seemed to have developed a new level of reading fluency overnight and was tackling the harder books without difficulty. The next day we met the Psychologist (I wrote about that in The Right Eyes ) and had a positive and further optimism-boosting meeting. Hoorah! School were next level knowledgeable and Little Bear’s needs were going to be met and I could further relax. My body and mind were very excited at this prospect. Nothing to worry about! Imagine that! I was imagining it, craving it and just plain ready for it.

The week was only four days long, due to Good Friday, and passed in a similar upbeat manner. Easter weekend was also a beautiful thing. The sun really shone, our vitamin D was boosted, we went exploring down a stream, we hunted for eggs, we saw a friend, we did outdoor sketching, we read books. It was nice. It wasn’t dramatic or exotic but it was really, restoratively nice.

I was very much settling into the relaxed feeling now. There was no reason whatsoever that it shouldn’t carry on for the rest of the term. Spring had sprung, winter had passed and taken with it the doom of the last months. We were at the top of the rollercoaster and due a lengthy stay.

The boys went back to school after the bank holiday weekend and had good days. On the Wednesday, I picked them up from football club and Little Bear told me I needed to speak with the coach. Here we go, I thought. The coach took me to one side, away from the rest of the parents and began our chat with, “I’ll be speaking to another child’s parent too.” Bloody Nora, what had they done? Brawling, I assumed.

I assumed wrong. He wanted to speak with me because Little Bear had been trying so hard and being so sensible both in PE and football that the coach was super impressed. He told me that he and the other boy, who usually have to be separated from one another due to constantly dysregulating one another, had been so sensible they had been allowed to play on the same team. There had been a foul and the coach felt sure this would lead to familiar difficulties. Instead, one had helped the other up in a very sports manly fashion. He wanted to tell me how proud he was of Little Bear; how much he was standing out for him in school, for all the right reasons, and how much he loves him.

The coach is a young guy (God, I’m old) but he just seems to understand children like Little Bear. He doesn’t automatically see naughtiness where others might. He also seems to understand instinctively, that as a parent of a child with behaviour challenges, sometimes you really need to hear good news. I thanked him and attempted to express the loveliness of what he had just done without A. crying or B. hugging him inappropriately.

Yep, we were at the top of the rollercoaster alright. The coach had taken Little Bear to his teacher and had a similar conversation with him too, so I felt confident that the following day would continue to bring positives.

Wowzers. It had been a long time since we’d had a run of positives and it was most welcome.

I was totally blindsided then, when Little Bear woke in the middle of the night incredibly distressed by a nightmare. I have to admit I slept through the drama and poor Grizzly ended up getting in the spare bed with him, even though he was working. But I certainly knew all about it in the morning when Little Bear feigned illness and announced he wasn’t going to school, the second he saw me. Cue a very difficult school run, school refusal and a very tricky ten to fifteen minutes cajoling an in turn sad and angry Little Bear to stay in the building. It took so long the playground had been locked and I had to escape through the school.

It’s funny how a bad drop off can really set the mood for your day. You can’t help worrying about how they are and half expecting a phone call. I did get a call, at break time, but it was mostly to reassure me. He wasn’t on top form but he was doing ok. I’ve never had a call for reassuring purposes before, perhaps school really were getting to grips with what might help us.

I think we were all in peril in Little Bear’s dream, which had triggered attachment and separation anxiety things again. What a shame after such a positive few days! Eeh, well. The rollercoaster plummets and you just have to ride it.

The next day was better. Just a blip. Up we went again.

On Friday, a different teacher opened Little Bear’s door and my heart sank a little. The school have introduced a new curriculum this term, which I feel pretty excited about, but none of us had really extrapolated what that meant for Little Bear. It means having a teacher who doesn’t know him and whom he doesn’t have a trusting relationship with every Friday. Hmm. His TA was there though, I reassured myself.

When I picked him up that evening, he was pale and furious looking. “Did you have a good day, darling?” was met with a very definite ‘no’. And things deteriorated from there. The evening part was ok but by bedtime, Little Bear was refusing to go upstairs, trying to break things, calling us names and threatening to punch me in the face. I somehow managed bedtime safely but it wasn’t exactly enjoyable.

The next morning, things were no better. When it came to getting ready for horse-riding, Little Bear wouldn’t, despite his brother wanting to go along to watch – the kind of carrot that would usually take Little Bear anywhere. We tried firmness, persuasion, therapeutic-ing. The works. In the end, I laid his things out and just told him they were there and gave him the space to make his own decision (I was trying to go for a Demand Avoidance friendly approach). It didn’t work. He didn’t get ready and so he didn’t go. The fact that he somehow perceived this as having got away with something, seemed to rattle him further and he began to (seemingly) purposefully escalate the situation. Anyone who has experienced that will know exactly what I mean. I realised he needed a firm barrier and told him if he wasn’t riding, he’d have to just sit on the sofa. Rampaging around the house wasn’t actually an option.

Five minutes later, he came back to find me, breaking his heart crying, saying he regretted his decision and now really wanted to go horse-riding. It was too late for that, the lesson was half done by now, and while on the one hand it was kind of helpful for him to have dealt himself a natural consequence (perhaps this would lead to a different outcome next time?), it was upsetting to see him clearly so conflicted and upset within himself. I held him like a baby and lay with him while he cried.

Obviously, my first and foremost thought was his distress and I did attempt to therapeutic the shizzle out of the situation. However, on a practical level, I hadn’t managed to get dressed, I needed to cook lunch and organise myself to get to work that afternoon. Trauma is so energy-sapping for all. Plus, what was going on with this bloody rollercoaster? Weren’t we supposed to be at the top?

The more I thought about it, the more I could link his behaviour now to having had a stranger teaching him on Friday. He’d spent the whole day feeling unsafe. Of course this had disrupted him. How bloody annoying that something so avoidable had happened and undone all our hard work during the holidays getting us back on an even keel.

I was annoyed with myself for not spotting this would be a problem when I first heard about the new curriculum. I was also annoyed that school had not anticipated any potential problem either. It was barely a week since we’d met with the Psychologist and I had got excited that they were finally on it and I didn’t need to worry any more. Sadly, it seems I was deluded. I know they won’t have meant for this to happen, and they will care when I tell them. It’s just that, for once, it would be so nice if they could take some of the responsibility for noticing these things and rectifying them, without me needing to point them out. Even better, they could start anticipating some of these things before they happen because they do have enough knowledge to do that now. And it is blindingly obvious to anyone who knows Little Bear that having a different teacher for one day a week, without any preparation isn’t really a good idea.

I have e-mailed and the SENDCO has replied, at the weekend. They are lovely and I know they will try to sort this. However, riding the rollercoaster as we are, and have been for the last months, is exhausting. We’ve barely recovered from one thing, when another thing happens. I was so desperate for that feeling of relaxation that I experienced for about a week that I’m spending quite a bit of day-dreaming time willing it back again – in between threats of head butts and absconding.

And the SENDCO, who is the saving grace in all this, is heavily pregnant and leaving for maternity leave imminently. She will send our renewal funding application first but she won’t be here when the results come in…

My brow is re-furrowed, my shoulders re-tightened. But what can you do? Adoption’s a rollercoaster and you just gotta ride it.

 

 

 

Adoption’s a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it

The Right Eyes

Today, Little Bear has been seen by another psychologist. This came about because the last time we saw an Educational Psychologist, I became very irate and had to resist the strong urge to tell him he didn’t know his arse from his elbow. You may remember this ranty post which tells you all about it: Conversations

Thankfully, the Bear’s school were none too impressed either and volunteered to pay for a private psychologist to ensure a non-biased, useful report. I know that I have moaned at times, about the school, but things have come a long way. I feel a real gratitude towards them that they genuinely care, about Little Bear and us, and that they are willing to be creative and do things differently if that’s what’s required. In these times of dwindling budgets, I’m well aware that many schools wouldn’t have funded such an assessment.

It isn’t just that, but by inviting a knowledgeable stranger into the school, they were laying themselves bare to observation and potential criticism. They took that risk because they want to do the best they can for our son and they are willing to make changes to their practice if advised. There is something about us having these shared vulnerabilities and this shared desire to ensure he reaches his full potential and is as happy as he can be, that makes me a little emotional. I think (I hope) that we have reached that much longed for status of Having A Good Working Relationship. And also Mutual Respect. I hope so, because I do feel like giving them a collective hug.

So, having got the right professional across the threshold, how was it?

Other than the times someone from our post-adoption support service has come into school meetings, this was the first time that somebody with an evident knowledge of trauma and attachment has observed Little Bear and seen what I see. There is a palpable relief in that. It isn’t in my mind; I haven’t concocted his needs; I’m not exaggerating. A knowledgeable stranger has come in and is sitting at the table I have sat at many times before and is observing things and recommending things that I have previously talked about, at that very table. She’s more convincing than me because she’s a psychologist and she certainly couldn’t be accused of being a neurotic mother, but even so, it makes me feel a little vindicated.

It’s refreshing. It’s also reassuring and hopeful. It means that instead of things being okay for Little Bear, maybe there is hope of them being the best they could be. I probably haven’t aimed that high for a while – just hoping we could avoid abject failure. School are willing and keen and they like the Psychologist and she is passionate and full of useful ideas. Surely this is the most hopeful our status has been so far?

I complained in my blog about the incompetent Ed Psych, that I knew more about trauma than he did and I’m sure that’s true. (Incidentally, today’s Psychologist said almost the polar opposite of everything he said. One has to laugh). I’ve written about  Being an Expert Parent and how our children necessitate us being so. I have always been a little reluctant about it though, so when a professional appears who is undoubtedly more knowledgeable than me and more experienced than me and I can learn from them, it’s brilliant. There is a surprising relief in it, that allows me to relax a bit, so I can attend the meeting as a Mum, not some sort of parent/professional hybrid trying to do several things at once. It makes me realise how exhausting navigating such meetings can be and how much of my emotional energy is eaten up week to week, trying to make sure Little Bear has what he needs in every area of his life, unwittingly filling the gaps left by others lacking in knowledge. Perhaps I can relax a little about his education now because between the psychologist and the school, I think they’ve got this.

It also highlights how rarely I’m in a situation with a professional who is knowledgeable enough to give advice about Little Bear’s needs. This shouldn’t be the case – that a professional who is trauma-informed is a rarity. Any professional coming to advise on children with developmental trauma should be suitably trained and aware. It is wrong that we find ourselves in a situation where the only way of getting that expertise is to pay for it, especially as childhood trauma is so prevalent.

Anyhow, with the right eyes on Little Bear, what did we learn?

There are some real positives about how things are currently being done. The Psychologist commented how lovely it was that Little Bear’s teacher and his TA are both willing to be physically affectionate with him and allow him to snuggle close to them. His teacher (a man), calls him ‘mate’ a lot and gives him reassuring pats on the back or arm. In this day and age where figures of authority have to be so careful about touching children, and some establishments have become so wary that they don’t touch children at all instead keeping some kind of unnatural and cold distance, it is heartening that the Bear’s school feel able to react to him naturally and to provide him with the physical comfort/connection he needs.

There are also real positives in terms of a multi-sensory curriculum and learning being fun. Little Bear is largely happy in the classroom and his trusting relationship with both members of staff is evident to a new onlooker. These things are reassuring.

What is more concerning is that Little Bear was not observed to be regulated at any point during the morning-long observation. I’m not surprised though. We achieve periods of regulation at home but that’s because we work really hard at it and we have spent three and half years getting tuned in and figuring out what works. I can see that without a trained eye, it would be difficult to figure out the underlying causes (often linked to Interoception in my opinion). I am still very much trying to untangle Little Bear’s sensory needs and that is with Sensory Integration training under my belt and a lot of time to puzzle. I can fully understand how, without the training or the experience, school would struggle to interpret and manage these aspects of Little Bear’s needs. The good thing is that today’s visit has brought them better understanding and the report will bring many practical suggestions for ‘sensory snacks’ to hopefully improve regulation across the day. I’m excited to read the ideas and maybe steal some for home too.

Little Bear was also observed to be anxious, hyper-vigilant and attachment-seeking in the classroom. Staff were observed to be inconsistent in making Little Bear adhere to the rules and at times punished possible self-regulatory behaviour. The big take home message for school was to ask themselves, ‘what is Little Bear showing us with this behaviour?’ ‘What is he showing us he needs?’ ‘What can we do to make him more comfortable/reduce his anxiety?’ instead of saying, ‘how can we stamp out this unwanted behaviour?’

The take home messages for me were more questions to ask of myself: ‘Are we doing enough to meet Little Bear’s sensory needs?’; ‘Should I get somebody else to assess him in this area?’; ‘Do we make appropriate accommodations for his sensory needs, particularly at mealtimes?’ I do find myself saying “sit down properly” a lot more than I probably should.

We talked a lot about difficulties with executive function and employing strategies to support that, such as visual supports, timers and short sharp bursts of learning, interspersed with sensory snacks. We talked about positive feedback, a proper meet and greet, a better transition for the end of lunchtime and closer supervision if unstructured play is leading to difficulties.

One of the main reasons we initially sought psychological input was due to the upcoming need to re-apply for funding for Little Bear. Today’s Psychologist was strongly of the opinion that Little Bear’s supportive adult should not be removed from him – he needs her support to get going with tasks and frequent check-ins to help him complete them. He cannot learn without adult support currently – an opinion we also hold strongly and one of the key reasons I got so frustrated with the LA Ed Psych who thought we should be working towards independence. The fact that today’s Psychologist independently and without any vested interest, drew this opinion is a great outcome and will hopefully add significant weight to our case for funding. I would love to say I’m not worried about that but I am because there are a few wider things also happening, relating to staffing at school and some problems with our back-up plan, should the funding application be rejected. There is always something to worry about it seems, but, today, I’m going to bed hopeful that now Little Bear has been seen through the right eyes, we might be on the right track to him getting the right support.

The Right Eyes

Navigating Adoption Support Conference

Last Thursday, The Centre for Adoption Support ran their first conference, all about post-adoption support, which I was excited to attend for both professional development and in my parenting role. I thought I’d tell you a bit about what happened there, the key messages that were shared and why it was an important event.

The day began with a keynote speech from Sir John Timpson, of Timpson’s shoe repairs fame. I knew a little about him in advance – that he was a keen supporter of helping to rehabilitate prisoners by offering them employment opportunities (they make up 10% of his workforce) and that he did other altruistic things such as offering free dry-cleaning of suits to the unemployed. I also knew he and his wife had fostered many children. I was looking forward to hearing him speak but hadn’t anticipated he’d be quite so inspirational and amusing to listen to. Without meaning to sound disrespectful, what I think Sir Timpson is particularly adept at is cutting the crap. He isn’t concerned with policy and red-tape and oh that couldn’t possibly be done attitudes. He is concerned with people and creating environments which allow people to thrive. By his own admission, he doesn’t bother with psychometric testing or CVs or previous experience – if somebody is smart, keen and willing to work, they can have a job. His attitude is that a boss’ roll is ‘to help people do the best they can’ and he does that by taking away wider life stresses such as debt (he has a hardship fund for such occasions), by incentivising people to work hard (with free holiday cottages to use, birthdays off and a Dream Come True scheme where one employee per month gets to choose a life-changing event such as a holiday) and by crediting employees with common sense (they can give sums of compensation to customers without manager approval, be flexible with the pricing structure if there’s a sound reason and are not given lessons in customer service, being encouraged to simply treat people as they’d hope to be treated).

This combination of cutting to the chase and being highly proactive has evidently served Sir Timpson well at home too. With his wife, they have fostered 90 children and adopted at least one and it was clear from the anecdotes he shared that as a family they have been around the block. He seemed refreshingly un-shockable. When he has seen opportunities to make things better for fostered or adopted children and for their parents, he has: creating guides to attachment which are available for free in all his stores, offering free holidays for foster carers and getting involved with his children’s school when it was threatened with closure. He stepped in with both financial help and by applying his bottom-up, cut the crap management style to the school. The school was soon full and rated Outstanding by Ofsted.

Sir Timpson continues to be involved with education and trying to make schools attachment and trauma friendly. He believes schools need to be maverick – to be willing to break out from the rules and regulations and limitations imposed on them by LA’s and other bodies – and to give teachers freedom to do what is best for individual children. He believes in inspirational head teachers, whole school approaches and safe spaces. He believes in children with developmental trauma having a consistent mentor within school – crucially he advocates that person being chosen by the child (not inflicted on them) and them being any member of staff, be that a dinner lady or caretaker if the child so chooses. I can’t help feeling that Sir Timpson would be an asset to any organisation, such is his clarity of thought and determination to do what is right, despite any barriers placed in his way. I came away certain in the knowledge that he’s my new favourite maverick and there is hope for our children’s education yet.

The second speaker was Sir Mark Headley, a retired High Court Judge. Having been a judge in the child and family division, a foster carer and adopter, he too had much to contribute. His talk was mainly about the current legal context of adoption, both in the UK and globally. It was fascinating to hear that adoption has only existed within the law since 1926 in this country, and in the four adoption acts passed since then, its purpose has changed from being about ‘the homeless child for the childless home’ to having a welfare role. Apparently our adoption laws are considered ‘draconian’ and ‘excessively hard line’ by other countries and Australian judges consider our system ‘barbaric’. This is because our laws differ in two main ways. Firstly, in the UK, when a child is adopted, the law treats that child as ‘having been born to the adopters in all respects’, in essence extinguishing any link to their birth family (in the eyes of the law) and stripping birth parents of any right to their child. I didn’t get to ask how things are done differently abroad but I’m assuming there is more contact allowed or some ongoing sharing of parental responsibility.

Secondly, in the UK, it is within the law to ‘impose adoption on unwilling parents if the welfare of the child requires it’ but other countries consider this improper or even immoral.

I haven’t ever stopped to think too much about the legalities of adoption but it was certainly enlightening to realise our laws are viewed this way.

Sir Headley went on to talk about the Judge Munby rulings which he feels have been misinterpreted by many as suggesting there should be fewer adoptions. He clarified that Judge Munby’s point was not to reduce adoptions necessarily, but to be clearer about justifying decisions to make placement orders. He talked about it being imperative to consider whether adoption is the best solution for a child and the only solution for them. If the answer to both questions is yes, he believes our laws are justified. If the answer is no, every other possible solution should be considered and ruled in or out first. He advocates ‘not having inflexible mind-sets’ and ‘keeping the welfare of the child central.’ And when he puts it like that, I can’t help thinking he’s right.

After the first two speakers, we all filtered off into parallel workshops that we’d picked in advance. The first one I attended was entitled, ‘Adoption Support: Problems, RAAs and implications for the 3rd Sector.’ I have to admit that all the talk of policy and neoliberalism tied my brain in a few knots. Like Sir Timpson, I am not a fan of policy and policy changes and have already had my fill of it in the NHS so it was tricky to get my brain in gear. The basic point that I gleaned was that the whole shift to Regional Adoption Agencies (RAA’s) isn’t working very well. It seems there is a lot of trying to stick square pegs in round holes going on and the needs of children and families have got a little lost. This is just my interpretation of what I heard – maybe don’t quote me on it.

One major problem for Voluntary Adoption Agencies, such as ours, is that, as I understand it, any assessment of need to inform an application to the Adoption Support Fund (ASF) has to be carried out by an RAA. This means VAA’s hands are a little tied and they need to wait for RAA’s to do the assessing bit. It also seems that instead of parents approaching a post adoption support service (PAS) for help and the PAS assessing and deciding what therapy a young person needs, the assessing teams aren’t knowledgeable enough about the range of therapies available, how they should be applied or how proven/unproven their efficacy is. So, the reality is that parents ask for help and the RAA say, ‘what help do you want?’ and the parent doesn’t know what choices there are and neither do the RAA. It means that applications for funding are not well informed and may not be in the best interests of children. I am speaking in blanket terms but I’m sure some RAA’s are much more informed than others.

I find it difficult knowing some people’s experience of PAS is so horrendous when we are extremely lucky to have the services of The Centre for Adoption Support (CfAS) available to us, where all the members of staff are knowledgeable, highly trained and specialise in PAS. I can’t help feeling that all this tendering and competition in the market is a huge mistake and causes more problems than it solves, as I believe it has in the NHS.

Anyhow, I didn’t like to dwell on such issues and went for some lunch where I had a very interesting conversation about high schools, high-fiving (not a friendly thing but clapping someone on the back hard enough to leave a print – apparently it’s a thing) and Hate Books (also a thing where kids write all the things they hate about each other to bully people with. It sounds lovely) and concluded I’d prefer for my children to just skip high school.

My next mini-lecture was ‘Navigating a Child’s Journey in School’. This was really enlightening for teachers or other professionals and essential listening. For me, I have spent many an hour plumbing the depths of the topic for Little Bear and though I agreed wholeheartedly with the content, there wasn’t anything novel in terms of Being an Expert Parent. However, I suspect the people I had been discussing internal exclusions with would have gone away with significant food for thought.

The talk did introduce me to the term ‘emotional differentiation’ which sums up well what we really want teachers to do for our children. I have never thought about it in those terms yet we talk about ‘educational differentiation’ or ‘differentiation of the curriculum’ but what many of our children need is emotional differentiation. This is also a good rebuttal for the times when someone inevitably argues that you can’t have one rule for one child and another for the rest of your class. You can and this is why.

The final workshop I attended was, ‘Good Practice in Working with Families Affected by Violence and Aggression’ and I have to admit that by the end I was like a woodland creature blinded by headlights – wide eyed and frozen to my chair. I am totally down with the need to be open about Childhood Challenging, Violent & Aggressive Behaviour (CCVAB) , to reduce shame and bring it out from behind closed doors. I just think it is a bit scary to be living with a child who is unpredictable and at times, does tend towards the aggressive. I find that I start workshops like this feeling keen and interested and leave them a bit freaked out for our future. That wasn’t anyone’s intention and the content of the workshop wasn’t designed to shock in any way. I was aware even as I was sat there, that I was bringing my own fears to the table and that was colouring what I was hearing. I think talk of calling the Police and having a Family Safety Plan, avoiding victim-blaming and CPVAA being the main cause of children leaving home prematurely is essential but, simultaneously, I can’t help fearing those things could be in our future and desperately hoping they aren’t. It is certainly different to listen to the facts as a social worker versus as an adopter who can envisage such things in their reality.

I know knowledge is power, but sometimes fear makes you want to bury your head in the sand instead.

The day was finished in record time – I attended the plenary and before I knew it I was wandering back to my car in surprising sunshine. I thought it was a brilliant day. I had found all the lectures engaging and my earlier fears that I might struggle to sit still and concentrate were entirely unfounded. It was great to have social workers, adopters, adoptees, teachers, psychologists and legal representation all under one roof, with one common aim – of making things better for adopted children and adoptive families. The concept of post adoption support is a relatively new one but now there is a recognised need for it, we cannot become complacent. We need to continue to innovate and hone services to make them the best and most responsive they can be. Events like the conference trigger debate which will hopefully disseminate outwards to improve knowledge and set the wheels of change in motion.

This was the first conference run by CfAS but I certainly hope it wasn’t the last.

 

Navigating Adoption Support Conference

Three Years A-Bloggin’

I seem to start every one of these types of post by saying I can’t believe how fast time has gone ( see My 1 Year Blogversary  and Two Years of Adoption Blogging ). It’s true: the passage of time is swift (and I can rarely keep up) yet here we are, 3 years and 157 blog posts later. What sorcery is this?

As I’m sure you’ve come to expect, I’m prone to a moment of reflection at these junctures. What exactly has possessed me to write post after post, week in, week out for three whole years? What do I get from it? What does anybody get from it? What is the meaning of it all?

At points in 2018 I struggled to answer these questions. 2017 had ended on a high blog-wise, with a pleasing growth in reader figures and I set myself some targets for that to continue. However, as winter turned to spring, my figures took a nose dive. I tried not to be bothered but I think being bothered by figures is an affliction most bloggers suffer from. Some weeks I struggled to think of good content or there were times I thought I had written something scintillating but my audience appeared less than scintillated. I got a bit fed up with it all. What was the point, anyway?

At the same time, I had re-written my book, Finding Ezra, and had sent it out on submission again (see Am Writing ). Being new to how the publishing industry worked, I found the prolonged periods of time everything seemed to take difficult and also the inevitable rejection. With each drop in blogging figures and each ‘no thank you’ or complete lack of response to my queries, I became more dejected. What was I actually doing with my life? I felt like I was working really hard going nowhere. I asked myself many hard questions about whether you can call yourself a writer if you aren’t published and if you never achieve that accolade, is all the time (and there was a lot) you spend writing a total waste of existence?

I was a bit down in the dumps about my wannabe new career and there were several occasions when I thought seriously about folding the blog. See Stay at Home Mum to see what I mean.

However, my stars must have come into alignment in July because a couple of things happened which gave me a lot of encouragement. The first thing was that someone had read my blog and wanted to include part of it in their book. That book was The Adopter’s Handbook on Education by Eileen Fursland which you can purchase here: Coram Baaf bookshop

For the first time, some of my writing (5 pages to be exact. See, the numbers matter) appeared in print. The book might not have had my name on the cover but this was awesome and certainly the next best thing.

Later in the month, I found out I had been nominated for Adoption Blog of the Year as part of The First4 Adoption Awards.

These two things gave me back the spring in my step: perhaps I was alright at this writing malarkey after all? I don’t think it’s any coincidence that in August I felt brave enough to make my first tentative steps into the world of fiction writing and began entering writing competitions. I realised that the only way to survive having your book in submission is to distract yourself with writing other things and flash and short stories were the perfect way to dabble and practise. I also thought, in for a penny, in for a pound, and started my first novel. I don’t want to say too much about it yet but let’s say that I have drawn on my knowledge and experience of developmental trauma as a central tenet of the story.

Without blogging, I wouldn’t have done any of these things. More specifically, without the readers of my blog and those who took the time for vote for me, I wouldn’t have done any of these things. You are a blooming fabulous bunch and I’m extremely grateful to each and every person who has read, shared or commented on any of my posts. As you can tell, this has all added up to a significant impact on me, on a personal level. It gave me the impetus to press on and helped me realise that success doesn’t happen overnight – it comes bit by bit: a few pages of print here, a longlisting there, an award here, a highly commended piece of writing there. Onward and upward I reckon.

My family and friends are all loyal readers of the blog and I think that has helped us all too. I don’t tend to take people aside and lecture them about DLD or explain the intricacies of why adopted children might struggle with eating or inform them about interoception over dinner, because, well, weird. However, if they choose to read my essays on such things, which, bless them, they do, they will absorb a lot more knowledge and become much more informed about Little Bear and his ways and the wider context of adoption/ SEND than they probably would have otherwise. I certainly feel lucky that the people in our support network are as knowledgeable and understanding as they are. I’m not sure we could have achieved quite the same level of awareness without the blog, mainly because I would be too lazy to explain all that stuff to all those people.

My most favourite thing about blogging though, is when I get a message from somebody saying “you’ve written my life” or “so much of this resonated with me”. When I first started out blogging I was a little bit tentative about how much I could reasonably share. I think most people would be cautious about sharing their deepest, most vulnerable feelings and experiences on the World Wide Web. However, every time I published a post I felt unsure about – because it felt too honest or too vulnerable – I received lovely feedback. I received messages from people saying they felt that way too and knowing someone else did made them quite emotional. I do seem to have caused a surprising number of tears (sorry about that). As this has gone on, I’ve realised we have far more in common than sets us apart. So far, no one has ever said I’m weird or parenting badly or don’t know my arse from my elbow, as I’ve often feared they would. I’ve realised that we all have similar anxieties and many of our children have similar behaviours and we worry about them similarly. Knowing that, has spurred me on to be more honest. Thank you, as always, for the lack of trolling in my readership and the times when one of you has taken the time to tweet me or comment on the blog.

There are a couple of downsides to blogging. My main fear is getting found out! Everybody who knows me well knows what I’m up to and many people who don’t know me at all, know who I am. However, the main people I don’t want finding out are school. My relationship with them is complex. I vacillate between loving them, being enormously grateful for the support they give us and wanting to hug them inappropriately; and feeling they are the bane of my life and will never, ever, understand. I think that navigating the education system for Little Bear is one of the biggest ongoing stressors in my life and having a place to air those stresses is essential. That place is my blog and I have written some pretty antsy pieces – Dear TeacherConversationsAdoptive Parent: Behaviour DetectiveSchool-Parent Partnership . As I do love school most of the time, I really wouldn’t want them to read these pieces. I do occasionally have nightmares about getting called to see the Head Teacher. Whilst I would never write anything defamatory or abusive, I still think they might not like it and this is the main reason I blog anonymously.

The other negative, as I mentioned before, is getting hung up about reader figures. I am trying to be less bothered but it’s a work in progress, along with taking rejection of my writing in my stride.

So, what next for the blog? I’m not someone who plans their content in advance so I’ll keep writing about how I feel at the time of writing. I think I’ve got a bit more vocal this year, in terms of using the small platform I have (and it really is teeny in the grand scheme of things) to raise awareness or rattle a few doors. I loved getting involved with spreading the word about Bercow10 (see Ensuring Children’s Speech and Language Needs Are Met: A Call to Action ) & DLD Awareness Day 2018 and certainly plan to be part of that again. Surprisingly, my most read blog of the year, in fact, ever, was the review I wrote of Nativity Rocks ( Why Nativity Rocks is Not For Care-Experienced Children ). It was another post I was unsure about writing but I’m glad I did because the content of the film was extremely inappropriate and it reached enough people that hopefully it prevented a few families seeing it and being upset by it. I did contact the writer/director directly and I did explain to her why it was upsetting and why I had blogged about it. I like to think it changed her perspective a little but equally, she could have been paying me lip service to get me to be quiet!

I’m always open to suggestions or guest posts so do get in touch if there is something you’d particularly like to read about. In the meantime, I shall continue my quest for publication with both Finding Ezra and my novel which I hope to finish in the next few months. That quest now feels more achievable and is being approached with more confidence, thanks to the support I’ve received from you lovely blog readers. Here’s to another year of weekly posts and no doubt a few surprises along the way.

 

Three Years A-Bloggin’