Communication Difficulties: Update

Over the lifetime of my blog I have talked about Little Bear’s communication difficulties quite a bit: first of all in Living with Speech and Language Difficulties then later in A bit of a rantAnother try at SaLT and SaLT, EP & an Assembly. In the most recent posts I have focussed on our quest for formal speech and language therapy rather than Little Bear’s communication needs per se. As therapy has been going pretty well, I thought it was time for a look back at the development of Little Bear’s communication and how priorities have changed over time.

When Little Bear first arrived his primary communication need was to develop his listening and attention skills. Little Bear simply wasn’t tuned in to language – he ignored it in pretty much the same way you would ignore background noise. He didn’t see the point of it and sadly I don’t really think he thought it bore any relevance to him. Little Bear’s listening skills were poor which impacted on his ability to understand language and on our ability to get him to co-operate.

I can remember wandering around a beach with him during Introductions. In my typical SaLT fashion I talked to him as we wandered. I pointed things out and named what we saw. Little Bear found this completely alien and tried to shrug me off like a nuisance insect. I think he even took to shushing me. Equally he did not respond to his name or any other command. Getting him to behave and keeping him safe was incredibly difficult without the use of language.

Over time we worked on this, mainly by keeping listening fun to start with – lots of drawing his attention to passing noisy things such as aeroplanes or dogs or sirens. I definitely found that in order to engage Little Bear with listening, we had to start with non-language tasks. We were probably quite silly and playful too, which helped.

As Little Bear’s listening skills improved a bit, we were able to work on his comprehension at the same time. Probably as a result of the listening and attention issues, Little Bear’s understanding of language was certainly delayed for his age. We noticed that he often said “what?” and needed us to repeat things for him, sometimes several times. We all reduced our language from the beginning to help him understand as there was a clear pattern that the more complex the vocabulary or the longer the instruction/ explanation the more Little Bear struggled.

Little Bear’s vocabulary was very poor for a 3 and a half year old so we did lots and lots of modelling which has developed both his understanding and his expressive language. I think if I had to pick one strategy that has been the most effective I would say modelling. There are several reasons. Firstly you don’t need any equipment to model language – you can do it anywhere and completely spontaneously which makes it very practical within busy family life. You can easily work to your child’s level – either just modelling back their sentence without errors or by adding in an extra word to extend their sentence length. I would often have a couple of targets in mind at any one time e.g. for Little Bear to understand the concepts of same/different, so would model those concepts each time an opportunity arose in play or just when out and about.

You can use modelling to develop any aspect of communication – initially I used it mostly for vocabulary and sentence building. I have moved on to using it for grammar and speech sound accuracy. I don’t think I would have predicted that it would be as effective as it has been: Little Bear’s progress has been huge. The great thing is that it is a very positive approach and at no point has it felt like I’ve been nagging or correcting Little Bear. In fact he got so used to me using the strategy that if I didn’t model back his sentence after him he thought I wasn’t listening properly and would repeat himself until I did! This is in stark contrast to the boy who didn’t want me to talk to him at the beach.

Little Bear’s comprehension is now patchy on formal assessment. His understanding of basic concepts such as hot/cold, first/last, same/different is within the expected range. His understanding of different sentence types is at the low end of average and his understanding of complex sentences continues to be below expectations. However, in everyday life we have noticed leaps of progress.

I recall one day driving past some electrical cables that had come down in a storm. My natural instinct was to point them out and tell Little Bear about them but I remember stopping myself because I knew that he had no idea what electricity was and I wouldn’t be able to find a way to explain it that he would be able to follow. These days his wider understanding of life is growing all the time. I recently mentioned London in passing and he said “they had a nasty fire there, people died” and another time we were looking at a map and I said “that country is America” and Little Bear piped up “is that where Dobald (Donald) Trump is building his wall?”. He is full of surprises these days and it’s brilliant to see his understanding of complex concepts developing all the time.

Little Bear’s ability to express himself on arrival was also poor. I remember him saying “you came back” on the second day of Intros and this being quite a momentous sentence. On the third day he said “you came back again” which was poignant and sad and lots of things but also the longest sentence I heard him say for a while afterwards.

I don’t think it is any coincidence that Little Bear’s behaviour was as it was. His lack of ability to ask questions, negotiate, explain himself and talk himself out of situations certainly lead to a high level of frustration and anger and the unavoidable need for some very expressive behaviour.

For a long time Little Bear expressed himself through pointing and enthusiastic use of “that”. He had some stock sentences that all followed the same structure: I go running, I go playing, I go sleeping. He used the words he did have creatively to get his points across e.g.“bik” (big) meant lots, tall, deep, full, massive.

Little Bear’s expressive language now comes out as being within the expected range on the Renfrew Action Picture Test. I don’t honestly think this is an entirely accurate representation of his abilities but he does use lengthy compound sentences and I have noticed that being able to do so has helped him in many ways. Just today he had his IPad in the car and I heard a crash as though he had thrown it on the floor. “Did you throw that?” I asked him, “No Mum, I tried to put it on the seat but you went too fast and it slipped on the floor”. I have no idea if this was true but I had to credit him with the good explanation. Previously I might have wrongly assumed he had chucked it and he might have got into trouble and not been able to defend himself. Having improved language skills has definitely helped with behaviour in more ways than one.

A big indicator of Little Bear’s progress with his speech and language skills is that now he is having formal SaLT our agreed priority is his speech sound system. It is generally agreed that language should be the main priority with speech being more of a secondary skill. Our decision to focus on his speech is due to his language skills being good enough and his speech now being the biggest barrier to his communication. It is funny how priorities have changed.

Little Bear’s speech was pretty much unintelligible at the start. Then we tuned in and as he didn’t have many words it didn’t take long for us to be able to translate. That was all well and good until his vocabulary sky rocketed and then we were back to having no idea what he was trying to say again.

Using mainly the modelling strategy we have targeted voiced/ voiceless confusion (“beas” for ‘peas’), articulation of ‘l’ (there was a little more than modelling involved in that one but not much), production of l clusters (pl, cl, sl, fl etc) and some random inconsistent/ storage errors e.g. “gog” for ‘dog’, “nogat” for ‘yoghurt’, “mu-ey” for ‘money’, “di” for ‘dummy’ etc. However, despite all that, at the start of SALT, Little Bear was still fairly unintelligible to the therapist at the age of 4 and a half. It transpired that his vowels were jumbled which was resulting in very unusual sounding speech – his teacher had even asked me if he was foreign.

At this point, although I am a SALT and had worked on lots of aspects of Little Bear’s communication myself, I was glad and relieved to have another therapist on board. Vowels are complex, they are in all words and I couldn’t really see the wood for the trees. I was pleased to have somebody to defer to for clinical decision making. She didn’t really know where to start either so after identifying which vowels were going wrong, we pretty much just plumped for one to have a go at. It was ‘eye’ as in pie, pipe, kite, nine, five etc (for non-SaLTs think about how they sound, not how they are spelled). It turned out that Little Bear could make this sound and he could say it correctly after a consonant e.g. pie but as soon as a consonant was added after it (pipe) the vowel distorted. In this example it became “pap”. Little Bear could hear the difference between pipe and pap which helped.

Once we had figured this out and done one session of therapy, Little Bear had cracked it and was spontaneously generalising the sound. We were both unprepared for it to be that quick. I was also surprised by how often that vowel crops up in English and therefore what a difference working on it made to his intelligibility.

We have since worked on ‘ow’ as in house, mouse, brown which were coming out as has, mas, bran. Little Bear acquired ‘ow’ in much the same way as ‘eye’. We then tried ‘err’ for no particular reason other than because it was another he couldn’t say but for some reason that one just isn’t coming so we have switched to ‘ay’ as in pay, plate, eight. Little Bear can say it in words but is not generalising it as yet. I am now getting a bit tangled up with which vowels I need to model for him!

The formal therapy is pretty good though it is not completely plain-sailing.

I had thought it would be helpful for me to keep in touch with the therapist via e-mail between appointments so I could keep her updated and take away the need for her to change her session plan on our arrival – this happens most weeks due to Little Bear’s unexpected/erratic rate of progress. However, apparently this would be against policy which seems odd to me. I frequently used to use e-mail to keep in touch with parents and think this is a missed opportunity.

Also, it turns out that Little Bear is now entitled to therapy in school because he has top-up funding. However as his speech requires specialist input from a therapist only, he has been deemed more appropriate for clinic therapy. I suggested that maybe the funding could be used to train school staff to work on his language targets alongside this. Apparently it cannot be done because the school team and the clinic team are separate and you cannot be on two lists at the same time. Whilst I get this, I can’t help feeling frustrated at the lack of flexibility and feeling a little like he’s missing out on his entitlement. A system with two rigid lists does not have children and their individual needs at the centre of it.

Either way, Little Bear continues to make fabulous progress and for that I am extremely thankful.

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Communication Difficulties: Update

A Grandparents View of Adoption

This week’s post has been guest-written by my parents. This is their account, in their own words, of how the adoption process has been for them:

 

When Mama Bear and Grizzly told us that they wanted to adopt, we weren’t altogether surprised. It had come up in conversation before. We were happy for them but had our concerns, which, of course we did not pass on to them.

How would Big Bear be affected?

Would we be able to accept a stranger as our grandchild?

Would we be able to be fair to both children or just favour Big Bear?
During the selection process I filled in the forms on behalf of the family (as a referee).  An onerous task! Naturally, we wanted the adoption to go through as all the Bear family were determined to become adopters. On the other hand, I needed to be as true to their characters as I could and not paint too glowing a picture. Surely nobody is perfect?! It seemed to be a long and arduous process. We felt very much part of it. Finally, the acceptance day arrived. Matching  followed. We were on tenterhooks. Who would arrive?

We knew Little Bear had arrived. However, we were not allowed to be introduced to him immediately. Very frustrating. Eventually the day came. We met in a park, a non-threatening environment. I don’t think I have ever seen such an angry bear. His behaviour was totally non-standard. Fortunately Mama Bear and Grizzly had decided that the only way to cope with him, was to have definite parameters. Not popular with Little Bear, judging from the scratches on Mama Bear’s hands.
We began to worry even more about Grizzly and Mama Bear. They had undertaken, what seemed to us, an impossible task. Big Bear was not happy and felt threatened. He had never seen such behaviour or ever heard the screams of frustration which emanated from Little Bear. The latter was confused and made sure everyone knew how unhappy he was.
After this initial meeting, we decided that the only way to gain Little Bear’s attention and affection was to leave him to make the first move when he felt ready. The first time he moved in for a cuddle, I felt as though I had won the lottery. The hugs were few and far between but amazing when they happened.
There were first times for many things:- putting Little Bear to bed; collecting him from pre-school; visitations to our home; taking him out on our own. Delightful times but also very stressful. We had to go against Gran Bear instincts of not being too bossy or prescriptive. Sometimes we had to shout!
Fortunately, those times have passed and Little Bear has blossomed. He shows his brother how much he loves him. Tantrums are few and low key. He has begun to make friends. Mama Bear and Grizzly are hugged and kissed and obviously loved. We, too, are accepted and hugged when he is in the mood.

As far as we are concerned Little Bear is part of our family. We are happy to be his Gran Bears. It has been a difficult journey but with incredible results. We are so proud of Mama Bear and Grizzly for wanting to adopt in the first place, but also of how determined they have been to show Little Bear that in spite of the hard times, they love him and he is staying with them. Big Bear has not been excluded but included in every step of the journey. Grizzly is constantly heard saying, “We are your new family. You are staying here forever.”
It makes me so sad to think that there are many children who could blossom like Little Bear, if they were given the chance. If they were in a stable home and loved.

 

 

 

 

A Grandparents View of Adoption

Speech & Language & School

Although Little Bear is making progress with his speech and language skills all the time, I continue to have concerns about this area of his development. I think him being in school has made some things more noticeable. The fact that he is now away from me for long periods of time, in which I have no idea what he has been up to, sometimes leads to difficulties. I know a lot of children don’t like talking about their school day but I think Little Bear is often keen to share the things he has been up to but unfortunately he frequently still doesn’t have the language skills to be able to. I have to rely on things like the Facebook updates his class teacher posts or things other parents mention. If I have a starting point, Little Bear can then usually tell me something.

There are things that happen that he just can’t explain e.g. when he injured his eye at school requiring a trip to hospital, he couldn’t tell us how the injury had come about or why his eyelid was bleeding. We had to rely on another child’s account to get to the bottom of it.

There continue to be situations when I can’t understand what he’s trying to say to me and strangers certainly struggle. Thankfully his teachers seemed to have tuned in pretty quickly but I think there have been some communication breakdowns with his peers. They seem to be going through that phase where they tell each other that they can’t play or they won’t be inviting you to their party. It’s typical 4 year old stuff but Little Bear is at a disadvantage because he struggles to negotiate verbally. Where others might argue back or try to be persuasive, Little Bear has already used up his best attempt at joining in by saying “can I play?” If he is then rebuffed, his hurt feelings and lack of any other options still lead to a physical response now and again.

Little Bear is good at persevering when we don’t understand him now but he understandably gets frustrated when he has tried and tried and still can’t get us to. Sometimes his attempts at words are nothing like the target word so it can take a long time (even several days) to figure out what he means e.g. we finally worked out that “boarbuh” is actually ‘Paw Patrol’. He struggles to imitate words accurately so even though we have been tapping out the syllables for him and modelling each bit clearly, he can’t copy them in any recognisable way. Equally I used the word ‘soggy’ to describe a wet cardboard box. Little Bear already knew ‘foggy’ and now thinks that is both weather and a wet cardboard box. I just can’t get him to hear or mark the difference.

This morning I said to him “I’m not sure about swimming today, you sound quite husky”. Little Bear then said to his Dad “I can’t go swimming, I’m too whisky”.

There is definitely something going awry with his speech processing system. This system helps you to analyse the words that you hear, figure out what sounds they have in them, in what order, how many syllables etc. Your brain should then store the word accurately and send instructions to your mouth muscles of what sounds you need and how to make them whenever you want to say the word. Things can go wrong at any point in that process and I suspect there might be more than one problem with Little Bear’s speech processing.

However, all the phonics work that is happening at school is brilliant and will help with his speech development too. He has continued to surpass expectations by learning all the letter shapes/ sound correspondences in phase 2 phonics in the first half term. At school and home we are both focussing on helping him to hear and identify the first sound in words e.g. sun starts with s. This will be essential because it is all well and good knowing the letter shapes but he will not be able to read if he cannot break words down into their individual sounds and then stick those sounds together to make words. At the moment if you try to get him to blend sounds, he just can’t. You might say “c-a-t” and he’ll say “banana”. Blending is a very difficult skill so we will aim for identifying first sounds to start with and go from there.

We have made progress with the auditory memory side of things too and Little Bear is finally able to count! He can get to 5 reliably and to 10 with a little bit of prompting. The best thing about it has been his motivation to keep trying and his determination to succeed with it. He has a very similar attitude to learning his phonics.

When he first started bringing books home to read I got a little concerned. Obviously he is not expected to read words yet so he brings the picture books where you are meant to talk about what’s happening in the pictures. To begin with it was a disaster as he just didn’t get the concept of describing what he saw. I honestly felt it would have been easier to teach him to sight read a word. However, we persevered. I would get him to tell me whatever he could, usually just one word. I would then put that word into a sentence and model it for him. I used questions such as ‘who’ ‘what’s happening’ and ‘where’ to help him give the key information, then I could formulate the sentence for him e.g. Me: “who’s in the picture?” LB: pig Me: “Yeah, what’s the pig doing?” LB: “jumping” Me: “He is jumping. Where is he?” LB: “bed” Me: “Good, the pig is jumping on the bed”.

We continued like that, painfully, page by page, for some time. I assume that’s what happened when he read to his teacher too. He has done brilliantly though and now attempts a sentence for most pages most of the time. There might be some little words missing but he makes a good attempt.

I really noticed his progress when he had his first NHS Speech and Language Therapy appointment last week. The therapist assessed him using a picture description task. When he started giving answers such as “the man is riding a horse and the horse is jumping over the fence” I knew she probably wouldn’t be as concerned about him as I felt she should be or as she would have been had he been seen sooner.

Unfortunately it has taken 8 months and them cancelling 4 appointments for us to finally get an assessment. I didn’t find it a particularly fun experience, mainly because I wanted to be able to attend the sessions with my parent hat on, not my Speech and Language Therapist hat but when I walked in the first thing she said was “so you’re a Speech and Language Therapist I believe?”. Someone had helpfully written it on the referral form… Little Bear was also having some sort of regressive behaviour moment and suffice it to say that it was stressful to manage him with a professional looking on.

Either way, he is now in the system and will be attending for regular therapy soon. I’m not loving the idea of having to take him out of school for it and I don’t think he is either, judging by the size of the meltdown that took place when I tried to get him back to school after the first appointment. However, I know that school will carry out any programmes given to them and we have been talking about his Pupil Premium funding and whether any of that could be used to provide speech and language input that is more integrated with his education.

We are continuing to scale the word mountain that I talked about in Living with Speech and Language Difficulties. We are getting there, word by word, syllable by syllable. I don’t think the pinnacle is in sight yet but we continue to climb and that is the best we can ask.

 

 

 

 

Speech & Language & School

Little Bear Starts School

Over the past few months we have been a little trepidatious about Little Bear entering full-time education. I think my biggest concern was over his behaviour. It’s pretty much a given that you have to do what you’re told at school. You can’t really growl at your teacher or tell her to “shut up” if you don’t like the sound of what she’s telling you. You definitely can’t scratch, bite or hit her. Or anyone else for that matter. It’s better if you don’t scream the place down. You shouldn’t try to climb over the fence to get out. All of this could be, well, challenging for Little Bear.

Secondly I was worried about how he would cope academically. The combination of plenty of early neglect and significant speech and language delay has led to him being significantly behind typical expectations for his age. I didn’t want him to be out of his depth at school. I didn’t want him to feel as though the teacher was speaking a foreign language or that nothing around him was making sense.

However, at the same time, Little Bear was showing us he WAS ready for school. Throughout the past year of dropping Big Bear off every day Little Bear has been asking if he can go too. His transition went really well and he was pretty angry with the summer holidays for impeding him from getting to where he wanted to go: school. He was very excited about shopping for his school shoes and about the arrival of his school uniform.

When Big Bear started school I knew they would be prising him from my leg for weeks to come. He’s the youngest in his class and although I didn’t have academic concerns about him, he wasn’t emotionally ready for school. It felt like a huge wrench to me that my first born (and at the time, only) child was leaving me and I was very weepy for the first few days. Then I discovered my freedom and realised there is definitely a positive in having your child in school!

When it came to it this time, my earlier concerns were mainly on the backburner and taking Little Bear to school for the first time was a happy and positive experience. He was super excited and went in confidently from day one. I do think these milestones are easier for children with older siblings as they have a much better idea of what it’s all about and they know what to expect.

I did feel the need to check in with his teacher at the end of the day but she said he had had “a brilliant first day” and there had been no behaviour incidents.

So far so good.

The Bears’ school doesn’t have a staggered start – it is full days right from the beginning. I figured that towards the end of the week, as Little Bear got tired, more behaviours would appear. But they didn’t.

We are now over 2 weeks in and his teacher recently described his behaviour as “impeccable”. I am genuinely astonished by this as his behaviour at pre-school would never have been described that way, nor his behaviour at home.

However, I have to say that his behaviour at home has settled too. Obviously we have had our moments – not least weeing on everything in sight on Saturday, including the swimming pool changing room floor and up the wall in McDonalds’ toilet! We have had countless wet pants and weekend mealtimes were characterised by hysteria and hyperactivity.

Despite that, Little Bear’s compliance has been good and we have not seen a regression in any of his skills (apart from the wetting) like we did at the start of the summer holidays.

We have tried to make things easier for him as starting school is a huge step. The dummy is having greater use as he can’t really relax properly without it yet and Little Bear is often found lying on the sofa with it after school. I have relaxed the “try to feed yourself” rule as he’s visibly too exhausted and I’d rather he gets a good meal into him. His appetite seems to have improved considerably and so does the speed of his chewing (which has always been painfully slow) but I have absolutely no idea why that should be.

The teachers have taken on board that Little Bear needs truckloads of praise and that the green/red card behaviour system won’t work for him. Consequently he is trying his very hardest to please them and is succeeding every day. I’m sure this is in turn a welcome boost to his self-confidence.

I’m so very proud of how hard he is trying and how significantly he is confounding expectations (mine and everyone else’s).

Earlier in the week I attended a parent’s talk about literacy and numeracy in Reception class and momentarily felt the stuffing knocked out of me. He has done so brilliantly that I happily trotted to the meeting not really thinking about its content.

As I sat on the unyielding plastic chair in Little Bear’s classroom, my eyes naturally scanned the vista. Beside the teacher was a wall display consisting of a photo of each child in the class and their hand drawn self-portrait. I quickly sought out Little Bears’. Aw, cute, I thought. Two very long legs not actually attached to anything, a dot then a scribble that was probably intended as a head. Then I scanned the rest. They may as well have been produced by Van Gogh the difference was so stark. Surely someone else’s would be at a similar level to his? No.. Seemingly not. Well, never mind, he’ll be better at other things I consoled myself.

The talk began and the National Curriculum expectations for Reception were laid out: “in stage 2 your child will learn 6 sounds, in stage 3, 25 more… They will come home telling you about graphemes and phonemes and what a split digraph is… They will be able to identify the first sound in words and blend sounds together…Counting is easy, all children start school being able to do that. It is understanding quantity that’s more difficult… Great games to help them at home are Snap and Snakes and Ladders… Your children will need to count forwards, backwards, count on and do number bonds to 20… We know you all do lots with them and have been doing for the past 4 years…”

It went on. I felt a grey mist descend on me and knot tighten in my stomach. I felt tears threaten to fill my eyes. Shit. Little Bear is so far behind. He has SO much to try to do this year. The task feels colossal and fairly impossible. We haven’t had him for 4 years I want to shout – nobody helped him for the first 3. We’ve only had him a year and it is not enough. It isn’t fair to expect this of him. Counting is evidently not as easy as you think it is, unless it goes “1, 4, 18” as Little Bear thinks it does. We can’t play those games you are suggesting: Little Bear couldn’t concentrate on them, understand the rules or follow any of the number bits. I’m pretty sure he isn’t going to come home telling me about split digraphs as he’d have a devil of a time getting those words through his speech processing system let alone trying to say them. Shit.

I shouldn’t really have reacted like that (as Grizzly helpfully pointed out when I got home) because it is not so long ago that Big Bear was in Reception so I clearly did know the expectations. I also quite clearly know that Little Bear is delayed in his development and that he is bound to be behind his peers who’ve had better starts in life. I think it’s just that I have re-set to Little Bear Scales and against those he is flying. Hearing the Actual Scales brought me back down to earth with a nasty bump. Also, knowing something and hearing it from someone else is quite different e.g. I know I have a prominent nose but I don’t want anyone else to tell me that!

I swallowed back the tears and tried to be a grownup about it. I went to have a chat with his teacher. It was a good chat because she was honest. She acknowledged that he does have a lot of ground to make up and that he isn’t at the same level as his peers. She was also positive and reassuring. She said we would go at his pace. We would give him more time to settle then consider what support he might need that could be funded through his Pupil Premium money. She can see the intelligent boy trapped by his speech and language difficulties that I can see and I know she will do everything she can to help him. I can tell she is already very fond of him. She can see the progress he has made since she visited him in pre-school. She can see progress in his play skills, in his ability to now play collaboratively with others instead of alongside them and in his ability to listen and to follow instructions. This is huge progress in a short time by anyone’s standards.

She told me that on the baseline assessments they have been carrying out that most of her ticks are in the 40 to 60 month range. Now, that nearly brought the tears back as on Little Bear’s last assessment at pre-school, in July, he had just gone into the 30 to 50 month bracket. His teacher is just as surprised by the speed of his progress as I am but she said she double and triple checked her assessment to ensure she wasn’t over-estimating his abilities and she is confident it’s right.

Almost exactly 1 year ago when Little Bear started pre-school, he was assessed as emerging at the 16 to 26 month level across all his skills. I don’t think anybody would expect a child to progress from a 16 month level to a 40 month level in one year. It makes me cross because clearly Little Bear was always able to achieve, he was just never taught or nurtured. We haven’t done anything magic, we have just parented him.

The chat also restored my calm and allowed me to hope once again. Realistically I don’t expect Little Bear to meet National Curriculum expectations at the end of Reception. The ask is nigh-on impossible. However, I’m sure he will continue to progress and astound us with what he CAN do. Who cares about Actual Scales? I’m going back to Little Bear Scales. He’s doing better than fabulously on those and I’m super proud of my little dude.

So far our communication with school has been good and I feel as though they “get him” and know how to manage him. I can’t ask for more at this stage.

Though I do wonder what a split digraph is…

 

 

 

Little Bear Starts School

August at Adoption: The Bear Facts

Another crazy, busy and fun filled month has passed. Its round-up time!

Events:

The first week of August was a combination of us being at home and me returning to work after my Adoption Leave (see Goodbye Adoption Leave for my musings on how the year went). I eased myself in gently with only two days of work before disappearing again on annual leave for our holidays.

During that first week we had a couple of really good days out. One was to a family fun day at a local park where the boys had a donkey ride and tried archery and Grizzly had a go on a Segway. The second was to an adventure park that is actually very close to where we live but for some reason we have never tried it before. It has go-karts, more archery, hay bales to climb on, a huge inflatable pillow to bounce on, tractor trailer rides, massive zip wires and loads more. We spent a very enjoyable day there and two boisterous boys got plenty of sensory stimulation and burned a good quantity of energy.

Grizzly ended up being off work the day before we went on holiday which meant he could entertain the boys whilst I did the packing. I usually find that part of the process pretty stressful and am usually exhausted by the time we fall into the car the next day. However the fact that we were both around meant everything went a lot more smoothly. The holidays themselves were generally a success too. You can read about them here: The Bears go on holiday.

On the way back from our week at the seaside we stopped in to see our friends for a night. We have stayed there before so we knew Little Bear would be fine with it. The 5 children had a brilliant time together as they always do. I got a little carried away chatting with one of my friends (who going forwards I am going to refer to as Aunty Giraffe as she is a big part of the boy’s lives and it seems weird not to refer to her more specifically) and stayed up way past my bedtime, then ended up having a mini party in the bathroom at 2am as Little Bear had woken for the toilet and my mum-in-law was awake worrying that she had broken the blind cord!

As soon as we were back at home again, our attentions turned to our upcoming Adoption Celebrations which took place later that week. The weather caused us a bit of stress but both our court celebration and the party we held 2 days later went brilliantly. I have very happy memories of both events and will definitely be getting some photos printed soon. The Bears loved it and Little Bear coped surprisingly well with having a house full of people. We had the bouncy castle all weekend which made them very happy and in fact they were still bouncing on it when the guy came to pick it up again.

Four days later Aunty Giraffe came to visit. The boys were very excited about this as she hadn’t been able to make the party and they both love it when she stays. Always one to think of everything she had adopted an animal each for them as an adoption celebration present. Big Bear had a gorilla and Little Bear a Lion, their respective favourite animals. I’m not sure that Little Bear really understands the concept of it because it isn’t the same as his adoption: he won’t ever meet the lion. However, he has the cuddly toy lion which is tangible and which has come to live with him and of whom he is now very fond.

Aunty Giraffe stayed for 4 nights. On Thursday she had a day out with Grizzly and the boys while I went to work (groan) then on the Friday we did a bit of baking and took the boys for a walk and a picnic in the park.

On Saturday one of our University friends was getting married so we left the boys with my parents and had a grown up day at the wedding. Thankfully the Bears were on their best behaviour and my parents did not look exhausted or dishevelled when we returned (big bonus: they might babysit again!).

It was nice to see how well Little Bear got on with Aunty Giraffe as he hasn’t actually met her that many times. He was very friendly towards her and was desperate to go and find her each morning when he woke. It was also good to compare his behaviour this time with when she stayed last time back in January. Although that visit had gone ok, we had had quite a few issues with him wanting to play on her Tablet but then not give it back, which had led to several big meltdowns. He has certainly learned a lot about other people’s possessions and doing what you’re told since then.

That brings us to this week. My attentions have turned to making sure we have all the right uniform and are vaguely organised for the imminent return to school. I have tried to make the most of my days with the boys before they disappear off again. It’s a tricky balance between getting them a bit rested ready for the new term (they both seem tired) and not allowing boredom to creep in. Today turned into a fairly long and busy day but we’ve had a lovely time. I didn’t have a pre-decided plan and I’m thankful that we are now able to allow days to evolve and just see where the fancy takes us. We started off at a park (we have a few different ones that we circle between) then tried out a nearby bakers for a take-away lunch which we ate in the car. I kept the windows closed as the boys spent the whole time pointing out bald people!! Afterwards we drove to an ice-cream farm which turned out to have a maize maze at it. We had to find hidden words then if you got them all you won a free ice cream. They boys basically just ran round and round inside the maze for ages whilst I struggled after them in my flip flops trying not to lose them! At least I got some much needed exercise.

Later on our friends came to meet us and ended up coming back to our house for some tea. Their little girl is Big Bear’s age and I’m always a little bit amazed that the 3 children play so well together. The bigger 2 are very good at including the little dude. It did make for a very raucous tea time though!

Milestones:

Little Bear had his first proper play date. Regular readers might remember that when Little Bear finished Pre-school I left my phone number for the Mum of his friend. I didn’t know if that was weird behaviour or how she would feel about it and whether or not she would get in touch. I was very pleased when a couple of weeks later she sent me a text and we arranged a meet up. It wasn’t awkward and we chatted easily while the boys played (I was muchly relieved). The boys were very happy to see each other and called each other’s names and ran to one another as though they were on a film set. The only problem was that there was a constant exchange of rude words between them which was quite difficult to quell. Words were had afterwards. However, my overriding feeling was positive. I was pleased that Little Bear had been able to leave his Preschool without a complete severing of ties. Hopefully this would help him to see that attachments are worth making and you don’t have to go through life constantly leaving people you like and love behind, as he has had to so far.

This month we have celebrated the anniversaries of meeting Little Bear and of him moving in. You can read about my Reflections on Adoption One Year In here.

Last month I talked about Little Bear showing a budding interest in Lego. This has gone from strength to strength and he got a couple of sets as presents when we had the party. He now has a couple of different superhero figures and some vehicles. He absolutely loves them and I can’t believe how long he has managed to sit still and play with them. He seems to have discovered the joy of small world play and it is as though he cannot satiate his hunger for it. He pretty much wakes me up every morning with “Mum, can we go downstairs? You play with me?” and I seem to be getting bored before he does.

It is different playing with Little Bear than it was when Big Bear was the same age. Big Bear had very strict rules on his games. If we were playing Lego we couldn’t mix in a bit of Playmobil. There was no way he was up for that. He also went through a big phase of demanding “make the man talk” which used to give me performance anxiety! What should the man say? What if I didn’t want to make the man talk? The games were detailed and Big Bear had very clear ideas about should happen in them.

Little Bear is much more of a play maverick. He loves a mash up: a plastic anteater with Duplo men; Lego men in a Playmobil Police Station; dinosaurs with superheroes. It is brilliant to see him engaging with toys so positively and persevering and letting his imagination run wild. It is such a contrast to the boy who used to spend all his time flicking switches on and off and fiddling with taps.

Little Bear is also becoming more independent with his dressing and toileting which I’m pleased about with school just around the corner.

The fact that he has also started to recognise some letter shapes blows my mind.

Big Bear had a first this month too. He went to his first live football match. He went for his birthday instead of having a party. He absolutely loved it (apart from the noise: “Mum, they had noisy horns, people were horning everywhere”!) and cannot wait to go again.

This might seem like a strange thing to mention but this month the Bears had their first bath together in a year. Oddly, they did have a bath together on the first day they ever met as they had both got wet and both needed to get warm and put dry clothes on. In retrospect it was a huge error as the day ended up being a disaster and Big Bear was totally overwhelmed by Little Bear’s wild bath time antics. Since then I would have liked to bath them together for practical reasons but I haven’t insisted on it as Big Bear really didn’t want to. For quite a while he wouldn’t change in front of Little Bear and wanted the loo door firmly closed. As their relationship has developed things have changed drastically on this front – recently they were both in hysterics in the bathroom together while Big Bear was on the loo. I have no idea what was so funny (Grizzly was there too and couldn’t shed any light on the matter) but apparently privacy has gone out the window for now. I was still surprised though when Big Bear suggested they have a bath together the other day. I think it made Little Bear’s day and really shows how far they have come in their first year as brothers.

Snapshots:

  • Little Bear saying “I want to live with them forever” at the court celebration
  • The three bears playing a very lively and laughter-filled game of swing ball in the garden
  • Playing Uno Attack with both sets of grandparents

There are no Project Home Improvement updates this month. Hopefully there will be next time.

August at Adoption: The Bear Facts

Reflections on Adoption One Year In

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

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

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

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

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

These sorts of days are hard.

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

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

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

Adoption is not for the fainthearted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reflections on Adoption One Year In

Goodbye Adoption Leave

I have loved you Adoption Leave, you are so much cooler than your cousin Maternity Leave and don’t let anyone tell you differently.

My maternity leave is pretty much a blur to me, passed in a haze of sleep deprivation. I remember feeling a bit of a failure that I wasn’t able to maintain the yummy mummy meet for a spot of shopping and lunch while your docile baby sleeps image. For a good while I couldn’t organise leaving the house before 2pm due to Big Bear’s amazing skills at staying awake most of the night and feeding 300 times per day. Then when I did leave the house I had a pram which was brilliant for country walks but which was impossible to steer with one hand or in small spaces. So instead of gliding around shops, pushing a sleeping baby with one hand and carrying a basket or rifling through racks of clothes with the other hand, I was mostly getting sweaty from the effort of not mowing down my fellow shoppers.

Helpfully, Big Bear would only sleep in his pram if it was in perpetual motion, so civilised meals or coffee were out of the question. The very second I sat down his eyes would pop open and the need for CONSTANT entertainment would recommence. I think I must have spent most of the year walking (at least I got some peace and there was hope of getting my figure back) or snuggling a baby on the sofa. The lack of being able to place him down anywhere without World War 3 breaking out was tiring and also frustrating because days would pass without me having achieved anything. As in, not even the washing up.

Seven years on, I’m glad I spent whole days cuddling him because now time flies past and I can’t even pick him up any more. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t as long as it felt at the time. Then, the days and nights merged into one and seemed interminable.

So yeah, Mat leave was ok. I survived it.

Adoption leave started out seeming pretty similar. I was cast back into serious sleep deprivation, my days were full-on and exhausting and everything was fairly anxiety-provoking.

However, a few major things were different. Grizzly was off for longer and we had figured out how to parent as a team. Adoption leave has been much more united, supportive and not in any way isolated.

Also, as my hormones have not been through the soda stream of child birth, I am probably a little more rational this time and able to make wise decisions such as putting Little Bear into pre-school almost straight away (I would not be separated from Big Bear for ages and consequently never had a break). This has really been my lifeline to staying sane and enjoying my leave: I have had some me-time from right at the start. It is amazing what difference even a morning per week can make. My “free-time” has gradually increased over the year as we have built up Little Bear’s sessions to get him ready for full time school. This time I have managed a spot of shopping or two, met friends/family for coffee, had my nails done and eaten A LOT of brunch.

I have completely skipped the guilt too because I know that having some brain space helps me to be better at my mummy jobs.

I have still had loads of time to spend with my boys – helping them to bond as brothers, improving my own bond with Little Bear, working on Little Bear’s development and making sure Big Bear is adjusting to this huge change in his life.

There have obviously been some very stressful and challenging days but overall I have relished the challenge and it has been incredibly rewarding to see Little Bear blossom. I have been able to practise much more effective speech and language therapy than I ever have in my actual job, because as professionals we generally don’t have the luxury of time to give to the children referred to us. With Little Bear I can use strategies all the time and exploit each and every language learning opportunity that arises. It is ironic that I have done more therapy during my leave than I would have done had I been at work!

After the first 4 or so incredibly stressful months, things settled to a level that allowed me thinking time. I had the time and motivation to start my blog, speak at prep groups and approach our Voluntary Adoption Agency to suggest we work together to offer communication training to other adopters. I have loved doing all of those things and am hoping that I have laid a foundation that I can build on going forwards.

Latterly I have overseen the re-modelling of our downstairs, as well as decorating it. Being able to indulge my creative side has also been very satisfying.

But even better than any of those things, I think the single best thing about adoption leave is that I have finally found my parenting confidence. A close friend always says that when I delivered Big Bear, my confidence came out with him and for reasons that I still can’t fathom, I think she’s right. As a first time mother, a lot of people had a lot of advice for me, most of which I took as criticisms. I didn’t think I was doing anything well and any positive attributes in Big Bear I put down to nature, finding it hard to imagine that it could be due to my nurture. I couldn’t even ignore the opinion of those whose opinion I didn’t value. I suspected everyone knew what they were doing with this parenting lark better than I did.

Then came the adoption and somehow that turned everything on its head. Most people, aware that adoption was outside of their own comfort zone, couldn’t even begin to advise me. They were mostly speechless. It suited me well because I could read about Attachment Theory, about other adopters’ experiences, I could form my own (informed) opinions and go forth, doing my own thing, safe in the knowledge it was along the right lines. I could also see Little Bear transforming before my very eyes. He had not transformed before, so it must be due to something we were doing. And really, believing in the power of nurture is a crucial part of believing in adoption. Change was being driven by my parenting (and Grizzly’s obviously) and that was (and still is) a huge confidence boost.

So I’ll take a little credit now for Big Bear being the wonderful young man that he is too. *Does a virtual bow*.

I am not in any way complacent though – complacency in parenting tends to lead straight to disaster in my experience. Vigilance is key; expecting the unexpected and being prepared to try something different. The realisation that no one has it all sewn up helps too.

Yes, Adoption Leave, I have loved you for many reasons, but all good things come to an end.

I have been in complete denial about my return to work, barely allowing the imminent date to osmose my brain. Of course, the date came around anyway and I was soon staring into my wardrobe thinking that I had absolutely no idea what I usually wore to work, though I was pretty sure it didn’t involve jeans or Converse.

The next morning it was a miracle I even found my way to the office. There is a huge regeneration project taking place in the town where I work and the road I used to commute on has been bulldozed and replaced by an empty chasm. Following the many diversions, I snaked closer. It was such a strange feeling. I was passing landmarks I knew well, schools I had seen children in, a building I had attended training in. It was all so familiar, like wrapping an old patchwork blanket around myself, yet so surreal, as though I was returning to someone else’s life. I felt much better once I got inside the building and found some of my colleagues. It was lovely to see everyone and to catch up with them.

Before returning to work, I had made the decision that I wouldn’t stay. I would work the 13 weeks I needed to and then leave.

I have been in the same job for 13 years and it’s a long time. I have always loved my job (though naturally there have been ups and downs) and a big part of it has been my colleagues and being part of a truly lovely team. I do also like to think that my work is making a difference and feeling effective is crucial to me enjoying it. Over the years, my speech and language therapy family and I have been through several re-structures, the organisation we work for has had several guises, budgets have shrunk and contracts have been lost. Along the way, many of my colleagues have left or been re-deployed. What is left is small, watered down and completely different to how it used to be. We are being driven more by numbers than quality and I have been feeling disillusioned for some time. As much as I have loved it and am part of the fabric of the place, I do think the time has come to move on.

Knowing I am leaving has made returning a little odd. My boss has been kind to me and given me a defined, manageable task to do so that I don’t acquire an out of control to-do list whilst still doing something useful for the caseload. It means I have surprised myself by getting straight back into it and feel, in some ways, as though I have never been off. I am also enjoying it more than I thought I would and have started to wonder if I’m being rash in leaving.

However, back at the ranch, things have not been going quite so well. On Tuesday I returned home to Grizzly’s Mum looking uncharacteristically dishevelled after her day with the boys. She wasn’t helped by another driver bumping her car on the way over but the boys alone, in fact, just Little Bear alone is enough to warrant a lie down in a darkened room.

On Wednesday, my parents had visibly aged over the course of the day. Little Bear’s behaviour was slowly but surely escalating since I had been at work and they had had a VERY challenging day with lots of dysregulation. When I was home he was very clingy to me and he has not wanted to be alone anywhere. Understandably, the separation is not suiting him. He copes fine with being at pre-school/school but I think me going out and leaving him is subtly different. His behaviour is telling me he needs me around at the moment which has rather helped with making my mind up.

I have resigned. For now anyway.

Goodbye Adoption Leave