DLD Awareness Day 2018

It’s been a hefty week for blog-fodder with both National Adoption Week 2018  and International Developmental Language Disorder Awareness Day (Friday 19th October) landing at the same time – two events I am always keen to talk about.

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This year’s theme for DLD day is the ‘ABCs of DLD’. The ‘A’ represents assessing our understanding of DLD. If you want to test how much you know, you can take this handy  Quiz

When I reflect on what I know about it, my professional experience as a speech and language therapist has mainly been usurped by my experiences at home, parenting my son who has DLD. He is currently 6 years old and in Year 2 at school. He has been discharged from speech and language therapy because his scores for both comprehension and expression of language now measure within the expected range for his age. A key thing I have learned is that with the correct intervention, children with DLD can make incredible progress and can catch up (see Speech Therapy Works  for more detail).

Although Little Bear has made unbelievable progress, he does still have DLD. He largely copes well day to day but there are specific times when I notice a difference in how his language system works compared to other people. One time is when he tries to learn a new word or a new name. Little Bear requires much more repetition of unfamiliar vocabulary and often needs me to break new words down into syllables so he can learn them in manageable chunks. He is very good at learning and retaining new words now but the processing part of his speech system isn’t as smooth as it should be and he would struggle to store new words without some specific teaching. If he doesn’t have help to ensure he understands what a word means and what all the bits of it are, he might struggle to say that word correctly e.g. ‘Emily’ recently came out as “Elle-uh-me” and ‘Joseph’ as “Jo-Fitz” or he might mis-store the word e.g. when Little Bear puts on a tall pointy hat, he says he’s being a ‘lizard’ (he means wizard) or he tells me to find things on the ‘window sledge’. Little Bear also uses ‘about’ instead of ‘without’ so will say, “It’s hard to sit on this chair about falling off it.”

Little Bear has good awareness and he knows he’s making the sound errors (he isn’t always aware of the naming errors). He often looks to me at these points to do a bit of speech therapy on the fly to help him. Children with DLD are not un-intelligent. They can learn and retain information like other children, as long as the information is presented to them in an accessible way and/or suitable strategies are employed to help them.

Little Bear’s DLD is also noticeable when he is tired or when he is faced with too much auditory information. He still copes better if large chunks of information are broken down for him and in a conversation it helps him if you are willing to repeat some parts of what you’ve said. He does generally understand the concepts you are talking about and any explanations you give to help him but he can need a little longer to process them, more pauses and sometimes a second chance to listen to the information. If words sound very similar, Little Bear can struggle to differentiate between them e.g. fourteen vs forty, which can impact on his understanding of what he’s heard.

Most of the time, Little Bear can express his thoughts and ideas competently with language, even if they are complex. Occasionally he forgets to reference what he is talking about and we have to ask a few questions to catch up with him. There are some parts of grammar that he makes occasional errors with. We still use modelling strategies at these points.

I think it can be difficult for people who don’t know him well or teachers to see his DLD straight away. Now that his speech sounds are much more accurate, his language difficulties appear more subtle. It isn’t a surprise that DLD is a hidden condition and is widely underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed (see Ensuring Children’s Speech and Language Needs Are Met: A Call to Action for more info).

This brings me to the ‘B’ of the ABCs of DLD – build knowledge.

If you’d like to read more about what Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is, you can read this previous post: Developmental Language Disorder

DLD is much more prevalent than most people think – 7 times more common than Autism. If you want to estimate how many children are likely to meet the criteria for DLD in your school, you can use this calculator tool: Calculator Tool

A particularly useful source of information to expand your knowledge of DLD is the new RADLD website: www.radld.org

As DLD is often hidden or missed and the consequences of lack of diagnosis/misdiagnosis are so concerning (increased likelihood of unemployment, mental health difficulties and involvement with the criminal justice system) it is imperative that we work together to raise awareness, hence ‘C’ is for create awareness and is my main focus for the day.

Here are some of the things I will be doing to create awareness:

  • Emailing my children’s school to share information about DLD and the RADLD website
  • Sharing information on my social media channels including tweeting with the hashtag #DLDABC throughout the big day and sharing #my3forDLD
  • Sharing this blog
  • Wearing my newly printed RADLD campaign t-shirt and hopefully explaining what it’s all about to people who ask me
  • Our local newspaper has agreed to print an article I’ve written about DLD on the 18th. It is going to include a photo of me wearing my campaign t-shirt (their idea, I’m a bit scared and frankly too many people have seen my face this week already!).

 

If you’d like to join in with the fun and make a difference at the same time, you can:

  • Use the hashtags #DLDABC and #my3forDLD on Twitter, sharing knowledge, thoughts or ideas
  • Share this blog far and wide
  • Tell one person what DLD is
  • Contact your children’s school to let them know about DLD Awareness Day and the RADLD website (feel free to send them this post)

 

If you have any concerns about your child’s language development or a young person you are working with, contact your local speech and language therapy service. Getting the right support has made an enormous difference to Little Bear. I asked him what difference it had made: “A lot. A big difference because I wasn’t good at talking. It was tricky. My talking is lots better than before. Miles better! I’m good at writing now.” He went on to say that speech therapy was fun and he missed ‘the lady’.

It is never too late to put support in place. Ideally, identification of DLD would be early and support would be tailored and intensive but if the signs have been missed, it isn’t too late. Support in the teenage years continues to be effective.

Teachers, health visitors, social workers, the police, lawyers, people who work in public services (amongst others) all need to know about DLD. They need to know it exists so they can be better at spotting the signs. When we see disruptive behaviour, particularly in classrooms, we need to consider DLD. If we want to improve outcomes for children like Little Bear, we need to spread the word; we need people talking about DLD. Let’s see if we can make that happen…

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DLD Awareness Day 2018

School-Parent Partnership

I have written lots before about our challenges with school ( School Worries), the work we have both put into resolving them ( Alleviating School Worries ) and the importance of strong relationships ( New Teacher ). I thought we were now at a point of having a solid working partnership where we each know the parameters and expectations of each other. I thought we were cool.

Yesterday morning, I found out completely by accident that school have changed Little Bear’s support timetable. Apparently the change happened several weeks ago but was never communicated to us. Mrs. C (Little Bear’s TA) has been told to start later each day, finish earlier one lunch time and work one afternoon instead. My immediate question was ‘why?’ I assumed the decision had been made because Little Bear doesn’t cope so well in the afternoons when he is unsupported. I get why they made the decision. However, I have several problems with it.

Firstly, if we are in a partnership, I don’t expect one partner to make big decisions without consulting the other partner. I am not necessarily against the change but would certainly prefer to have been able to discuss it first.

Secondly, for me, if my child isn’t coping to the point of requiring a change to somebody’s working hours, I need to know. That isn’t a minor deal. If Little Bear isn’t coping, what is going wrong? What behaviour is he displaying that indicates he isn’t coping? Perhaps there could have been other reasons or solutions to the problem? When there is a problem, I really hope to be consulted because we know Little Bear better than anyone and we might have an insight they haven’t thought of. When these things just happen without consultation, I am immediately propelled back to a place of thinking school don’t value our opinion or expertise as parents.

Thirdly, when changes are just made on a whim, the full consequences are not necessarily considered. While it may be good that Little Bear now has support one afternoon a week, he no longer has his TA there to meet and greet him at drop off in the morning. I know school thought that adjusting his timetable by 15 minutes wouldn’t make any real difference but in practise it makes the difference of whether he wants to cross that threshold or not. I have struggled on several mornings to get him in, not helped by Mr Jones who has no compassion whatsoever for a child refusing to leave his parent. His attitude is “get in, sit down, stop messing about”. When Mrs C is there (I guess she is now early sometimes), Little Bear is visibly relieved. She is his safety beacon within school and unless Mr Jones tries a bit harder to take up the mantle, Little Bear kind of needs her there. I could have told them this, had they have asked me.

We have now mentioned that Little Bear is more reticent to enter school in the morning since the change. Mr Jones says he hasn’t noticed any differences within the classroom. Again this is frustrating because school isn’t a silo. Things happen outside of school. Children exist outside of the classroom door and though Mr Jones may not see anything different inside his room, he cannot be blind to things happening immediately outside.

I strongly believe that care of children is a holistic process. There has to be an overlap between parenting and schooling; a bit in the middle of the Venn diagram where we come together. At times like this I feel as though we are in two separate circles, with a gaping hole between us. Our circle is constantly trying to encroach on schools’. We have a very friendly circle and are keen to overlap. Sometimes I feel their circle is shoving us roughly away.

A final unwanted consequence of this change to timetable is that I rather suspect it has pissed Mrs C off. She had those working hours because they fitted with her own life and her own children and that’s important too. Pissing Mrs C off is the last thing we would want to do, when we harbour secret hopes of renewing funding and her staying on for a few more years.

I know school had no intention or awareness of causing all these issues. They thought they were quickly solving a problem. However, I find it very frustrating that this has happened again, after all we have already been through together and when I really believed we had a trusting partnership.

Grizzly and I have a bit of a set-up where I’m good cop, because I need to interact with school twice every day and he is bad cop because he sees them far less frequently. Yesterday, bad cop got on the case with e-mailing the Head. Messages went back and forth and I could tell they were a bit bewildered by us having the audacity to think we could meddle in school decisions. In the end, I couldn’t keep quiet. I’m finding more and more that directness and honesty are often the most helpful ways of sorting things out. I sent an email explaining the above. I explained why we believe in partnership and how, as parents of a child with additional needs, it is imperative we work as a team. I was clear that school are doing an amazing job and that we are happy with Little Bear’s progress. We are not against them; we want to work with them. I was also clear that we are valuable members of this team and need to be regarded as such.

I have received a lovely reply. I think they understand now. I hope so because it is tiring having this type of issue every few months. We aren’t asking for a lot. A regular half-termly meeting and updates on anything that changes in between would be ideal. We just want open lines of communication and to be considered relevant in Little Bear’s education.

It’s tricky because I know that school have upset us completely unwittingly. The way we would like to work is evidently not natural for them and requires a bit of extra thought on their part. I can’t help thinking it shouldn’t be quite so difficult. Partnerships with parents should be core business; it is only when we truly work together that the best outcomes for children are achieved.

 

 

School-Parent Partnership

High School Visits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I found out how you fit. You don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

High School Visits

New Teacher

You may have gathered, from my last few posts, that Transition has been the theme of the summer season here. See This Year, Last Year Fear of Loss if you don’t quite know what I mean.

Little Bear’s angst has been building for several months in anticipation of moving to Year 2 and getting a new teacher, reaching its zenith this week when the Big Move actually happened.

The first we knew about Little Bear’s sense of impending doom was in April-time when he announced he was scared of the Year 2 teacher. I’m going to call him Mr Jones for ease because Mr New Teacher is already feeling unwieldy. Mr. Jones seemed, from what little I knew of him, to be perfectly nice. He does, however, cut a substantial figure. I don’t mean he’s overweight but he is certainly taller than average. Grizzly is also a taller man so I wouldn’t have thought it would have been particularly noteworthy for Little Bear but evidently the broader build, deep voice and towering height were creating some level of fear for Little Bear. I suppose he must seem giant-like to a 6 year old.

We tackled this by chatting with Little Bear’s Year 1 teacher (whom I have never gifted with a pseudonym but I am feeling sufficiently guilty as to rectify that right now. She can be Mrs Potter henceforth.) Anyhow, we made the teaching staff aware and they made sure that Little Bear spent more time with Mr Jones in a non-threatening way. Mr Jones is a bit of a joker and told Little Bear that he doesn’t bite; not hard anyway. Little Bear found this pretty funny and it was one of the rare snippets of school he actually shared with me. Over time Little Bear got more used to Mr Jones until one day he announced he wasn’t scared of him anymore.

This was great but such was the state of Little Bear’s anxiety that where one fear was allayed, another immediately crept in. Now that Little Bear had allowed himself to accept he really would be going to Mr Jones’ class, the realisation hit that he would consequently be leaving Mrs Potter behind.

As for any child who has experienced severed relationships and developmental trauma, the loss of another key person is very triggering – it drags up the emotions of previous losses, wobbles the present and makes you question the certainty of the future.

I don’t think I’m over stating the situation when I say that Little Bear loves Mrs Potter. She has played a big role in his life so far. She visited him in pre-school and was a key person in his transition from pre-school to Reception class. She set him on course for his whole formal education. She has been responsible for him learning to read, write, do Maths. She has stayed with him for two full school years and in that time has been a safe, trusted adult who has stuck with him through some pretty testing times and challenging behaviour. Little Bear adores her and Mrs Potter makes it clear to him that the feeling is mutual. No matter what.

It was completely understandable that Little Bear would be bereft to leave her. To be quite honest, I was also a little bereft. It’s no secret that navigating the education system as the parent of an adoptee is tricky. It can be extremely difficult to get the system to understand your child rather than wanting to constantly change them. As a parent of a child with additional needs, it can be hard to get your voice heard and to be recognised as an expert in your child and seen as a valuable member of the team. At times in Little Bear’s education so far, I have struggled with all of these things. I have also had moments of utter panic at the level of Little Bear’s delay and how on earth he will ever manage to catch up (see LINK). Throughout these challenges, Mrs Potter has always been there. We have somehow managed to develop a really honest and mutually respectful relationship, something which I know is difficult to achieve. I also felt the fear of leaving that safety behind and taking a large leap into the unknown. I felt the fear of having to work really hard to create that relationship again, with another teacher, as well as instilling in them the same level of understanding of Little Bear as Mrs Potter now has.

This transition was a Big deal for all of us.

We tried to allay Little Bear’s fears by reassuring him that Mrs Potter was not disappearing from his life. She would just be next door, in her classroom. He could go to see her whenever he needed to. We (Mrs Potter was very involved in this) reassured him that she would not forget him and that she would still love him, even when he was in Mr Jones’ class. Little Bear and I made a present for Mrs Potter. I made a big deal of how she would think about him every time she looked at it and Little Bear really did pour his love and a few of his other feelings into the picture.

Little Bear started to feel better about moving on from Mrs Potters’ class but such was the state of his anxiety that where that fear was allayed, another crept in.

When we were getting organised with teacher gifts, I made sure to get one for Mrs C, Little Bear’s TA. Although she was going with Little Bear to Year 2, I wanted to thank her for everything she had done for him so far. Of all the teachers in Little Bear’s life, Mrs C has been on the biggest journey. I feel okay to say now that when they first met it was something of a personality clash. It was a disaster and I genuinely believed the wrong appointment had been made. I suspect Mrs C was pretty confident in thinking she’d easily sort Little Bear out with a bit of firm discipline. However, it was more like a head to head stand off and the harder she went in, the more he resisted and the more creative he became in testing her boundaries. I’m pretty sure he gave her the full works, including a few kicks and scratches and caused her to go home in despair on a daily basis, wondering why on earth she had taken the job.

However, I have to credit Mrs C with a very important trait: she has been willing to listen and to try something different. She was prepared to persevere and she stuck with Little Bear where others would certainly have thrown in the towel. She changed her approach, she read what we gave her, she listened and she has now become another trusted and consistent adult in Little Bear’s life, who understands him and is able to effectively support his learning. I would now be absolutely gutted if she left and feel as though she is the crutch that will bear the weight of this transition for Little Bear.

As such, I felt it was important I expressed my thanks. When I mentioned I had got her a gift, a flash of panic darkened Little Bear’s face. “Mrs C is going with me to Year 2 isn’t she?” he asked, evidently fearful she wasn’t. Yes, we reassured, she is. However, over the course of a few days, Little Bear made more comments indicating he thought she wasn’t really. I suppose it is hard to fully trust even your trusted adults when you have been so let down before.

On the last day of year 1, I didn’t really know how Little Bear would be but taking his gifts in seemed to be a handy distraction. Mrs Potter cried over him several times and both she and Mrs C gave him a cuddle in exchange for their gift. Little Bear was absolutely made up that they loved their gifts and evidently Mrs Potter let him believe that his gift was her favourite.

Surprisingly, the day ended much more positively than I had anticipated and much more positively than the end of Reception class which had involved a lot of throwing and screaming. I couldn’t even see Little Bear when I went to pick him up and it turned out he was so nonchalant about the whole thing he was busy sharpening his new pencil instead of being upset. Mrs Potter had bought each child a notepad, pen and pencil and Little Bear was so delighted that he came home and immediately started writing?!

Then, that Friday night, at 5pm, Mrs Potter and Mr Jones both came to visit Little Bear at home. This was absolutely above and beyond the call of duty and not something they usually do. However, because they understood Little Bear’s anxieties and are prepared to do things differently to help him, they wanted to. Little Bear loved the visit and I really feel it assuaged his worries. We had the calmest weekend we’d had in several weeks. It felt particularly poignant because it reminded me of when the foster carers came here to visibly give Little Bear their permission to be happy with us. I felt Mrs Potter was visibly saying “Mr Jones is taking over now and he’s a safe person too. I am ok with you being happy in his class” and that was so much more powerful happening in our home.

The preparation had gone as well as possible but we were in no way complacent. We had no idea what Monday morning would bring.

It actually brought a very happy Little Bear who was excited to be in Year 2. He skipped straight in without a backward glance.

My anxieties rose a little after school because Little Bear did his usual trick of not telling us anything that had happened/ telling us a clearly fictitious version. Later in the week I made sure to have a quick catch-up chat with Mr Jones – both to set the expectation that we need to be in regular touch and also to put our minds at rest.

Obviously I am far from having the relationship with him (yet) that I had with Mrs Potter but the chat felt positive. Mr Jones doesn’t feel Little Bear is testing him which is a good indicator that Little Bear feels safe and settled. Mr Jones has been laying out his boundaries but has not removed Little Bear from class or used any cards. He told me that Little Bear had not engaged well with a particular task but he had evidently gone away and pondered why that might have been and then asked Mrs C’s thoughts, knowing she has more expertise when it comes to Little Bear. I feel these are good signs of willingness to listen and look beyond behaviour and hopefully bode well…

I don’t want to count my chickens (especially after our recent fox-induced henmageddon) but at the moment it looks as though the anticipation of the transition was the biggest problem for Little Bear and that the measures everybody put in place to support him helped a lot. I have been really touched by the level of support we have recently received from school – it has come from a place of genuine care. As well as thanking the individual teachers, I have now e-mailed the Head Teacher to make sure he knows how hard members of his staff have worked and what a difference their commitment and support has made to us. I would be quick to speak up if the right support wasn’t in place for Little Bear so I feel it’s imperative that I am also willing to speak up when things are done well.

I am under no illusion that year 2 will be plain-sailing. Mr Jones has already discussed his aim of taking Little Bear from working towards Year 1 levels to achieving expected levels for year 2 in a year’s time. This is no mean feat and I don’t honestly know if it’s achievable. We also have the spectre of SATS on the horizon and a school residential. But for now, on the wind-down to the summer holidays, I am grateful for having got this far. The new teacher, myself and of course Little Bear are all taking our first tentative steps into this new situation. I just hope that we find a way to walk together.

 

New Teacher

This Year, Last Year

One of the many benefits of blogging for me is that it keeps a record of how things have been for us at different points in the year. Now that I am in my third year (how did that happen?) there is quite a lot to look back on and patterns are starting to emerge. This time last year I wrote Sometimes it’s hard and you can tell from the title alone that we were having a tricky patch. This year we are also having a tricky patch. It is particularly noticeable because the first chunk of 2018 has probably been the calmest and most settled time we’ve had yet as a family of four and the contrast with Little Bear’s current behaviour is pretty stark. It is obvious from the timings and recurrence that Transition is the culprit.

Having a record of last year has allowed me to consider what has changed, both in terms of Little Bear himself and also our ability to cope with the tricky patch.

Last year I got called to speak with the Judo teacher because Little Bear had punched somebody. This year, he wanted to do the course again and I signed him up. The first two sessions were fine but on the third session, when Little Bear’s transition wobble was going full-throttle, he didn’t go. I was in the playground to pick up his brother and instead of staying in school to go to Judo Little Bear came out to me. I reminded him it was judo but his little lip started to wobble and he said he didn’t want to go. He couldn’t tell me why so I went over to ask his teacher how his day had been. His PE teacher told me that Little Bear had been fine all afternoon but somebody had just said something to him in circle time that had upset him and it was as though he couldn’t handle any more and had just exploded. Ah. I was faced with the choice of making him go because we’d paid for it and when you make commitments, you have to stick to them and all that or just taking him home.

I just took him home. He couldn’t tell me in so many words but I felt as though he was trying to communicate that he just couldn’t cope with Judo that day. Perhaps if I had have sent him, he might have punched somebody again. Although he still isn’t able to say as much, this year he was self-aware enough to get himself out of the situation and I’m more tuned into what he can/cannot cope with.

Last year, the village fete was blooming hard work. Little Bear disappeared from view several times and I ended up having to make him hold my hand the whole time, despite him thinking it was a terrible idea. We had to leave early and I didn’t enjoy the experience one bit.

This year, instead of labouring under the false hope that I might have fun at the fete, I resigned myself to the fact that it was going to have its challenges. I spent the day before the fete on my own, doing what I fancied, ensuring my resilience bucket was as full as it could be. Consequently I approached the day with a different mind-set. When the challenges inevitably came, I was prepared for them and ready to react therapeutically. Little Bear coped pretty well this time; so long as I followed his lead and let him choose which activities we did. It was fun watching him in the teacups and smashing crockery. There were flashpoints. He told me he hated me several times and didn’t really follow any instructions but I knew going into it that he wasn’t in a good place emotionally and also that the event itself was on the challenging end of things for him so instead of getting exasperated with him, I was mostly able to lower the demands and empathise with the tricky bits.

Last year, when I received Little Bear’s report, I was a bit upset about it (see Reports). It wasn’t the fact he hadn’t met expectations that bothered me but that the way it was communicated felt negative. I was disappointed at the time that Little Bear’s amazing progress wasn’t really reflected by his report. This year, I had learned from last and anticipated the report being a bit of a damp squib. Little Bear still has a row of red lights but I feel very differently.

I suspect that last year I was at a bit of a low ebb. The fact that we were in a tricky patch was getting on top of me and I wasn’t as tuned into self-care and how to make it work for me as I am now. This year I have been able to mentally set aside the negative reporting and listen to the words coming out of his teacher’s mouth. Little Bear has continued to do amazingly, especially considering the School Worries we had earlier in the year. His teacher tells me he is agonisingly close to expected levels now. He was just 4 marks away from passing the Year 1 phonics screen and it is mainly the fact he struggles to work independently that prevents her saying he is at the expected levels. He can meet many of the requirements if he has a trusted adult by his side to provide reassurance and focus. Genuinely, I’m not bothered by the levels. The fact that we are talking about him nearing them and having moved out of the lower group he was working in because he has overtaken those children is frankly incredible. To go from being over 2 and half years behind in everything on starting pre-school to almost catching up at the end of year 1 is truly remarkable and there is absolutely nothing about that to be sad about.

Last year I ended up taking both boys to the drop-in parents evening to discuss reports. I vowed at the time never to do that again, due to Little Bear’s rather out of control behaviour at it and I haven’t. This year I ensured I had help with the boys and went on my own. Last year I had somehow felt blamed for Little Bear’s behaviour and went away feeling quite misunderstood as a parent (who was trying her best and working her socks off yet nobody seemed to think so). This year, when I stood talking with Little Bear’s teacher about all he has achieved I felt very different. Somehow, despite a fair few challenges, meetings and not always seeing eye to eye, his teacher and I have managed to develop a really solid and friendly working relationship. I have a lot of respect for her and the fact she has got to know Little Bear so well and is so tuned in to helping him. She has been willing to listen to us and include us as part of the team and that has been crucial in making me feel better. I know that she values our input as parents and respects our knowledge/approaches, both through including us as she has and directly through the things she says. It has been lovely to get that affirmation (the feeling is mutual) though it makes me a little anxious to leave her. I can only hope that the next teacher will continue where she has left off.

As we navigate this tricky period, I can still see Little Bear’s progress, despite the regression we are currently in. The behaviour is as challenging and my therapeutic parenting skills as challenged but there is certainly more insight on all sides. We have been able to identify that this is a tricky phase quickly and have known what to do to ease it, even if that means more TV dinners, compromising on routines and shutting our ears to name calling. Little Bear has been able to point us in the right direction some of the time and talk a little about his fears with moving on. Slowly, slowly.

Writing this I do think the biggest change over the past 12 months is our ability to handle the tricky bits – to make space in our lives and brains to accommodate them and to care for ourselves well enough so that we can ride them out with patience and care. Having had a good spell and now not such a good spell, I look back to the times that were just one massive tricky spell with no let up and I wonder how on earth we managed it. It’s no wonder I lost my temper now and again.

These days I reward myself for staying calm – a TV programme I like here, five minutes sitting in the sun there, a spot of comfort-shopping here. It really helps. It also helps to know it is just a phase and hopefully, soon enough, the gorgeous little dude will be back to his usual self.

This Year, Last Year

TP, or not TP, that is the question

We’re having a bit of a weird week of it here at Adoption: The Bear Facts. Little Bear is not feeling good. It could be the hot weather but we rather suspect it is more than that. We think it is likely to be the anticipation of moving classes at the end of next week and with it, more of the Fear of Loss that I talked about last week. This time he is fearing the loss of his teacher, whom he has had for two years and who is really the only teacher he has ever known at big school. He is very, very fond of her and they have a lovely relationship. I know she is very fond of him too. I suspect she doesn’t often get the opportunity to make such a difference and see such an unprecedented level of progress in one of her pupils. This transition is a Big Deal all round.

The magnitude of the deal is being expressed through the medium of Little Bear’s behaviour. It is a little shocking after several months of relative calm and my parenting has certainly been tested. As such, I have been pondering on Therapeutic Parenting and how TP I really am.

Here’s a confession: I talk about being a therapeutic parent now and again but when I’m saying it, I’m often wondering if I actually am a bone fide therapeutic parent or, in fact, just a parent. That probably sounds a little ridiculous but I often feel that TP is a Holy Grail of adoptive parenting that can rarely be reached and can also be used as a larch branch with which to beat ourselves. I am certainly not somebody who often refers to ‘how to guides’ on TP, preferring to make things up as I go along. I’m not sure whether I mean ‘wing it’ or ‘follow my well-informed instincts’ but either way, my process of (therapeutic) parenting is fairly organic.

It is also fair to say that some days feel more therapeutic than others. Sometimes being therapeutic is a little less practical than other methods, which can lead to less of it being done. For example, the school morning routine has taken something of a dip here recently. In the dim, distant past, Little Bear used to need a lot of help with getting ready. All the demands were too much so I used to need to help him with dressing, teeth-brushing etc. However, he has made lots of progress and for quite some time now he has been able to complete the whole morning routine himself, with just a few prompts or reminders from me. That was, until Wednesday.

Wednesday’s routine did not go well. Little Bear was completely uncooperative, growly and intent on doing everything other than getting ready. I could see, after a quick thought or two, that there had been signs of decline earlier in the week. It was evident Little Bear wasn’t coping and I knew that the solution was to reduce the demands on him. However, that is not as easy or practical as it sounds when you have a finely timed routine, need to make two packed lunches because you weren’t organised the night before, haven’t eaten your own breakfast or got dressed yet and barely have time for those things, let alone any other things. As it is not socially acceptable to do the school run in your nightie, I made a quick decision that I didn’t have time to do it the therapeutic way. That sounds pretty bad in black and white but part of me thinks such is life. We do have deadlines and timeframes and sometimes Mums have to nag.

On Thursday I was a little more organised and Grizzly was working at home and I was more prepared for the possibility that extra help might be needed. However, I find having to do TP the very first second I wake up pretty challenging. I am not a morning person. Little Bear woke up in a foul mood. This is rare and doesn’t bode well. Little Bear got his I pad, got back into his bed and wouldn’t get out. Having dragged myself out of bed despite my internal protestations, I gave him lots of chances; pleasantly then more sternly. I was further irked by him shushing me every time I spoke. I did not react therapeutically. I expressed my crossness, though I managed not to shout and I banned his I Pad because without the bloody thing he would actually have got up. Little Bear continued not complying and I asked Grizzly to take over while muttering something about throttling him.

This is why I cannot possibly write a guide to therapeutic parenting.

However, after a moment’s peace and a few bites of breakfast, I was able to take some deep breaths and get a bit more TP. I observed out loud that he didn’t seem to be feeling too good today and wondered what that might be about. I don’t think I got my wonderings right and he was still grumpy. He demanded I feed him. It was not a particularly polite request but after modelling a nicer version just for him to hear, I did feed him. I also dressed him and put his sun cream on for him, all the while ignoring anything rude and trying to soothe him with my tone, pace and words. He went to see Ronaldo, his hen, who flapped her wings in his face and hurt him. I cuddled him, wiped his tears and made him laugh saying she thought his toes were worms.

I think my conclusion from that is sometimes the best way of being therapeutic is knowing when to step away and let someone else handle it. The bit when I kept my temper went pretty well as Little Bear got ready for school with very little demand on him and we successfully dropped him off without issue. Was I TP though? Or just parenting patiently?

I braced myself for school pick-up, rather suspecting the day wouldn’t have gone well. It hadn’t. Apparently Little Bear had thrown another child’s water bottle and smashed it and got into trouble for giving a different child a shove. I didn’t raise any of this with him, just telling him I had chatted with his teacher to see if he was ok because I was a bit worried about him. Little Bear asked me to watch him on the climbing wall and I did. Then I said it was time to go home. Little Bear wanted to do the climbing wall again. I re-iterated that it was home time and began to walk across the playground. Little Bear scream-growled and called me a name. I chose to ignore that and continued walking, knowing he would follow.

The first part of the walk home was fine. Little Bear announced we were going to play football when we got home. Big Bear said he wasn’t playing. I said I didn’t think any of us should as it was far too hot and a cold drink and a little rest would be a better plan. Little Bear began shushing me. By far the hardest part of trying to be therapeutic is overcoming your instincts to go mad when directly provoked. It took some effort but I ignored the shushing and tried the empathising route. Little Bear stuck his fingers in his ears and walked ahead. Whilst this pushed my buttons, I made myself take a deep breath and not get sucked in.

At home, Little Bear was still cross. He announced that if I spoke to him he would tell me to ‘shut up’. Usually, if he tries to threaten me like this, I call him out on it and explain about why threatening people isn’t nice. However, this evening I was just able to stop myself. This behaviour wasn’t really about being coercive; I think it was about needing some peace and his rather rudimentary way of asking me to be quiet. It can be so hard in the heat of the moment to look beyond the behaviour at what might be causing it but that is something that I seem to be getting a little better at with time.

I decided to go for the killing it with kindness approach; rallying around with a cold drink and snack. I suppose once-upon-a-lack-of-TP-knowledge I might have thought this was rewarding bad behaviour.

I left Little Bear with the TV and sat outside with Big Bear for a few minutes. “He isn’t having a good day is he Mum?” Big Bear asked. No, I agreed, he isn’t. I explained I thought it was because he was worried about the transition to the next class.

Later, at tea time, I tried to find out a bit more from Little Bear about what had happened in his day. As usual it was high tales, plot-twists and publishable fiction. Trying a different tack, I asked him how his friends were feeling about going to year 2. “They’re upset about it,” he said, “They really love Mrs Current Teacher and don’t want to leave her”. Aha. We explored the situation a little more, through the feelings of his ‘friends’. I have no idea if this is a known TP technique but it was up the sleeve and seemed to work.

At this point, Big Bear joined in and I was struck by the fact it shouldn’t be called Therapeutic Parenting because the whole family do it. Maybe it should be Therapeutic Family-ing. I sat back in admiration as Big Bear reassured him how close current teacher’s classroom would still be; how cool future teacher is; how Little Bear (or his friends) could still go and visit current teacher if they wanted to and how current teacher would miss him too. He told him it would all be ok and cuddled him.

Big Bear has never read a book on TP, he probably hasn’t even heard of it, yet sometimes he is more instinctively therapeutic than Grizzly and I stuck together.

It felt like a good time to talk to Little Bear about giving his teacher a present. I have been agonising over what to get as I really want to get it right for them both. I am extremely grateful to her for her pivotal role in his learning so far so want to give her a token of our appreciation that feels right for what she has done. I also want Little Bear to have some involvement and ownership in at least part of the gift. Whilst it certainly seems possible to overthink a present, I have finally decided that Little Bear should draw a picture of him and his teacher and we will get crafty with a mount and frame it. I put this idea to Little Bear over tea. He was pretty bought in and wanted to get started immediately. After tea, he sat and concentrated hard and put lots of effort into his drawing. The idea that his teacher will have something he has done to keep and will think of him every time she looks at it seems to be helping him.

I have to admit that by the end of the day I felt like I might have done some therapeutic stuff. We certainly managed to end on a better note than we had started with.

Days like yesterday can be challenging. There are extra things to think about; you need to be on your toes; you need to override your natural reactions. You need to have your wits about you and you need to try as best you can to get into your child’s mind. Usually, when I’m not rushing around in my nightie, I try to do these things. However, I struggle to do them well first thing in the morning, when I have PMS and at other random points when my resilience dips. I occasionally mutter under my breath, give rash consequences and sometimes raise my voice. Is that TP? Or not TP?

I genuinely don’t know. I just know that I’m trying my best and to be TP 24/7 would take a Herculean effort. Can we change the acronym to Trying-your-best Parenting? Cos I think I’ve got that sewn up at least.

 

 

TP, or not TP, that is the question

Fear of Loss

Little Bear has had an emotional few weeks. It began with the unfortunate death of his pet hen. It was unfortunate because he hadn’t had her that long and she was originally called Curious George (before he re-named her Izzy, that is) and curiosity really did kill the hen. She was a serial escaper, the true Houdini of hens, scaling the 6 foot fence on innumerable occasions and outwitting all our attempts to contain her. Alas one night she must have taken one chance too many and been met by an errant fox.

When Grizzly, Big Bear and I discovered the loss, we could already foresee the problem: this would hit Little Bear hard. We did the usual thing; Grizzly and Big Bear went to the farm to get another hen that we planned to pop into the hen run without Little Bear being any the wiser. However, Izzy was a beautiful black hen, with shiny iridescent feathers and when the boys arrived at the farm, there were no black hens left. Eek. We were left with no choice but to tell him the truth and replace Izzy with a different coloured hen.

Little Bear initially took the news quite well. The distraction of a new hen waiting outside for him in a box was helpful, especially when she turned out to be the friendliest hen we’ve ever had and allowed Little Bear to pick her up and cuddle her straight away. She was immediately christened Ronaldo and apart from the poor thing’s gender confusion, all was well with the world.

However, as the day wore on, there were several occasions when Little Bear’s eyes filled with tears and he said how sad he was about Izzy. This alone was probably quite triggering but to add insult to injury, Grizzly had to go away that evening to Germany. Grizzly travels a fair bit with work, he is generally away overnight most weeks but it is usually in the UK and evidently the idea of him going away for 3 sleeps and in a plane felt quite different to Little Bear. We could tell something was bothering him from his behaviour. Over the morning, Little Bear found it harder and harder to listen, becoming rude and a little verbally aggressive. Much of this was targeted at Grizzly.

After lunch we decided to go to the park for a few hours to have some quality family time before Grizzly went. When Little Bear and I were in the downstairs loo, him stood on the loo seat looking into the mirror while I applied his sun cream, he took me by surprise with a throwaway comment. “I don’t remember being in that girl’s tummy,” he said out of nowhere. “Your birth mum?” I asked and said her name. “Yeah,” “Well, most people don’t remember being inside someone’s tummy either,” I reassured. “Ok,” he replied, hopped down and wandered off.

Sometimes these life story chats are so random and out of the blue that you are left wondering if they really happened. I made a mental note to fill Grizzly in when we got to the park, as evidently Little Bear had a busy mind that day.

In the car, the situation between Little Bear and Grizzly was deteriorating further. I don’t think Little Bear had followed some instruction or other and appeared to be being purposefully combative. Grizzly was rapidly running out of patience. Things were heading towards explosion territory. Without wanting to replay the conversation we’d had in the toilet in front of Little Bear, I suggested to Grizzly that Little Bear might have a lot on his mind and that might be why he was behaving as he was. Grizzly managed to wind himself back, which is so hard when you are already at the getting mad stage and wondered aloud to Little Bear whether he might be getting annoyed with him because he was really sad about him going to Germany. It’s so obvious now when we’ve got the wondering right because Little Bear crumbles in front of your eyes and can turn in a split second from furious rage to heartbreak. Sure enough, he just dissolved. Yes, he didn’t want Grizzly to go and he was sad his hen had died. We did the usual reassurances but on this occasion Little Bear was so upset that we only got a few metres down the road before we had to pull the car over. He climbed into the front, into Grizzly’s knee and wept.

It was such a shame. Its times like this when being adopted is different. For children who have not lost an entire previous life, losing a pet does not spiral into wondering whether daddy really will come back. It doesn’t trigger all those feelings of having lost precious people before. It doesn’t make them think about the mysterious woman who gave birth to them or the family they never see. It doesn’t make them fearful of losing everything all over again.

Little Bear’s hen loss was a real loss. His dad going to Germany for three days and coming back again was not. However, having the background that Little Bear has causes him to perceive a small or temporary separation as a potential loss. The threat of real loss is never too far away when you’re adopted. He has been with us more than 2 and a half years now. That time has been really stable. Nobody has left him. However, the significant losses of his birth family and then his foster carers in his formative years have left an indelible stain on his memory. I wonder whether that will fade over time or whether the threat of loss will always haunt him like this.

I spoke with school on the Monday morning, to make them aware of Little Bear’s fragile emotional state. It was a good job because that day, for the first time ever, he talked to Mrs C, his TA, about some of his life story. I have spoken to her since and she said that Grizzly being away really impacted on Little Bear. He had struggled more in school; regressed in his attitude to learning and even sabotaged his work, something he had completely stopped doing.

Unfortunately, shortly after Grizzly got back, it became obvious he had caught some lurgy from the plane and was unwell. He wasn’t at death’s door ill, just man flu ill, but Little Bear was worried in a death’s door kind of way, I suppose because his threat of loss censors where still on high alert. It’s so hard for him, having to carry around the weight of worry that something bad might happen to someone he loves all the time.

Thankfully, Mrs C seemed to get it and made the link with Little Bear’s earlier life without me needing to point it out. I really feel as though she has been listening to us rabbiting on all year and she is pretty tuned into the little dude now, thank goodness. Having an understanding approach at school and some extra cuddles will no doubt have helped Little Bear to get back on track a little quicker.

 

*In looking for a medical term for ‘fear of loss’, I stumbled upon this list of fears: 

Phobias list

Check it out, it’s pretty entertaining. Obviously I don’t find people having fears funny but I’m hard pushed to believe some of them are real… Fear of sitting down, Tuberculosis or being infested by worms anyone?

 

Fear of Loss