Transition

Transition is usually a concept that people begin discussing in the summer, as term time draws to a close. However, in conjunction with Little Bear’s school, we have decided to begin working on it and talking about it much earlier than that. In fact, Little Bear’s transition to Year 2 has already begun.

Last year, when he moved up to year one, he did pretty much what the other children did: spent that last two weeks of the summer term in his new classroom. This seemed ok at the time. In fact, it seemed pretty good because most schools don’t transition before the summer holidays, just going straight to their new classes afterwards. However, in reality, we hadn’t done anywhere near enough work and planning around the transition and things went pretty pear-shaped (see Adoptive Parent: Behaviour Detective  & School Worries).

My personal feeling is that getting a TA was the biggest difficulty for Little Bear. Obviously it’s brilliant that we managed to secure funding and he certainly needs the support. However, from Little Bear’s point of view, a new adult, who he had never met before, appeared and went everywhere he went. She told him what to do and he wasn’t too sure whether he trusted her. He didn’t know what the rules were with her – were they same as with his teacher or as with mum and dad? Would her rules be the same every day? What would happen if he didn’t do what she said? Would she shout? Would she just let him do anything he wanted?

The only way to figure all this out, if you’re a child who has experienced trauma and loss, is do all the things you’re worried about and find out. If you test a person who isn’t prepared to be tested and isn’t quite sure what you’re doing or why you are kicking them or refusing to do anything they say, that person might find it all a bit tricky to navigate. That person probably won’t know how to react and may try different things on different days. Because they are not consistent in upholding the rules or dealing with your behaviour, it is likely that as a child with developmental trauma, you will feel unsafe. When children feel unsafe, they go into survival mode: fight/flight/ freeze or flop. In Little Bear’s case, it was fight mode and hence his behaviour escalated for a while.

This is not a scenario that we are keen to repeat at the beginning of year 2. On the positive side of things, Little Bear’s TA, Mrs C, has worked really hard to understand him and to support him in a way that works. Their relationship has now settled and they work really well together. Little Bear’s behaviour has improved dramatically and he is learning lots. Mrs C is going to move to year 2 with him which should provide him with a good level of stability.

However, Little Bear will be moving classrooms and he will have a different teacher. This will be a big deal for him because he has had the same teacher throughout Reception and Year 1 and he loves her. One of the big problems with transition for children who are Care- experienced is that moving on usually involves saying goodbye and that can trigger all sorts of issues from their earlier lives.

Not only will leaving her behind be hard for him but it will inevitably mean getting a new teacher and having to get to know a new adult who Little Bear won’t be sure whether to trust or not. We could have all the issues I described above again. Thankfully, no one wants that to happen and as school were so shocked by what they witnessed from Little Bear last time, they are keen to do better this time.

Little Bear himself is all too aware that he has to go to a different class at some point and has been expressing his worries to us for a few weeks now. He is scared of the new teacher and doesn’t want to leave his current one. Although his grasp of time has improved, it is still not fabulous, so telling him how many weeks or months he has left in year 1 doesn’t seem very reassuring for him. Instead of waiting until nearer the time, we have decided to start preparation now as the best means of reassuring him and reducing his anxiety.

I thought it might be useful to share our transition plan and all the things that are happening that will hopefully help Little Bear with moving on:

  • Today we had an official transition meeting. It was attended by us, Little Bear’s TA, his current teacher and his next teacher. We shared concerns and crucially told the new teacher about relevant background information. This didn’t happen with Mrs C until after she had been working with Little Bear for a while which was a backwards way of doing things and did impact upon her ability to understand him and set her expectations of him. In order to understand Little Bear’s behaviour, it is essential to know key factors in his background that precipitate his current behavioural and emotional challenges.

I think Mr. New Teacher seemed a little shocked.

  • We also shared tried and tested strategies that are currently in use at home and at school for supporting Little Bear. We talked about allowing him calm down time before discussing his behaviour with him; consistent and clear boundaries; praise; the need for repetition and managing dysregulation amongst other things.

 

  • Little Bear knew we were having this meeting, as he always does when we have one and as much as possible I put a positive spin on them so that he knows they are about helping him and making sure he feels safe: I don’t want him to think it is a chat about all the ‘bad’ things. We always ask him if there is anything he wants us to say to the teachers or to ask them about.

 

  • Little Bear has been going into his future Year 2 classroom for a few weeks now with Mrs C. Initially they popped in to do ‘jobs’. They have since stayed in there a little longer and explored the toys and books. More recently he has been going in during his 1:1 time to complete his work. Mrs C has started popping out for a few minutes on the pretence of needing to do something so that Little Bear gets used to being in there on his own. This is clever because Little Bear still has a tendency towards opportunism and he may be tempted to see what he can get away with without Mrs C by his side. It will give Mr New Teacher the chance to start laying out his boundaries.

 

  • Over the next weeks, the plan is for Little Bear to spend more time with Mr New Teacher so that they get to know one another better. Little Bear has already shown him his work a few times when he has done something good, which is a very positive interaction for them to have.

 

  • Before the two week transition at the end of term, Mr New Teacher is planning to visit us at home for five minutes so Little Bear can see that we trust him and that we have a relationship with him too. The consistency across all settings and people is so important for Little Bear and we hope this visit will make him feel safer. He will also love being able to introduce Mr New Teacher to our pets etc.

 

  • Little Bear’s current teacher has been talking about the transition with all the children and reassuring them as a class.

 

  • The teachers plan to put together a ‘transition pack’ for Little Bear with photos of the new classroom, teacher etc. for us to look at over the summer.

 

  • The school are aware of the need for Little Bear to still have contact with his current teacher once he moves to his next class so he will have the opportunity to pop into her classroom for ‘jobs’ or to share work and equally she will pop to see him.

 

The plan feels fairly comprehensive and I’m really grateful school are facilitating it. The biggest risk factor is whether Mr New Teacher listens to what we have said about the best ways of supporting Little Bear in class or whether he will feel preached at and will just want to try things his way. We know, from bitter experience, that new adults tend to wish Little Bear came with an instruction manual. He doesn’t, but we have cobbled one together over the years and if the willingness to listen is there, so too are the effective strategies.

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Transition

Unwanted Changes

Things have been going really well for a few weeks here. That way where you begin to think you might have cracked it and that having no specific difficulties is the new normal way of life. I wasn’t getting complacent about it; if anything it was making me feel a bit uncomfortable and suspicious, not because I want to have difficulties but because it seemed a bit too good to be true. About a day after having that thought, some problems predictably began to arise. I don’t think it is anything major at this stage, hopefully not, but we are at the point of thinking Little Bear’s behaviour might be escalating and we are keeping a close eye on what’s going on.

There are two issues, both school based. At the start of the school year we had some School Worries and then various things happened to resolve them (see Alleviating School Worries). Since then there have been niggles but generally an upward trajectory with Little Bear and Mrs C, his TA, getting to know one another better. Over the past two months or so I would say they have got into their groove. Little Bear feels safe with Mrs. C; he listens to her and accepts her authority. Mrs. C has come to understand Little Bear and what he needs and how to help him. Consequently Little Bear’s behaviour has been very settled and he has made fabulous progress. We have been very pleased with how everything has been going.

Unfortunately, Mrs. C is now experiencing some personal issues; a member of her family is very poorly and understandably she needs to take time out to care for them. She is still coming in most days but sometimes only helping Little Bear for an hour before leaving. Obviously I know it can’t be helped and I really feel for her, having been through it all last year with Supergran, but at the same time, with my parent hat on, I’m a bit gutted. Consistency is so important for children who struggle with attachment and trauma. It has taken a long time for this relationship to be properly established and just as things have settled seems an unlucky time for disruption to happen. Mrs. C is Little Bear’s safety net at school now. He knows she is there to help him and without her I suspect he is a little lost.

We are lucky in that Little Bear has made good progress and can now cope with a bit less support and still get some work done, where he couldn’t have managed to earlier in the term and would have become very disruptive. However, we are all too aware that things can escalate quickly when much needed support is taken away. We are keeping an extra close eye on how Little Bear is and checking in with his teacher more frequently.

The school are not currently covering Mrs C’s time when she isn’t there as it likely to be a short term situation but we are concerned that they may need to if Little Bear shows us he isn’t coping.

When I picked Little Bear up yesterday he appeared dyregulated and really struggled to listen on the way home. He did daft things like hide in someone else’s front garden and tried to put a Hula Hoop in his ear that he would not normally do these days. Could this deterioration in behaviour be a sign he isn’t coping quite so well as we thought?

Well, it could, but equally it could be due to the other school issue that we are also concerned about. For some reason that I can’t fathom, the school have changed the entire dinner menu. They have changed it on the premise of it becoming healthier. In practise, they have removed all carbohydrates. Cauliflower rice or celeriac mash anyone?

I’m all for healthy eating and children having their vegetables, of course I am, but I do think this menu has gone about three steps too far. Little Bear loved buying some toast at break time and I always encouraged it because he gets very hungry and I felt it was regulating for him. I am sure there is some evidence about children who have experienced trauma needing more fuel because they expend so much energy trying to stay within their window of tolerance (if anyone knows what I’m on about please point me in the right direction). I also think Little Bear has to work harder due to his Developmental Language Disorder, another reason to keep his energy levels up.

Anyway, needless to say he can’t buy toast anymore because bread is the food of the devil or some such nonsense.

The lunchtime menu now has one choice only so I guess you eat it or you don’t. Previously there were always two choices and personally I feel there still should be – aren’t children allowed to have preferences? My feeling about the food now is that it would probably be delicious for me, a grown up with developed taste buds, who is conscious of my waistline but either I have failed as a parent or my children are lacking in some way as they are very unlikely to eat it. I don’t know many children who would eat harissa lamb or Greek salad or greek yoghurt and berries for every pudding, to be honest. Apparently they have done it on purpose to get the children tasting more things.

The thing is I feel as though they have misunderstood the function of a school lunch. In my eyes yes, it should be as healthy and fresh as possible, but it should be appealing to most children because the most important thing is that they eat it, fill their tummies and are able to approach the afternoon well-regulated and able to concentrate. I think that pushing boundaries and trying things can happen at home or during special events at school but the last thing I want is for Little Bear to push his posh nosh round his plate, not eat any of it and spend the afternoon swinging from the lampshades. Being well-fed is crucial for Little Bear’s behaviour regulation. If he is hungry he will not be able to control himself and he certainly won’t be able to learn.

I feel as though the school has inadvertently created a very exclusive menu which will inevitably exclude many children. There has been no consideration for children who may have restricted diets due to underlying conditions such as Autism or children who have had limited life experiences. Before Little Bear came to us, he didn’t eat any vegetables and perhaps only one or two fruits. The fact that he will happily eat a range now feels like a success to me; I don’t feel the need to push him beyond his comfort zone and I don’t appreciate the inference that my child (or my parenting) is somehow lacking by him not wanting to eat anything on the exclusive school menu. I feel as though it has somehow become an elitist basis on which to separate the parents – those who have succeeded in getting their children to eat like grown-ups and those who haven’t. Bring back jacket potatoes and roast dinners I say, are they really that detrimental to our children’s health?

As an aside, the children are no longer allowed to bring a cake in when it’s their birthday either which I find very sad. I know we are meant to be concerned about childhood obesity but neither of my boys sits still and Little Bear has a six pack to be jealous of. I think he can eat a slice of cake now and again without any of us getting too concerned.

Anyway, menu-related rant aside, I am mainly concerned about Little Bear’s wellbeing and him pushing his friends about and trying to shove crisps into his ears could well be due to hangry-ness. Little Bear not eating his lunch could well be a disaster and could easily lead to an escalation in his behaviour. I am trying to keep a close check on whether he is eating at school, though it is proving difficult as, according to him, yesterday’s lunch was soup and porridge which even by the new menu’s standard seems unlikely.

I know change is unavoidable but on this occasion I really wish they’d left things well alone. For our children, those who have been through enough already, small things can be big things and medium-sized things like not having your trusted adult or being expected to survive a day without carbs can be enough to upset their wagons completely. Here’s hoping this is just a small bump in the road and not the next dip on the rollercoaster.

Unwanted Changes

Books

With it being World Book Day this week, I thought it might be a good time to share some of our favourite children’s books and the reasons they have become important to us.

First Books

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The board book pictured was Little Bear’s first book. I know this because we gave it to him during introductions when he was 3 and a half years old. The average 3 and a half year old is likely to have progressed beyond board books quite some time ago and is most likely enjoying a range of picture books with maybe a couple of sentences on each page. I’m going to assume that Little Bear had seen a book somewhere and on occasions someone had read one to him. However, he certainly didn’t own any books and a bedtime story was not part of his bedtime routine, which appeared to involve wrestling him into his pyjamas and beating a hasty retreat, shutting the double height stairgate behind you.

There has been some recent Twitter chat which would suggest that Little Bear was not alone in not having a bedtime story during foster care. This makes me incredibly sad. I know the majority of foster carers work extremely hard and give the children in their care everything they could possible need but evidence suggests they don’t all. For me, a bedtime story (or a story at some other part of the day) is not a pleasant add on, it is an essential part of childhood. Books have so much to offer children, not least in terms of their language development, and not having a bedtime story is a huge opportunity missed, particularly if the child in question has Developmental Language Disorder

The lack of books felt like such a fundamental omission to me that I couldn’t wait until we got home to introduce them. Thankfully I had popped this one into our packing and read it to Little Bear the very first time I put him to bed (after the wrestling into pyjamas part). I was surprised by how quiet he was and how much it held his attention, considering his behaviour the rest of the time. He LOVED it and asked for it repeatedly in the days and weeks afterwards. From there on in he has had a bedtime story. In fact, I feel as though so much time has been wasted for him, he actually has three bedtime stories every night.

Transition Books

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We read Little Bear board books for as long as he needed us to and he still has them on his shelf in case he fancies one now. However, when I felt the time was right to move him on, I needed something that bridged the gap between board books which usually have few words on a page and proper picture books which have quite a lot more. The books pictured here and others like them are the ones that bridged the gap nicely. They held Little Bear’s attention well and were good for extending his vocabulary with words that would be within his grasp.

The length of these books was just right at the time, helping to stretch Little Bear’s attention span little by little.

I especially love the bright pictures in the Meg and Mog books and they contain a good level of drama too!

First Picture Book

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We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is an important book to us because it was the first book from which Little Bear started to learn parts of the text. The repetition really helped him and he loved anticipating seeing the bear (he has always enjoyed an element of peril!). I remember being so chuffed that he could recite parts of it and fill in blanks when I paused because it was such a leap in language skills. It’s always a pleasure to see a child enjoying a book but especially so when they have been denied the opportunity sooner. It has been an honour really, to be able to take Little Bear by the hand and gently guide him into the world of literature. It’s been an exciting and lovely expedition for both of us.

This is a book that has spilled into our play too and we have been on many walks and adventures looking for bears and chanting “we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we have to go through it” and getting very muddy.

Books about Lions and Tigers

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The thing about books is that you can get them about anything. ANYTHING. The infinite possibilities are brilliant for a child with a wild imagination (see Fantasy versus Reality) and I love the way you can use a child’s interests to engage them with learning without them really knowing it’s educational. Little Bear is partial to a book with a lion or tiger in it (the element of danger again) and we have built up a bit of a collection. In fact on World Book Day, he will be dressing as a lion and taking The Lion Inside by Rachel Bright as his favourite book.

Never Tickle a Tiger is a relatively new one but it’s a good one as the main character can’t help but fiddle with everything and she really does remind me a lot of Little Bear! He did notice the similarity too.

This collection also shows that Little Bear has progressed with his attention span and can now listen to three of this type of book at bedtime without difficulty. Moreover, he can follow the more complex texts and vocabulary in them which he previously would not have been able to. Books have certainly played their part in his progress.

Books that Rhyme

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I think the go-to rhyming books are usually those by Julia Donaldson. We do like those and several feature in our book collection but they generally have quite a lot of text and it has only been more recently that Little Bear has been able to engage with them. For maximum exposure to rhyme and lots of repetition in a short space of time, I don’t think you can beat the Oi Frog books. They are just a little bit naughty too which appeals to boisterous boys. We have read these a lot and they have definitely resulted in laughing out loud. They have also been great for helping Little Bear learn to rhyme (a fairly recent development) which has helped him with his vowel work and with beginning to spell at school.

The Cat in The Hat has been a surprise contender for favourite book. Big Bear never really engaged with it when he was younger but something about it has really grabbed Little Bear. It is also a long story but for some reason he manages it (if he chooses it, it’s the only time we don’t have three stories because we’d be there all night). I suspect he likes it so much because the cat is so naughty. It is a good book for phonic development though and sometimes Little Bear has read some of it to me, helping to build his confidence that he can read other things, not just his school book.

Books that Have Issues

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These are books that tackle big emotions and might help with adoption-related things. I Will Love You Anyway is a really lovely book that I struggle to read without a lump in my throat. It is about a dog that keeps running away and is difficult to look after. He hears his humans saying that they can’t cope with him and he’ll have to go. He runs away at night and gets lost and scared until the boy comes and finds him. The message is that no matter what the dog does his humans love him anyway and want to keep him. I suppose its art reflecting life and it really does talk to a child’s insecurities. We like this one.

Where the Wild Things Are is quite an out-there, random book. I’m not really sure how much it speaks to me but it does speak to Little Bear. He seems to really understand the analogy of the boy becoming angry and going off somewhere in his head and I think it makes him feel better that he is not the only one it happens to.

There are quite a few other books like this available. All the ones by Sarah Naish and things like The Big Bag of Worries. We just haven’t dabbled much yet and where we have dabbled, these two are clear favourites.

Books that Get Us Talking

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These You Choose books are a recent addition after a teacher friend got Little Bear one for Christmas. They’re absolutely brilliant for language development and I’m going to invest in at least one more for Little Bear’s birthday. On each page there are lots of choices like which job you want to do on the rocket, what you’re going to wear and where you’re going to go. It means that each time you read the book you can make different choices and have a different adventure. They are great for vocabulary development, generating narratives, developing imagination and formulating questions. You could also work on turn-taking, listening and following instructions if you wanted to.

We have been known to use the book to generate verbal sentences which we have then written down for writing practise. I really think they are a fabulous resource and can’t believe I’ve only just found them. They would also be good in a work capacity for building relationships with children you don’t yet know well – it would give you a shared context to begin chatting.

More to the point, Little Bear loves this book and chooses it frequently.

Books for Big Bear

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Big Bear is an independent reader now. He’s a good reader but rarely reads for pleasure. We have tried all sorts of different books to engage him but to my surprise it has been The Goosebumps Horrorland series that have really grabbed him. He discovered them at school and has taken to disappearing to his room to read one which is pleasantly surprising. He also enjoys Michael Morpurgo books and we went through a phase of devouring all things Roald Dahl.

He has always enjoyed non-fiction, leaving picture books behind at quite an early stage and still does to some extent. We got him a subscription to The Week Junior for his birthday which has encouraged him to read more (though it’s a newspaper not a book) and has led to some interesting conversations. Just tonight he was getting hot under the collar about Donald Trump (he has a point).

His football information books have really held his attention too, though he likes me to read them to him. I’m secretly very pleased that my big boy isn’t too old for a bedtime story yet.

 

These are just some of the books we have enjoyed together and some of the benefits we have gained from them. I haven’t even mentioned that reading together is great bonding time – Little Bear likes a good snuggle-in at story time and it has been a way for other family members like grandparents and aunties and uncles to spend some quality time with him. It is also a predictable and familiar part of his routine now, which may well have contributed to his sleep settling down.

I wonder what books are popular in other people’s houses. Do you have any recommendations for us?

Happy World Book Day everyone,

The Bears xx

 

 

 

Books

Our Just-Right Challenge

The term ‘just-right challenge’ was first coined by well-known Occupational Therapist (OT) Jean Ayres. She was referring to finding activities for children that are neither too easy nor too hard. The secret, she said, was pitching a task just above their current level of functioning – so that it was definitely attainable but not so difficult that they would experience frustration and not so easy that they wouldn’t develop any new skills. I think it’s a concept well-known and used within the field of OT.

The just-right challenge is like the sweet spot of learning, when you pitch something just perfectly and you can see your child grasping a concept right before your eyes. The just-right challenge is essential for developing confidence and turning the I’m Stupid feelings on their head. It’s a crucial, yet largely underrated skill in any parent, teacher or therapist.

The idea first came to my attention when I attended a Sensory Integration training course, an approach also derived by Ayres, several years ago. Despite practising it all the time without actively labelling what I’m doing, the term just popped into my head the other day, probably because we have been having some issues with finding the just-right challenge for Little Bear.

Little Bear attends swimming lessons every Saturday and has been doing very well, so well in fact that his teacher said he was ready to move up to the next group. Little Bear seemed pleased with himself and I took him along the following week. I popped back to the pool a few minutes before the end to wait for Little Bear with his towel. When I got there I was shocked to see he was crying. “What’s the matter?” I asked the instructor who was closer to me than he was. “He’s just cold” she said.

Well that didn’t stack up because Little Bear is one of the toughest children I’ve ever met, he’s practically a Marine, he doesn’t cry because he’s cold.

Little Bear’s lesson is now at the deep end of the pool and he, along with the other children, was standing along the furthest edge, preparing to jump in. I noticed that Little Bear was about a foot smaller than the other children who appeared about 8 or 9 years old. Little Bear looked extremely uncertain but did jump in. He swam straight to the edge, got out, came to me and dissolved into a crying wreck. It just wasn’t like him. What on earth was wrong?

After a lot of cuddling and drying Little Bear managed to tell me that it was too deep and he was scared. I said I would speak to his instructor as I could already foresee a problem with next week’s session. I went back into her, wondering if he’d accidentally gone into the wrong group. No, she said, he was absolutely fine, he could keep up with the lesson. He was fine; he’d be fine next week. She said ‘fine’ a lot. I don’t find ‘fine’ particularly reassuring.

The following day Grizzly took both Bears for a fun swim, thinking it would boost Little Bear’s confidence. They had fun, they dived in, and it was all good. It was fine.

When the next swimming lesson rolled around I was careful to keep an upbeat approach. It was working until we got to the front door of the pool building when Little Bear began crying and wouldn’t go in. He didn’t have to do the jumping in bit if he didn’t want to I reassured, I would come back early for him. Anyway, the long and short of it was that when we entered the pool area Little Bear was crying and gripping on to me for dear life. This is not like him: he usually skips in on his own. The new instructor, who I was quickly growing annoyed with, told him to get in, he’d be fine: cue more crying and clinging to me. The instructor continued to teach the other children and made no move to come to Little Bear, reassure him or anything else remotely useful.

Thankfully, Little Bear’s previous instructor, who was teaching a class in the middle section of the pool, noticed what was happening and asked if he would like to re-join her group. “Sometimes the jump to the next group is too much,” she said, “don’t worry about it, he can come with me”. I thought Little Bear would have been relieved (I certainly was) and would have hopped straight back in. He didn’t though, continuing to cry and hold onto to me. He managed to tell me that although he did want to go back to his old tutor he now didn’t know any of the children in her group because the time of his lesson had also changed. Evidently this was unsettling him.

The old instructor listened, took him quickly into the pool, introduced the other children and had him swimming a width before he had time to protest further. She was like a swimming fairy and I couldn’t have been more grateful. The would-be new instructor was unfortunately more like a wet lettuce.

I watched the rest of the session from the side, in the bit where parents are forbidden to be, as I had promised Little Bear I would and he kept checking I was still there. As I stood, I reflected. The thing is that we want our children to do well and we want to be able to celebrate their achievements with them. When children work hard and succeed they are generally rewarded by being able to move up a group or go onto a harder task or level. That is the usual way of things in school and sporting situations. However, what is often not considered (and I failed to consider on this occasion) is that moving up means leaving behind everything familiar to you. In this case it meant leaving the instructor Little Bear knew and was comfortable with. It meant leaving the children he knew and was familiar with. Although he would still be going to the same place, it also meant he would be in a different part of the pool: a deeper, more challenging part. As a transition I had underestimated it.

Yes Little Bear was doing really well at swimming but moving him up a group was not the just-right challenge for him. It was a too-far-out-of-the-comfort-zone challenge.

That is the tricky thing for children who have experienced developmental trauma or who struggle with attachment: finding the just-right challenge for them (obviously it’s very different child to child). You cannot simply base the level of challenge on their skill level. Clearly in terms of Little Bear’s swimming ability, he was capable of being in the harder lesson. However, that didn’t take into account his emotional or attachment needs which, at the moment, mean that taking the leap away from everything familiar leads to him feeling unsafe. He would probably have coped better (it’s all good in retrospect) had the whole group and the tutor moved to the deep end; or had they stayed where they were and just done harder swimming.

I suspect also, that Little Bear has had a bad experience in water in the past as he was terrified of it when he first arrived and clung onto me the first time we went into a pool – arms tight around my neck, feet wedged between my thighs, clutching on limpet-like. It was ironic really as I dislike water and can barely swim but it was undoubtedly good for bonding as I kept him safe, successfully hid my fear and he slowly found his confidence. Grizzly takes the boys swimming a lot now and Little Bear had seemingly fully conquered any fears he used to have. That’s the thing about trauma though, it pops up when you least expect it and perhaps something about standing at that deep end, already out of his comfort zone, staring into the aqua depths triggered something? A memory? A fear?

We couldn’t really have anticipated the possible trigger but with hindsight I think we should have been able to see that moving up a group was a challenge too far. For now, doing very well in the group he is in is the just-right swimming challenge for Little Bear.

When it comes to education, finding the just-right challenge for him has been even trickier. Not only do we have to consider his skills, his attachments and familiarity but we also have to consider his self-esteem and sensory needs (he is pretty confident physically and sports meet his sensory needs well). In addition, as with many children, what Little Bear is capable of on any given day can fluctuate. If he’s particularly anxious or hungry or unwell or excited he is unlikely to manage as much as if he is calm and relaxed. The just-right challenge can vary minute to minute and task to task and requires an adult to really know him to be able to differentiate demands accordingly. My post Jigsaws is a good example of me getting the just-right challenge bob-on and the positive outcome that resulted from it.

Too often we don’t hit the right challenge level, usually making the challenge too hard, resulting in upset, frustration and even aggression. As a rule we have now learned that Little Bear’s just-right challenge tends to be a little below his full ability when all the stars are in alignment. Pushing him too hard causes a panic, even if we know he is able to achieve whatever it is.

In a recent meeting with school, his teacher told us that he is doing well in his Maths group and they are considering moving him up. Whilst it is fabulous that our little dude who couldn’t count for toffee on school entry has overtaken some of his peers and has taken to extending his own learning (why do tens and units when you could do twenties or thirties and units?!), knowing him as we do, the just-right challenge for him is being the best in the group he’s in, not struggling to keep up in the next group. Yes, he would probably be able to do some of the work but he would find it hard and his confidence would suffer. I think he would enter scared-mode. Where he is, he can succeed nearly all of the time which is just-right for now.

 

 

*It’s difficult in a situation like swimming where the teachers don’t know anything about Little Bear or his background so aren’t aware of the need to make reasonable adjustments. I never know whether I should try to tell them or not but, practically, it would be difficult as they are in the pool and I would need to shout!

**Whilst I have spent the whole post pointing out the problems, I shouldn’t omit to point out that Little Bear did fabulously being able to let his emotions out and putting his fears into words and telling them to me. It’s not so long ago that he would have had a meltdown or punched somebody instead. Progress comes in many forms.

 

 

 

 

Our Just-Right Challenge

Football: A Yardstick for Progress?

Back in the summer of ’15 (no, I am not re-inventing a song) Little Bear had just arrived. It was both a blessing and a curse that this momentous event had taken place during the summer holidays. It was great because it answered the question of how we were going to possibly manage meeting our youngest son a couple of hundred miles away whilst also managing the needs of our elder school-age child.

However, once we were back, the days stretched out interminably ahead of us. Grizzly and I were both on leave and there was no school or pre-school to give some much-needed structure to our days. There was just us and a very unruly seeming energetic mass of a child who at the very minimum needed to be kept out of immediate danger all the livelong day. With the benefit of hindsight I can say that he was traumatised and emotionally at sea. At the time I don’t think we quite knew what had hit us and I’m pretty sure we had barely a second to think about it.

We discovered, within the first hour of his arrival, that being inside the house with Little Bear was kind of difficult. He could not be contained in one room and wandered, nay prowled about, seemingly looking for the most dangerous or unwanted (by adults) tasks to engage in. He was everywhere: up shelves, in cupboards, under furniture. Little Bear was not in any way tuned into language so didn’t respond to any verbal means of trying to shape his behaviour. We spent the first weeks trailing after him, like a Police dog trailing a criminal, trying to anticipate what he might do next, trying to keep up with him, trying to offer distraction. We had to physically remove him from dangerous situations, which triggered his fight response and we were often bitten, scratched, hit or kicked.

It quickly became apparent that we might fair slightly better outside. Wide open spaces were good because there weren’t many things you couldn’t touch and Little Bear could be freer. Obviously the not responding to language thing was tricky, especially when you wanted him to come back. There was many an occasion when Grizzly had to sprint after him but notwithstanding that, things were easier.

You cannot actually live your life in a field though so we did have to try to make do with our small-ish back garden some of the time.

Left to his own devices, Little Bear would have spent the whole day watering the garden with the hose until a flood came and we would have needed Noah on speed-dial. We did of course allow Little Bear some hose time but it was essential we introduced some parameters if we were ever going to gain a modicum of order. As an aside, on one occasion of supervised hosing, Little Bear accidentally caught the sunlight at just the perfect angle to create a rainbow. It was one of the first times he responded to my communication to “look” and together we shared the same reference point and together marvelled at the amazing rainbow. I remember feeling more happy than you might think about that because I had actually reached him. After that we often tried to make a rainbow collaboratively and he began to see the point of me in an interaction. He also learned the word “rainbow” which was a big deal in his otherwise depleted vocabulary.

While the rainbow moment was a mini-turning point, I still did not want a flooded garden and knew that Little Bear needed help to engage with other outdoor activities too. Big Bear was 6 at this point and had recently got very into football. He was keen to be outdoors and was never far from a ball. Little Bear was also interested in the ball and generally ran straight though the middle of a kick-about with the sole purpose of nicking said ball. This was incredibly annoying from Big Bear’s point of view.

We tried to explain that Little Bear was little and didn’t understand games yet or that there were rules and he was really just trying to play. Big Bear could entertain this type of reasoning and would try to follow Little Bear’s lead. Little Bear would pick up the ball and run off, saying ‘catch me’ and looking for you to chase him. Big Bear or one of us would oblige. As he was shouting ‘catch me, catch me’ that’s what we tried to do. Only, when we did catch him, all hell would break loose. I guess because when the catching actually happened he decided he didn’t want it after all. I suppose being grabbed by people you aren’t sure if you trust yet is pretty frightening.

Little Bear would cry, we would be scratched. We would try some reasoning but Little Bear couldn’t process it. Five minutes later Little Bear would be running off with the ball shouting ‘catch me, catch me’ and the whole merry-go-round would begin again.

It was very difficult to manage or to see how to manage it a different way. All we knew was, it was a very inauspicious start to a footballing career and we probably had not just adopted the future David Beckham.

In the summer of 2016, things had developed a little. Big Bear was now getting good at football and wanted to practice properly. Little Bear had fallen totally in love with his brother and wanted to do whatever he was doing. If Big Bear was playing football, Little Bear was close by. Unfortunately he still had a penchant for ball-snatching and though Big Bear is extremely patient with him, it really did push his patience to breaking point. Most football games ended in one or the other or both in tears or storming off.

By this point Big Bear was pretty knowledgeable about the rules of the beautiful game and both he and Grizzly did their utmost to teach the basics to Little Bear. There were a few problems. One was that Little Bear could be (and still can be at times) rather oppositional so rules were like a red rag to a bull. If you told him he wasn’t allowed to pick up the ball, his first urge was to pick up the ball. Another problem is that Little Bear had very poor resilience then and the smallest knock or comment or his own perception that he had done something bad would be enough to cause him to purposefully kick the ball out of play or boot it at someone or call someone a name or hit them. Football continued to be a source of stress, distress and very little enjoyment for anyone involved.

Thankfully for Big Bear, he played football at an after-school club and he joined a club outside of school so he could get his fix somewhere. Interestingly, he had had a rough time because he didn’t like football when he was younger and it had really impacted on his ability to be accepted by the other boys. We had been reluctant about allowing him to join a club as it can be so competitive and the last thing we wanted was for his confidence to take a further knock, for example by being kept on the bench if he wasn’t perceived to be good enough.

Grizzly researched all the options and found a club with an inclusive ethos where all children get an equal go, irrespective of how good they are. Despite our reservations, it was a fantastic experience for Big Bear and did wonders for his confidence, both inside and outside of school. He continues to play for them now and apart from a recent appearance of nerves (a whole other tale, there is always something!) he loves it.

By the summer of 2017 a glimmer of football-related hope began to appear. Little Bear was beginning to tolerate the rules. He accepted they were there but was often in conflict with himself over sticking to them. He was still easily upset and something like the other team scoring a goal could be enough to cause a bit of a situation. However, the situation was generally less dramatic than before and mostly involved him stropping off to a corner of the garden for five minutes.

Alongside this, Little Bear’s language skills had now developed unrecognisably. We could start to talk about how he was feeling and what might be causing his behaviour. We could say things like “I think you are feeling a bit frustrated because the other team scored. That’s ok. Sit there for five minutes then join in again when you’re ready”. We generally didn’t make too much of a fuss and often if we ignored the outburst he would just join in again a few seconds later by himself. We always praised the good decision he had made to come back. We also tried some other techniques like bringing a squidgy stress toy outside with us and Little Bear would go and squeeze that if he was getting annoyed, rather than shouting at somebody or running off with the ball.

Football still had its moments but as the summer wore on I realised that the boys were starting to have a kick-about on their own after tea, while I did the washing up (handily positioned in front of the back window where I could keep a watchful eye). More often than not, the game would go without hitch and I would silently count my blessings when they came back in. They even started to set each other up for specific bits of play e.g. Little Bear would throw the ball so Big Bear could volley it in. Maybe football could be fun in the Bear household after all?

Not long after term started again, Little Bear began asking to join the after school football club that Big Bear attended. I had a lot of concerns. He is extremely tired after school, making listening harder than usual. We were having a very rough phase in the classroom and Little Bear was frequently in trouble for being disruptive. The guy who runs the football is lovely but not especially firm and I’d always rather suspected the children ran amok. Little Bear is not a child who should be allowed to run amok. It is not wise. It could be extremely detrimental.

Little Bear clearly wanted to go though and I had to listen. I decided this was a rare time that a sticker chart might work. I was clear with Little Bear that I couldn’t let him go to the club if he wasn’t going to listen to what he was told because that could be dangerous. The rules would be there to keep him and his friends safe. He gained stickers by doing what he was asked in school, at home and if he was with others like his grandparents. If he didn’t manage to do as he was asked, nothing happened. If he did manage to, a big fuss was made about his ability to make good decisions and he got a sticker.

By October half term the chart was full and I kept to my word and signed him up. I did speak with the football coach about Little Bear’s needs; that rules need to be clear and consistent for him and that he needs to know that the coach and I will talk and if things are not going well, the coach will tell me.

I knew I had to let him try but I was worried.

Last week, out of the blue, I received this message:

Just a quick one, I know you were unsure about signing Little Bear up for football but he has been amazing! I love coaching him, football or PE, just wanted to drop you a message to let you know. And then Big Bear is something else, great kid that doesn’t get the credit he deserves, he’s fantastic.

And my heart melted.

How lovely of the coach to take the time to send me that? I wonder if he really knows how much that means?

I couldn’t possibly have predicted, back in 2005, mid back garden flood, that my little dude would be able to overcome so many hurdles that he would be able to not just cope but flourish in a football club only 2 years later. He’s a phenomenon.

Maybe we did adopt the future David Beckham after all?!

 

And as for Big Bear, he is an extremely patient and lovely big brother and I hope that I at least give him the credit he deserves.

Football: A Yardstick for Progress?

I’m Stupid

The following comment was written in Little Bear’s take home book recently: “Little Bear keeps saying he is stupid when we’re doing English. Obviously we tell him he’s not but he’s very insistent”.

Firstly, I could hear the discomfort in Mrs C’s voice, the TA, as I read it to myself. Hearing a child say they are stupid is a very unpleasant thing to hear. Generally, as grown-ups, we’d rather they didn’t say that, about themselves or anybody else. I can hear the unwritten plea: how can I make him stop?

Well, as we have discussed on several occasions in school meetings, telling him he isn’t stupid isn’t going to work, for the simple fact that he believes he is. Let me turn to all round adoption guru, Dan Hughes, to explain this:

“When your child verbalises his shame, it is important not to reassure or argue with him – this would only make him think that you do not really know him or that you are lying to him. A more helpful response will be to express empathy and then curiosity about his sense of shame”.

I have interpreted this as needing to say, “It must be really hard to feel stupid. I wonder if it is because you are finding x, y or z a bit tricky?” I usually go on to say that I know he can do whatever it is that is being asked and that I will help him. I then put whatever measures are necessary in place to ensure that he succeeds at the task. I might make the task a bit easier or shorter, do part of it for him or just give general encouragement to have a go. I think it’s essential that he completes the task though in order to get a sense of satisfaction at the end. What better way to prove to yourself that you CAN do something, than actually doing it? (See Jigsaws for more detail on how this can work).

I have definitely explained this process to Mrs C before but I think that sometimes she doesn’t believe what I say/ doesn’t believe I know anything and, aside from my own personal insecurities that I can easily distract myself with, perhaps this is just a difficult way of working for some people. It certainly isn’t something that I would naturally have done: I have only been doing it on Dan’s advice. After trying it a few times I was fully bought in. When I get the wondering right, Little Bear often crumbles, seemingly with relief that somebody actually gets it. I don’t always get the wondering right, his little mind being as complex as it is, but on some level I think he appreciates the trying. It is certainly better than a flat “no, you’re not stupid” which, when you think about it, is more about the adult’s need to stop hearing it, rather than being of any therapeutic benefit to the child.

Funnily enough, I had a chat recently with another adopter (not in a work capacity), who said their son also frequently says he is stupid too. Their way of dealing with this uncomfortable comment has been to ban the words ‘bad’ and ‘stupid’ in their home. I know I shouldn’t judge someone else’s parenting but by banning those words from a child’s lexicon, you are effectively banning their ability to talk to you about their inner state of mind. How are they supposed to work through their shame if they are not permitted to discuss it? I suspect that just adds shame about having shame to the big pot of unwanted, hard to deal with feelings.

Obviously I don’t want my gorgeous, clever, funny Little Bear to feel stupid. Of course I don’t. But if that is how he feels, I really do need him to be able to tell me. How can I help him otherwise?

Sometimes, to help with challenging those self-beliefs, I have gone to some strange lengths.

As I’m convinced that a child needs to experience success in order to change their feelings and beliefs about themselves, the biggest challenge is often getting them to have a go at whatever the activity is in the first place. It turns out that donning an American-esque cheerleading/ army PT instructor type of vibe is pretty useful in these situations. Grizzly is very much a natural at this and I have witnessed him many a time getting a child to do something they aren’t too confident about by shouting ‘push it, push it’ or ‘come on smash it’ in his naturally loud voice. It isn’t a shouting at them kind of way, it’s more of a pumping everyone up before a match kind of way; an exuberant boosting of their self-esteem and public show of your belief in their ability to do it.

Whilst I do not have a loud voice or such an exuberant manner, I am not against stealing good ideas.

Over the last few weeks Little Bear has been avidly watching a programme on Netflix called Beast Master. It is like Ninja Warrior, only harder. As Little Bear tends to, he now thinks he is the Beast Master (see Fantasy versus Reality). At bedtime the other day, he was telling me all about his Beast Master abilities. How good he is at flips, how long he can hang for etc. We then got onto the reading part of his bedtime routine and his demeanour drastically changed. “I’m no good at reading”, he said, “I’m stupid at it”. My inner cheerleader kicked in. “Well, I’m shocked at you Beast Master. I didn’t think you would be all miserable about reading a book. I thought you would smash it like the Beast Master course”. He looked at me and I could see him wondering if that was really true, if he really could smash it. Leaving no time for doubt, I continued a la Grizzly, “come on Beast Master, smash it”.

And he smashed it. He read with more drive and determination than I have seen for a several weeks. He knew he’d smashed it too. We high-fived (am I actually turning American?!) and made a big deal out of how well he had done. It’s just one instance of succeeding at reading but I really believe that all the small instances add up and one day, he’ll really believe he can do it, because he can. The Beast Master won’t work every time, I’ll have to stay on my toes and come up with new ways of motivating and encouraging him but it’s worth it, because every success, no matter how small, is a step in the right direction. A step in the direction of leaving the “I’m stupid” feelings behind.

In order to really maximise the opportunity offered to us by Beast Master I needed to share it with school in the hope they too might be mad enough to give it a go. I did feel like a bit of a wally explaining it in the take home book and wondered what on earth they would make of our alternative methods. Thankfully, Little Bear’s teacher fully understands the need to use a child’s interests to motivate their work and bless her she totally did the Beast Master thing. Apparently, the Beast Master was in attendance at school, he smashed his reading and he completed lots of other work that hadn’t been done over previous days. He had an extremely successful day: more success, more steps forwards.

I also shared that little snippet of life with my Bears with school in order to try to change the narrative away from “no, you’re not stupid”, to something more constructive. I know Little Bear’s teacher gets it and I’m so grateful for her open attitude towards teaching him. I don’t know whether Mrs C gets it. I suspect she thinks I’m bonkers.

We still have plenty of work to do on Little Bear’s self-construct, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and every piece of genuine praise, every experience of success, every time he exceeds his own expectations of himself, takes us one step closer to the robust self-esteem we are aiming for. And if that involves us chanting “smash it, smash it” occasionally then so be it.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m Stupid

Fantasy versus Reality

Little Bear has been everywhere, man. He really has. He has been to America, Spain, the Eiffel Tower, Australia, the jungle. He has even been to Paradise. Any country you can name, he has been there.

And the things he has got up to! He’s wrestled sharks, ridden elephants, punched President Trump in the face and even witnessed the death of Princess Diana. Many people have tried to harm him along the way but he’s killed them; or punched them in the face at the very least. He’s very strong. SUPER strong. In fact, probably stronger than Batman or maybe even the Hulk. And he’s got guns. A whole arsenal of them. He’s taken out many a good man.

And he has two Fathers, but sometimes one is dead. His Father is also VERY strong. He can do ANYTHING. He has fast cars. He’s encountered a plethora of sharks, tigers and poisonous spiders himself.

Oh, and did you know Little Bear has a special car? One that can fly to heaven and bring people back from the dead! He quite often pops there and back in the day apparently. And all those songs you hear on the radio? Little Bear sang those. And all the sportsmen on the television? Little Bear.

As for that school he attends! Well, there are frequently brawls in the classroom and the teacher seems a right one for throwing the first punch. Sometimes the Head teacher joins in. Sometimes they do PE on roof. And they hardly ever feed them lunch.

Apparently.

According to Little Bear, anyway.

I wouldn’t describe it as lying, because Little Bear thinks these things are really true. I think I would describe it as a very fertile and fantastical imagination. Most of the time, Little Bear’s high tales are very entertaining and I’m sure that when he is a little more adept at writing, he will be able to conjure up some amazing stories. Perhaps he will be an author, or film-writer; he certainly has the creativity for it.

It does have its drawbacks though. It is virtually impossible to know when he’s telling the truth, especially as he seems so good at convincing himself that things that haven’t happened really have. Due to that he can get genuinely annoyed with you for saying something isn’t true (even though it very clearly is not) as he is so bought into the idea. We can’t rely on reading his responses because his own position of what he thinks happened is so skewed.

Most of the time, I don’t attempt to call him out on his stories. The only parallel I can draw (and please bear with me as it is a bit dubious) is that if somebody had confusion (Dementia) and kept forgetting things, you wouldn’t continually tell them they were wrong and draw attention to the forgetting and the repeating. You would just go along with them so as not to upset them. There would be no real benefit to either of you to insist upon correcting them.

It feels the same with Little Bear and his fantastical tales. What does it matter if he claims to have met the Queen or have been on a midnight adventure with a friendly lion? It doesn’t matter and there is no harm in it. To be honest, we mostly find him hilarious and he often takes us by surprise with a new, even wilder tale. The story-telling is part of his charm and we wouldn’t want to discourage it.

However, it is essential that, as he gets older, he does learn to know the difference between truth and lies and that he can be relied upon to tell the truth (even if he still likes some fantastical escapism). There are times therefore that I do call him out and label what he has said as a lie. This tends to be when he has said something that sounds more like an accusation or relates directly to one of us. For example, he does have a tendency to say that people have hit him when they blatantly haven’t. I could sit with him and a grandparent or Grizzly the whole time and despite me having seen everything, he might still claim that somebody present hit him. It’s not generally malicious, more that things just come out of his mouth and sometimes he can be purposefully provocative.

At these times I will call out the lie. I will say “you shouldn’t say that Little Bear, because it didn’t really happen. It is a lie.” I generally go on to explain what the possible consequences of telling the lie could be e.g. the person you are saying hit you could get into a lot of trouble with the Police. Occasionally, over recent weeks, when he has a made a wild claim and I have asked him whether it is true or not, he has sometimes admitted it is a lie, which is reassuring and shows he is starting to develop some awareness.

Obviously I have no idea if this is the right way of handling it, I’m just following my instincts (AKA making it up as I go along).

I have to admit that I have also duped him into telling me he’s lying sometimes by convincing him that our noses really do grow like Pinocchio’s when we tell an untruth. I have no idea what possessed me, it’s a very un-me thing to have done, but I’m reluctant to reveal the truth just yet as sometimes Little Bear will make a bold claim then a few seconds later say, “has my nose grown?”. Then I know I’ve got him. It’s the only time I can be certain he’s lying. It’s quite useful for situations such as ‘have you washed your hands after the toilet?’ where you really do need to know the right answer.

Don’t worry, the irony of me lying to him about his nose having grown is not lost on me in a blog about lying! I have to be a little bit wily though otherwise I would be constantly outwitted by a five year old.

We have discussed this issue with school and with PAS. Not because we are really worried about it but because school obviously experience it too – apparently Little Bear’s account of our summer holiday began with the boys enjoying the sea in their wet suits and ended with some sort of killer shark massacre.

The conclusion we have drawn is that Little Bear is in a developmental phase that would usually happen earlier. A quick bit of research suggests that typically developing 2 and 3 year olds lie frequently and spend a lot of time exploring the boundaries of fantasy/ reality. Most studies seem to suggest that around 3 is a pivotal age for being able to separate your imagination from real life.

Little Bear has such a spiky profile that it is quite possible that this is the level he is functioning at for this particular aspect of his development. We do wonder though how much this has been impacted by his language difficulties and whether he would have been able to move into this phase earlier had he have had a wider vocabulary at his fingertips. His language skills have leapt forwards again recently; perhaps this has allowed all those thoughts and ideas that have been in his brain for a long time to finally get out?

Often, when he is telling his tales, I am not worrying too much about the content but am marvelling at his fantastic turn of phrase and narrative structure. Only a Speech Therapist would say that, obviously, but nevertheless, I stand by it as a year ago, when he started school, Little Bear really struggled with those reading books without words that require you to make up one sentence to describe what is happening. And here he is, using words like ‘return’ and ‘sadly’ and ‘supposed’ and structuring a whole story that is cohesive and makes sense. It’s incredible really.

Whilst I do think this is likely to be a developmental phase, I came across something else today that really resonated. I was reading the Coventry Grid*, a resource developed by Heather Moran, to pull out the differences between the presentation of children with Autism and those with attachment difficulties. In the ‘mind-reading’ section, there is a subheading of ‘problems distinguishing between fact and fiction’. Here are the descriptors for children with attachment difficulties:

FullSizeRender (11)

 

I’m sure you can see why it resonated. Who knew that this type of presentation could be another result of a neglectful start? Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have so much to answer for I’m finding; their effects being so pernicious and wide-ranging.

It also amazes me how much there is to learn about our children and despite reading a lot and thinking about Little Bear a lot and writing about him a lot, I am still learning new things and continuing to grow in my understanding of his behaviour.

 

 

*The Coventry Grid is an excellent resource that I would highly recommend. You can find it easily on Google.

I don’t actually spend all my days reading sensible things; I was working at the time. I was interrupted by a giant anteater appearing from my computer screen though. It sipped my tea with its long snake-like tongue before engaging me in a sword fight. I won.

 

Has my nose just growed?

 

Fantasy versus Reality