Three Years A-Bloggin’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Three Years A-Bloggin’

Being an Expert Parent

Recently, I keep having flashbacks of being a community speech and language therapist. The memories are of some very specific parents: those whom we feared a little bit. I think every caseload has them – the parents whose children you resort to drawing straws for and whom everybody avoids ringing. More often than not it would be me ending up with them on my caseload. That was a little bit because I’m a glutton for punishment, a little bit because I’m magnetised towards a challenge and quite a lot because I admired them and even then knew that I shouldn’t avoid them because in another world, I would be them. Not all of my colleagues were so keen though and there were certainly parents who gained notoriety within the department for being demanding or difficult to please.

I knew, even then, before I’d had my children and before I had become one myself, that nobody becomes an Expert Parent for the pure fun of it. Nobody sets out to rattle people’s cages and make demands and make themselves heard and fight for stuff just for kicks. People are forced into these positions by services which don’t meet the needs of their children and by having children who are different and need different things. That in itself is a tricky and unenviable position, before you find yourself pushed to the bottom of clinician’s to do lists.

I suppose I felt I owed it to these parents to shake myself off, put my big girl knickers on and bring them my A game. Yes, sometimes they were difficult. Sometimes they asked me hard questions or tried to pin me down to providing things the NHS couldn’t really justify. Sometimes I needed a little lie down after I’d seen them or an extra chocolate biscuit but generally, I didn’t regret taking on those cases. If anything, those parents made me a better therapist. They made me think harder and consider more angles and give even more than usual. I would far rather work with a keen parent, who would support care plans etc., than with an apathetic parent who didn’t really want to be there and hadn’t really bought in to the whole speech and language therapy thing.

However, I am not an angel and I’m sure there were times I went back to the office and had a little rant about what Mrs Whatever Her Name had done or said now. I know my colleagues did that too and no matter what anybody says in public, I think it’s natural that that kind of letting off of steam happens and I’m certain it does happen in clinical and educational and medical teams up and down the country.

I suspect the reason I keep thinking of these parents at the moment is because the realisation is dawning that I have become one of them and there are probably people discussing what a nightmare I am in an office nearby as we speak.

I think it hit me last week, during our horrendous meeting with the Educational Psychologist (see Conversations ). I realised that in a competition of who knows most about the needs of adopted children (well, my adopted child anyway) I could have left him for dead. It was a hands down defeat. Not that I wanted it to be a competition or to have to assert my knowledge in any way but the more defensive and wild he became with his points, the more I found myself standing my ground and refusing to accept his ignorance. I could see the fear in his eyes and him shrivelling away into his shell in front of me.

Having been on the other side of the fence, I do fully understand how it feels to receive that type of onslaught. I have been grilled in tribunals and sat in meetings where I’ve said the opposite of what people want to hear. I have stood in front of a room of experienced adopters and wondered what on earth I could possibly teach them that they didn’t already know. None of us have all the answers and it can be uncomfortable to be faced with someone more knowledgeable than ourselves, especially when we are in the position of ‘expert’.

It’s never fun to be in that situation but the crucial thing is our handling of it. I’m finding that professionals tend to fall into one of two camps when faced with an Expert Parent – those who are comfortable with admitting they don’t know things and are prepared to go away and find out, and those who grow defensive. The ones who grow defensive are no help whatsoever. I find they tend to want to discredit you and give opposing views just to save face.

Although I have to accept that as a parent I do come with quite a bit of knowledge now, I certainly don’t want to come across as conceited or combative or difficult. Most of the time, I think I conceal the majority of my knowledge and try to allow professionals we meet to do their job without interruption. Our experiences with the Speech and Language Therapy Service were reassuring in that way – I was a pain in the backside and I did complain but as soon as we had a therapist who wasn’t frightened or defensive, things went fabulously. I knew she knew her stuff and that if she didn’t, she would admit it before going away to find out, so I felt completely reassured. I didn’t need to come over all Expert Parent with her. Equally, I have rarely, if ever, shown school the full extent of my knowledge or readiness to fight.

However, our experiences with the EP last week would suggest that when faced with a professional who talks bollocks I can no longer rein myself in. I am careful not to be rude or aggressive but I did ask hard questions and I didn’t accept his answers and I did make the poor man sweat.

I couldn’t help myself. It seems there is a certain standard that I expect (as Expert Parents in the past have rightly expected of me) and I can’t tolerate a standard that isn’t good enough. There are many reasons for it – my oft spoken line ‘if I don’t stand up for my child, who will?’ Also, if I, as a professional person with a brilliant support network don’t have the balls to call out professionals who aren’t good enough, who will? As I said last week, our children deserve the best services, not the worst. I didn’t wake up in the morning thinking, ‘I know what would be fun today, lets antagonise an EP’, because no one does and in reality it isn’t an enjoyable experience. I was furious for most of the afternoon afterwards and only relaxed when the SENCO caught me at home time to say they wouldn’t accept the inappropriate standard of the EP either and would pay for a private assessment for us. I was really touched and reassured that they cared enough to do that.

The following day I had a migraine because I had become so tense during and after the meeting. There isn’t anything enjoyable about being an Expert Parent. It is a compulsion based on having a child who needs you to be one.

As much as I have purposefully armed myself with knowledge and am prepared to fight if necessary, I do worry about how I’m perceived when I unleash my inner Expert Parent. I have the same insecurities and basic desire to be liked as anybody else. I do worry that people will think I’m a knob. I worry that the teachers sit in the staffroom discussing what a pain I am and how much they hope Little Bear doesn’t end up in their class, like we used to when Expert Parents got referred for Speech and Language Therapy. I worry they see me as overly outspoken, too big for my boots or just plain annoying.

This morning I had to check some SEN paperwork for Little Bear’s teacher. I queried one part because I was worried how it would appear to a funding panel. “I knew you would,” the teacher said. He was laughing but my reputation already comes before me.

Part of me genuinely worries about how I’m perceived because having good relationships with people is important to me. I want to get on well with teachers and other professionals. I am not someone who has ever been a fan of having enemies. However, another part of me tries to listen to my husband, whose attitude is ‘who cares?’ We do what we do because we have to and because our children are our priority. If people can’t handle it, that’s their problem.

There is a certain kinship about being an Expert Parent – we understand the routes that have been taken, the difficult meetings, the dredging up of energy we don’t have to face another battle. We understand so many things about each other without even having to explain it. It’s so important we stick together. It should never be a competition about whose life is hardest – it should be a network of mutual admiration and understanding.

I have a close friend who is just making the first difficult steps into seeking a diagnosis for her son. She is encountering professionals who won’t listen to her, despite her having turned this situation over every which way in her mind for several years and her being an Occupational Therapist. She’s struggling with having her worries aired for other professionals to hear and with fearing people won’t see what she sees. It can feel very vulnerable being an Expert Parent, especially as there is so much scepticism from teachers and other professionals over whether you really do have the knowledge you’re pretty sure you have. It is unfortunately through these vulnerable moments and the judgement we face that we become even more confident as Expert Parents.

I know that we are feared up and down the land by professionals of every type because we make working days harder and take up more time. It is the system that has bred us this way; the services that have nurtured us; the unprofessional comments and decisions that have fuelled us. We don’t want to be Expert Parents any more than you want us to be. If you work hard, do your job properly and are prepared to meet children’s needs adequately, you have nothing to fear. We’re lovely, actually. But woe betide he or she who stands between us and our children’s needs being met. They will experience the full force of our Expert Parent fury, knowledge and willingness to call you out.

And the ground shalt quake.

Being an Expert Parent

Seeking the Positives

I know I promised last week that for this blog post I would write something shorter and lighter so I will endeavour to but to be honest it has been a confusing kind of day. My brain is a bit of a mangle and I’m not too sure, at this stage, how it’s going to come out.

My thoughts are around the idea that when it comes to adoptive parenting, how you feel about events really depends on how you choose to look at them. I suppose that’s true of many of life’s events but there is something specifically yin and yang about parenting a child with some behaviour challenges.

I find that in so many situations there are positives. I don’t know if my glass is half full or what, as I am very much a realist, but I do like a positive. I seek them out and collect them. The rub is that for each positive or few positives, there will be an equal and opposite negative. It’s as though when one hand gives, the other takes away.

For all the fabulous things Little Bear does, he’ll do something ridiculous and I guess it’s down to us at those moments, to decide whether we let that thing taint the good stuff or just let it go. Sometimes it’s impossible to be objective about it. Sometimes things push your buttons so much that you can’t help being irked. Sometimes you have given warnings and explained the cause and effect of an action and given ample chances and your little darling has chosen to do that thing anyway. At those points it is hard to find the positive.

At other times, I find myself dithering a bit. I find myself thinking theoretically that he shouldn’t have done x, y or z but that it hasn’t actually upset me at all and therefore should I bother making a point of it or not.

I suppose what I’m saying is that there is a lot of sifting of behaviour going on: a constant analysis of whether things have gone well or whether they haven’t, when you balance up the negatives and positives at the end of it all. This thought makes much more sense if you consider a specific event. For example, if we went to a party and Little Bear had played well with the other children and had sat for his party tea but at one point he had nicked someone’s balloon and had purposefully popped it, making them cry, is that, on balance, a successful or unsuccessful event? I could decide that the balloon popping was a big incident and therefore feel bad about the whole thing. Or, I could think that in the grand scheme of things, popping a balloon was small fry and that at parties, some incident or other is par for the course. In that scenario I can come away feeling pretty chipper and like things went as well as they should. The event is the same in both examples. The only thing that has changed is my perception of what happened.

When we became adopters (specifically of Little Bear and his particular needs), there was a natural adjustment period in which we changed our perceptions of what constituted a successful event. I suppose we made adjustments to our expectations based on his developmental level, behaviour at the time and knowledge of what he could/ could not reasonably cope with. To begin with, that was going to a place without us getting thrown out. If we achieved that and nobody ended up in A and E, it was a clear success. I think we have continued to adjust those expectations as he has developed and progressed so that now, we expect much more from him.

What’s difficult at the moment is knowing, accurately, what he really is capable of in any given situation. I think our expectations are pretty reasonable: we never demand exemplary behaviour all of the time because that’s clearly ridiculous. I think we take a lot of shenanigans in our stride. We never expect an event to go by without some sort of minor issue or three and that’s ok. We’re pretty adept at ignoring the less than perfect.

What is getting increasingly tricky are the situations when behaviour very clearly doesn’t live up to expectation; when we know Little Bear is capable of more or better. I think we are faced with a choice at these junctures: do we blame regulation/ his history/ the wind direction and allow those things to justify his behaviour? Or do we think that, actually, he is capable of more and should have tried harder? I am very much an analyser, a seeker of answers, a person who actively considers behaviour from all angles. I am very much about looking beyond behaviour, thinking about what it communicates and what may have triggered it. I do those things as a matter of course. However, I find myself occasionally wondering whether in doing so, I always find an excuse for Little Bear when, let’s be honest, all children can be little so and so’s sometimes and also that, as he grows older, he will need to take increasing responsibility for his own actions.

The reason I wonder this is because yesterday was Little Bear’s nativity. He had worked hard to learn all his lines off by heart and he delivered them perfectly. He was in all the right places at all the right times and did a sterling job. Then, as if to provide the yin to his yang, he proceeded to writhe about the front of the stage, hanging off the front and generally mucking about. He had been on the stage for approximately two minutes so even by his standards it was a remarkably short time to have got bored already. I know that he knows he shouldn’t do that. When the head teacher spoke, Little Bear was the only child who took it upon themselves to heckle him. It wasn’t cool.

I decided to speak to him about it later because there was an evening performance too. Sometimes, if there has been a problem with situational understanding or social expectations, a little chat to make things more explicit can help. I felt he was pretty clear on the behaviour expectations. However, lo and behold, in the evening performance, he pretty much repeated his antics from earlier, adding in a fracas with the other donkey and once more loudly disagreeing with the head teacher.

I couldn’t help going away feeling as though the negatives of his behaviour had outweighed the positives of line-learning and delivery. Grizzly came away feeling similarly.

As with all situations, I think we now have a choice of how to view the event. We could continue to be disappointed by his behaviour, knowing he is capable of more. We could choose to think that if only he had tried a little harder, he could have lasted the final two minutes without incident. We could consider that the other 59 children managed it, several of whom are also adoptees, as did all the children in Reception class who are two years younger than him. That line of thought could lead us to wanting to talk to him about it.

However, it’s done. No matter what we think or say, he can’t undo it. Given that, what would be the point of expressing our disappointment to him? It would only shame him.

We could choose to excuse his behaviour. We could blame it on tiredness, the anticipation of Christmas, dysregulation, the audience – a whole multitude of possible culprits. By exonerating him, would we be at risk of thinking he doesn’t have the power to control himself when he very clearly does?

Perhaps there is another way to view it. We could decide to view it from the point of view that Little Bear wouldn’t be Little Bear if there wasn’t a moment of indiscretion. We could just write the last 2 minutes off as collateral damage. We could focus on the fact that, despite having DLD, Little Bear managed to learn 52 words, arranged into 6 sentences, all off by heart and delivered it clearly and loudly. Those facts are phenomenal and fairly unbelievable given his difficulties with auditory memory, language and speech.

I don’t think it matters too much which perspective we choose to take, because none of them can change the event itself. There are no more nativities coming up that we could hope to go differently. Therefore, I think I choose the last version; the most positive. I think I seek the positives because they make everybody feel better. The negatives are difficult. The negatives draw unwanted attention to us as parents, they call into question our parenting in other people’s minds and they cause us embarrassment. It is difficult to be fighting the fight of getting school to understand your child and their behaviour then seeing them seemingly choose to clown around in front of all the parents, staff and half the school.

For one’s sanity, it is often preferable to take the positive stance.

I’m getting better at sweeping the negatives aside and letting them go. I just hope that in doing so, I’m not lowering my expectations of Little Bear unduly and I’m not finding justifications for his behaviour when I should be demanding better.

*

Anyhoo, it’s nearly Christmas and I have presents to wrap. All that remains is to say I hope you all have a calm and happy Christmas and enjoy time with your loved ones. I asked the boys if they have any Christmas messages for you. Predictably, Little Bear told a rude joke and sang a song about Uncle Billy losing his willy. Big Bear says, “Merry Christmas you filthy animals”. So, you know, good luck (I might need some) and enjoy the festivities. Lots of love from all The Bears xxx

 

Seeking the Positives

Stop. Collaborate & Listen.

No, Ice is not back with his latest invention, it’s just me, yattering on about relationships between home and school again.

Since Little Bear started school we have had our fair share of concerns (see School WorriesSchool-Parent Partnership and Dear Teacher ). We have worked hard to overcome them as best we can and around this time last year I wrote Alleviating School Worries about some of the positive practical changes that had been made.

A pattern seems to be emerging now where the first part of a new school year is hard work, stressful and leads us to the brink of crisis before we somehow manage to get school to listen and things improve considerably. The improvement part is fabulous and more of a relief than I imagine when it finally happens. The fact we have to go through the hard bit first, not so much.

We worked extremely hard on Transition this time so I don’t honestly know what else we could have done differently to avoid the tricky bit. It feels as though no matter how clear we are and how much we labour the specifics of Little Bear’s needs, the new teacher doesn’t hear us until they have experienced what we are talking about for themselves. It’s as though they need to approach him in the way they think (taking our information with a pinch of salt), using the strategies they usually use, only to find out the hard way that his behaviour will escalate. They then cynically have a go at the things we suggest, leading to a miraculous transformation. At this point, they seem to start listening a bit harder.

As you can see, I don’t have all the answers and I don’t know (yet) how to prevent this pattern. However, along the way we have learned a lot about developing the relationships we need with teachers and making change happen. I thought it might be useful to share some thoughts and ideas:

Things for teachers to think about

  • Parents of children with additional needs of any nature, but particularly adopters, are often a vocal and knowledgeable bunch. You might find we e-mail more, ask for more meetings and try to talk to you more than the average parent. I understand this is time consuming and potentially a little full-on. Please try not to run a mile or hide under your desk when you spot us coming. The best way to tame the over-involved-parent beast is to talk to us. If we see that you are listening and that you want to work with us, we will be a lot lower-maintenance.
  • (The little chat I’ve made a point of having with Mr. Teacher at the end of each week has made a huge difference to our relationship and to his understanding of Little Bear.)
  • Please don’t interpret our involvement and commitment as ‘over anxious parenting’. We think working in partnership is best and that laying the groundwork before problems arise is preferable to waiting for crisis (We’ve been there before, it isn’t fun).
  • Unfortunately, if you don’t respond to our e-mails and won’t meet with us and won’t consider other ways of doing things, we are left with no other options than to escalate our concerns to the SENCO/Head/Board of Governors/Virtual School. This isn’t meant as a threat. We don’t really want to do these things – it’s a hassle/it takes time/ it takes emotional energy we don’t always have – but we will because parenting is about being a voice for our child when they don’t have one and if we don’t fight for them, who will? We won’t be quiet and we won’t go away. It’d be so much better for all of us if we could do this the easy way: together.
  • When a child challenges you in your classroom with their behaviour, please don’t automatically assume it is due to ‘parenting’. Familiarise yourself with the child’s history; read their file, talk to other staff who know them. Is there trauma in their background? Do they have speech and language needs? Do they have attachment needs? All of these things could be the root cause of difficult behaviour.
  • If you are unsure how to support a child or your usual methods aren’t working, that’s okay. Parents are often experts in managing their children’s behaviour and we have many, many tricks up our sleeves. Ask us. We won’t think you’re crap at your job, we’ll feel valued and respected as the people who know our children best. If you are having moments of feeling out of your depth, we probably are too. Let’s work together.
  • Some of the strategies we talk about (especially for children with developmental trauma) might feel counterintuitive and opposite to the things you usually do. Please be brave and try them. Give them a good go, because once or twice isn’t enough. If you want to know more about the theory behind the strategies, we can point you to sources of information. Even if you don’t ask, there is a high likelihood we’ll be printing things off and giving them to you anyway. We’re sorry about that but getting things right for our children is kind of important to us.
  • If a child comes to your class with a visual timetable/social story/ communication aid/ calm box/worry monster/ chewy tube/ sensory diet/ other useful item, please get it out and use it. These things do not work in cupboards or drawers. If you’ve given it a good go and it doesn’t seem to be meeting its aims, talk to us about it. Maybe we could come up with a solution together.
  • Children will not learn in your classroom if they don’t feel safe and secure. This isn’t my opinion; it’s a fact. If a parent, or a child themselves, lets you know they aren’t feeling happy and comfortable in the classroom, try not to take this personally. Our children struggle to form relationships with all new people – it is not a reflection of how nice a person you are/aren’t (though I understand how it can feel like that). I understand why learning a child is unhappy in your classroom might make you feel defensive. Please see that it is not a personal attack. Also, if anyone understands how uncomfortable this feeling is, it’s us. Imagine how rejected and impotent you would feel if your child didn’t feel safe and secure at home, with your parenting. We’ve been there and felt that. We totally empathise.
  • However, it is a problem and in order to fix it, you will need to accept that the child isn’t feeling safe. Telling parents that a child is behaving in a certain way ‘for their benefit’ or ‘to get attention’ or ‘to manipulate adults’ isn’t okay or helpful. Instead, ask, ‘what could be done differently to help them feel safe?’ and be open to the suggestions that are made.
  • A child will feel safe in your classroom when they feel safe with you and in the relationship that you have. Get to know them and their individual likes/dislikes. Is there something you could bring in especially to show them? Could you give them a special job or responsibility? Could you find 5 minutes each day to spend 1:1 with them? Part of feeling safe in a relationship comes about when a child is really clear about what your boundaries are and knows what will happen if their worst behaviour spills out. Ideally they will know that you will be in charge even when they lose control; that you will be calm and that you will still like them. Often the only way they can find this out is by testing your boundaries. Expect some challenges. Don’t panic. Be firm. Consider your strategies carefully: avoid punishing dysregulation. Consider calm-down time and giving the child a break (in a physical sense of letting them use a quiet corner). Talk with them afterwards. Wonder aloud as to why they may have acted as they have. Empathise. Remember to separate behaviour from the child themselves – it is imperative we don’t shame children who already feel worthless. If in doubt, imagine you are them: consider the incident through their eyes.
  • (Little Bear’s teacher coming out of his classroom door in the morning and having a bit of ‘banter’ with Little Bear has made a huge difference to him going into the classroom. It’s a small thing but it’s completely overturned school refusal.)
  • I understand that it is difficult to cope with a child with social, emotional or mental health difficulties in your already busy classroom. You are already working hard trying to balance everyone’s needs with the demands of the curriculum, meeting targets etc. Our children needn’t be another challenge: with the right support they are pure potential. With the implementation of a few strategies and tweaks to your approach, you could be the difference in our child’s education.
  • (Now that Little Bear is back on track, he is on target for making more than a year’s progress in year 2. That’s amazing.)

Things for parents to think about

  • Be as quick to praise the good as to highlight problems. We are a vocal bunch and it’s only right that we expect a high standard of education for our children. However, let’s not be moaners or doom bringers. Let’s save our complaining for when it’s needed and be fair about it. Let’s balance our complaining with positivity: when school get something right, tell them. They need to hear the praise and affirmation as much as any of us.
  • As frustrating and upsetting as our interactions with certain teachers can be, always stay on the moral high ground. If we want to be respected as professional parents, we need to act professionally. I have sworn and cursed and badmouthed in the privacy of my own home but never anywhere else. I have been direct and I’ve shared my feelings but I have never been rude, raised my voice or been in any way offensive. If we hope to achieve good working relationships in the future (surely, always the aim?) we need to be careful not to do anything that would cause irreparable damage to those relationships. For that reason I think it’s wise to avoid venting our spleens in Whatsapp parent groups or Facebook groups or on the playground. Firstly, it’s not cool. Secondly, these things have a tendency of getting back to teachers and head teachers. Thirdly, why do anything to jeopardise the relationships we are working so hard to build?
  • (Note to self: be extremely careful when blogging!!)
  • I think the key to getting good relationships with school is communication. I’ve found that e-mail is not a great medium. Often you don’t get a reply which is pretty irking. When you write the email it is difficult to pick your words correctly so as not to leave anything open to misinterpretation. I certainly think I’ve caused defensiveness (totally unintended) with some of my attempts. I have now ditched email in favour of a face to face chat. I’m particularly partial to a playground ambush!
  • It is tempting to stop chatting when things are going ok. I think there is a danger in this that the teacher begins to associate a chat with you with a problem; further compounding their desire to avoid you. I think it’s good to keep up the chats and to be able to have really positive ones – they make everyone feel better.
  • Don’t be scared of spelling things out. I am an increasingly big fan of directness. Previously I have assumed it is obvious how I might be feeling but it seems it isn’t. I sent one email to Little Bear’s school team saying, “When you don’t ask our opinions or include us in big decisions, it makes me feel as though you don’t value our expertise as parents. This is upsetting because we believe that working together is in the best interests of LB.” This was swiftly followed by an apology from school and the penny seemed to drop about why I was ‘fussing’ again. People are busy; they probably don’t have time to stop, think or notice. It’s ok to explain how you feel.
  • Teachers are humans too. We need to remember that they don’t just have our little darling to think about but at least 20 others as well. They have ridiculous demands on them to meet this, that and the other standard and every professional who comes in asks them to do something else in addition to the myriad things they already do. I don’t think it hurts to acknowledge we are aware of this. It isn’t going to stop us asking them to put things in place for our children (they are our priority after all) or to give us their time but we can be thankful and empathetic when they do.
  • (I am genuinely grateful that Little Bear’s teacher found an hour and a half for me yesterday after being in school on Monday evening for a writing exhibition, having his class in the music afternoon yesterday and then needing to build a stage after I had gone for next week’s nativity, and I told him so. He has a home to go to too.)
  • As much as we want teachers to respect us and our knowledge of our children, we need to respect them. I’m not a teacher. I don’t know all the ins and outs of the curriculum or the different methods of teaching Maths. Ideally they bring their knowledge to the table and we bring ours – kind of like a bring and share work lunch. We aren’t aiming for us and them, we’re aiming for us.
  • I strongly believe that a consistent approach across home and school is the most effective way of supporting our children to feel safe and to reach their full potential. This is what drives me to keep politely approaching the teacher, keep repeating the same points, keep coming up with possible solutions even when I actually feel like crying or slapping somebody.
  • Remember to practise self-care. This whole managing school malarkey can be really bloody hard work. A bad drop-off can set a worrying tone to the whole day. You do need confidants who are safe to vent to (maybe people who aren’t involved with the school) and you do need to look after you. You can’t afford to run out of energy because who fights the fight then?
  • I also think it’s important to keep the Big Guns up your sleeve for when you need them. Don’t underestimate how exhausting this can be and how alone it can make you feel – like a tiny whisper standing up to the behemoth that is school. Sometimes it gets too big to do on your own. Don’t be frightened of bringing someone with you to meetings. I tend to wheel Grizzly out when I’ve had enough – he isn’t frightened of being extremely direct and sometimes that’s needed. I also know that we’ve got the post adoption support service there if we need it and we have called on them to be in meetings when things are going awry. Unfortunately, schools can be more likely to listen when the person telling them is a professional. That doesn’t make us feel good but as long as the message gets across, we need to not concern ourselves too much with how.
  • Equally, if you aren’t sure what is going on in the classroom and you have some concerns, getting another professional that you trust in there can be really effective. Many professionals (speech and language therapist/ OT/ educational psychologists) do school observations as part of their work. I know that when the speech and language therapist did an observation as part of her work with Little Bear, the feedback she was able to give me was really enlightening.
  • Ask for regular meetings and always book in the next one at the end
  • Make notes and keep your notes
  • Ideally have a home-school book for day to day information. We’ve had a few discussions about the type of information that is needed in there – “LB found it hard to sit still during the English lesson on expanded noun phrases” is a lot more useful than “good reading”.
  • Keep the faith. It is never too late to turn things around (though I totally see that in some situations the only solution is a different school or home-school. I don’t see that as giving up, but finding a workable solution)

 

I’m very sorry for another lengthy post. I promise to write something short and sweet next week 😉

Stop. Collaborate & Listen.

Control

I have to admit that I have been dithering this morning. I knew I needed to blog but it’s dark, rain is pounding the window as though the world is weeping and I feel like getting wrapped in a blanket and hibernating. Part of the problem is that I haven’t been particularly kind to myself with my choice of topic this week. I have decided to write about control and controlling behaviour but it’s quite meaty and I’ve needed to hit the books first. It is always easier to write the kind of post that just flows out of my head but sometimes a topic comes to mind because I don’t understand it enough and because I need to use the blog as an opportunity to learn a bit more. So, mind over matter, here I am, semi-researched and ready to type.

Controlling behaviour is certainly apparent in our house and it always has been, ever since Little Bear arrived. Admittedly, it isn’t as present as it used to be but there are certainly times when it is and it can be pretty tricky to manage. Initially, Little Bear sought control in every interaction. If we said ‘do this’ he said, ‘no’. If we said, ‘don’t do that’, he would say, “I certainly will.” He went further than that. If somebody sat somewhere he didn’t like, he would threaten them until they moved. If we gave him food, he wouldn’t eat it. If we didn’t want him to eat something, he’d eat it. His need for control made him contrary and oppositional in pretty much every interaction.

It can be extremely difficult, when faced with this type of behaviour, not to go head to head with it; not to threaten and shout and vie to be in control yourself. As a parent of a non-traumatised child, we were used to being in charge; to him pretty much always doing what we asked of him so this new world where a three year was attempting to rule the roost was shocking to say the least.

In order to properly explain why he was behaving like this, I’ve done a bit of reading. Bruce Perry (my favourite guru), says, “Because youth who have been through trauma often come from homes in which chaos and unpredictability appear ‘normal’ to them, they may respond with fear to what is actually a calm and safe situation. Attempting to take control of what they believe is the inevitable return of chaos, they appear to “provoke” it in order to make things feel more comfortable and predictable”. This rings true. From what we know of Little Bear’s birth family, life was chaotic. There was little or perhaps sporadic adult supervision. There were older siblings who may or may not have tried to exercise control over the younger ones but in general I suspect everyone ran wild and free. Unfortunately, this pattern continued in foster care, where Little Bear also received little supervision and seemed to spend his days entertaining himself in dangerous and risky ways.

This isn’t okay. However, for Little Bear, it was all he had known. To him, chaos and lack of supervision was normal. When he arrived here, to an environment of constant supervision (we literally didn’t take our eyes off him for the first months because we didn’t know what he might do) things must have seemed totally upside down. I suppose it might have felt smothering and claustrophobic. To him, this was chaos. This was abnormal. It must have felt very unsafe, hence his need to regain control by refusing to comply etc.

This is where things get a little tricky. Obviously, I wouldn’t want my son to feel unsafe at home. However, it isn’t healthy to allow a three year to control everything. That could only lay down the foundations for far larger problems later. As scary as this was for him, Little Bear was going to have to get used to environments where adults are in charge and where demands are made of him because otherwise school and work were going to be impossible. Hopefully, over time, he would learn a new type of safety, where grown-ups, not children, are in charge.

It is hard to pick apart how we succeeded in that because we did a lot of things that tackled a lot of different issues. Sometimes we got it right and sometimes we got it wrong. Vera Fahlberg tells us about how it should work: “The supportive approach to control issues is twofold. First, the adult demonstrates to the child that the child does not lose when he complies with reasonable demands, but instead everyone wins. Second, the adult provides as many opportunities for the child to be autonomous as is appropriate, given the child’s age.”

I think we were lucky that Little Bear could tolerate praise and in fact lapped it up. It meant that we could praise good decision making and co-operation. We were careful to praise every single tiny step of positivity. We didn’t just assume that he should put his shoes on when we asked. If he did co-operate, we made a big fuss (in a good way). If he didn’t co-operate we got pretty practised at ignoring a lot of the less positive behaviour (throwing etc.) and waiting, silently, for him to co-operate. We would always praise the part where he did do what was asked and try not to comment too much on the more negative bits that had happened first. We tried not to feed the control monster.

I can’t, hand on heart, say that we handled all situations as well as this. There certainly were times we went head to head with him and we learned the hard way that it is ineffective, as I suspect most new parents of traumatised children do. I can’t, hand on heart, say that there aren’t still occasions when I just want him to ‘do what he’s bloody asked’ and handle it less than therapeutically. We are human.

A lot of this is about relationships. As time went on and we were still there and we said sorry when we were out of order and we repaired things when it had gone awry and we talked and we wondered, Little Bear’s need for control itself gradually subsided.

Interestingly, Vera (I hope she doesn’t mind first name terms) also says, “Parents who know they can take charge whenever the situation warrants are not threatened when their children make decisions that don’t work out well. If a parent doesn’t know how to take charge when a child is out of control, the young person senses this and becomes frightened.” She goes on, “If the parent continues to be unable or unwilling to control the child in such a situation, the child’s inappropriate behaviours usually escalate.”

From the first day I met Little Bear, as well as being shocked by his behaviour (not mentioned in any paperwork, anywhere), I knew I should never show his behaviour any fear. I had met many families of children with complex needs through my work and many times seen parents so frightened of their children’s behaviour that their lives were ruled by it and it paralysed them from making changes which might ultimately help. From the onset, we reminded ourselves that Little Bear was a small child and we didn’t need to fear him. It did help us to remain calm when he was losing control. There were many times I held him and said, “I’m not going to let you hurt me” when he was lashing out. We did take control when he was losing control. We removed items he was too overstimulated to use. We stayed with him no matter what he did.

Again, I can’t pretend we always handled these situations appropriately. Tiredness, illness, hormones all impact your ability to stay calm no matter what. I know that sometimes it did feel like a battle for control and that Little Bear was trying to push and push to get a reaction because he felt out of control and he needed to check whether we were reliably in charge or not. Dealing with control issues is certainly not easy. I like to think we got it right enough of the time to make a difference.

In general, these days, I’d say we walk a line between encouraging Little Bear to co-operate (with reasonable demands) and giving him the autonomy Vera talks about. Depending on what else is going on, we make adjustments to keep us on the line. For example, if Little Bear is finding life a bit tricky, we reduce the demands we make of him. We might feed him his tea or help him get dressed so that he can manage the rest of the demands of his day.

Giving him autonomy is tricky because he may still exploit it. If we say he is in charge of a task, he would then think he was in charge of that task forever. He might also think that ‘being in charge’ of something means he can speak to people involved in a very bossy way. It can be hard to give him manageable autonomy that doesn’t lead to a spiralling need for more control. It tends to help if we give autonomy with very clear parameters. As an aside, we have always felt it important to put him in challenging situations with a high likelihood of success e.g. helping Grizzly with a job involving power tools or going canoeing or helping with cooking. They are often situations he can’t believe he’s been let into and in which he rises to the challenge. Being able to succeed in these highly supported but risky activities has many benefits, one of which is feeding his need for control safely.

We have noticed that Little Bear’s control issues come to the fore when he is anxious, frequently in the car. He makes irrational demands such as ‘take over that car’ or ‘drive into that field’ or he tries to control the songs we have on or which windows are open. I increasingly wonder whether journeys scare him and throw him back to a place where chaos ruled. I suppose that as a child, being put into a car and taken somewhere is totally beyond your control, especially if that place is a contact centre or a new home. As I write this I think there is more we could do to calm him at these points (visuals of where we are going, though we always tell him verbally, perhaps a task to be in charge of) but I have to admit this is a time we are firmly in charge and don’t tolerate his spiralling demands.

Another big challenge has been getting school – a place that is institutionally controlling – to understand and manage Little Bear’s controlling behaviour appropriately. There have definitely been times when they haven’t listened and they have tried to use a very authoritarian approach which has backfired spectacularly. Earlier this term, I noticed that Little Bear’s behaviour was spiralling at home and school. He was less co-operative and getting him to comply with any requests was becoming a battle ground again. Sometimes, when you’ve had a good period, a period of relative compliance, a change can put you on the back foot and you forget for a while that you have much better strategies up your sleeve than the ones you are reflexively using. Guilty of slipping into traditional parenting ways, I tried to step back and think. Why was Little Bear seeking control left, right and centre again? There was only one logical explanation: he felt out of control somewhere in his life. Coupled with school refusal I could only assume that place was school.

I continued to speak with school but wondered whether there was anything that could be done at home to keep us on the line I talked about. Little Bear’s bedtime routine had become difficult again, with refusal to comply with each part of the now very familiar routine. To try to reduce the demands, I tried a visual timetable. I explained to him that as he finds us asking him to do things difficult, he could be in charge of the tick list and hence the whole of getting ready for bed. In theory, it would be possible for him to do all the stages without me making any verbal demands at all (i.e. autonomously). I should really have anticipated that his need for control is such that he would have to test the parameters of the new system, rather than just using it. So far, he has tried adding more boxes, demanding things that are not on the list, rubbing out all the ticks half way through, using crosses instead, refusing to give the list back and writing on himself with the felt pen. This is a good example of him seeing what the parameters are. Rather than ditching the timetable, I am trying to be very clear about what is and is not part of the timetable process. If he can’t manage to stick within it, I guess it will show me he isn’t ready for this level of autonomy. However, I think he is. The other night, he had a wee, washed his hands, brushed his teeth, put his night things on, added a box which was ‘put clothes in the washing basket’, actioned that box and got his reading book all without me speaking. I was there though – I don’t want him to think he gets less attention for being independent – and gave lots of praise at the end.

Similarly, in the mornings, I used to give out commands, one at a time, until the routine was done. It worked for a while but then we started falling at the final hurdle. We’d get to going out the door and Little Bear would refuse to put his shoes on. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somehow Little Bear figured out (maybe with some help) that if he just did all the jobs that needed doing, one after the other, I wouldn’t need to ask him to do anything and he would get a longer period of uninterrupted I pad time (“the child does not lose when he complies with reasonable demands, instead everyone wins”). By some miracle he now does that and is fully ready, by 8:10am or so, teeth brushed, shoes on and can go on his iPad for 20 whole minutes without interruption.

At the moment, I make very few verbal demands of Little Bear at home but the expectations are the same. I’m still in charge but he has autonomy in how he meets the expectations. I suspect this could be the key to managing his need for control going forwards.

Right, sorry for that massive thought-vomit. Better out than in as they say. I’m off to ponder managing car journeys…

 

 

Control

Dear Teacher

Those of you who know me in real life or even on Twitter, will no doubt have heard me complaining on and off about Little Bear’s teacher. We got off to a pretty good start (see New Teacher ) but unfortunately things seemed to head downhill from there. Last week, I was feeling particularly exasperated and wrote the piece below. Efforts have been made on both sides since then though, to the point where I feel a bit bad posting it. However, last week it was true, so I’ve added a bit at the end to reflect what has happened since and hopefully provide some balance.

 

Dear Teacher,

I don’t think Little Bear likes it in your class. I think this because at bedtime he tells me he doesn’t want to go to school tomorrow. In the morning, he wakes me with “I’m not going to school today” and as we arrive at your door, he clings to me and says he wants to come home. I have to be honest: you leaning against the wall inside your classroom like you’re too cool to speak anyone isn’t really helping. Equally, saying “Get in, sit down” in a gruff voice is not exactly encouraging for a child who doesn’t want to come in. Perhaps if you moved yourself and crouched to Little Bear’s level (you are massive compared to him, you know) and said something fun or enticing, he would want to come in. I tried to help you the other day, I really did. “Mr. Teacher,” I said in a jovial voice, “Do you have something fun planned for today?” Unfortunately, you didn’t seem to get where I was going with this, replying, in your gruff (?grumpy) voice, “Well, I suppose we might be able to squeeze something in for 5 minutes”. I have to tell you that if I thought I was only going to have five minutes of fun in the whole day, I probably wouldn’t want to come in either.

I understand that Year 2 is serious and has SATS and blah, blah but you know, exaggerate, tell a little white lie. Pretend your Maths lesson is fun at the very least, even if you can’t summon the energy to actually make it fun.

You see, I need you to meet me in the middle. At the moment I feel as though I am the only one trying to solve the problem of Little Bear not wanting to go to school. It is me that tattoos a heart on his hand and my hand every day so that he knows I love him and he can still feel close to me when I’m not there. It is me chatting to him about his concerns and worries. It is me staying upstairs with him when he’s trying (but failing) to fall asleep at night. It is me trying to ensure I give him extra 1:1 time so he feels loved and nurtured and less worried. It is me bundling him into your classroom despite him not wanting to go there. It is me he gets cross with because I am supposed to be a trusted adult and am not supposed to make him go into situations where he feels unsafe or scared. It is me leaving drop-off every day feeling upset and worried about how his day is going to go. It is me the other parents see trying to entice my child out from behind a pillar or back from the other side of the playground because he really doesn’t want to go into your classroom. It is me causing a spectacle.

What exactly are you doing to help? I just wonder, because it kind of seems you are only leaning on the wall.

One day, it was pretty bad and I decided I had to speak with you. Do you remember that? I said, “Little Bear is really unhappy and doesn’t want to come in” and you said, “Well, we’ve been talking about this and we think he’s doing it for your benefit.” Mr. Teacher, I am not great when put on the spot. I had lots of witty and clever replies for you when I got home but at the time I was pretty stunned you had just said that to me. My first thought was, “Wow, he thinks Little Bear won’t come in due to bad parenting.” Of course, like any parent would, I then began to wonder whether that was in fact true.

As I stood ruminating on your doorstep, my child still hiding round the corner, I was struck by another thought. It was thus: I am a professional person with actually quite a bit of knowledge of trauma/communication/children and I have a very supportive husband, family and wider support network, including post-adoption support service. If you are immediately reducing me to a quivering, self-doubting wreck because my child is refusing to come in, what hope would I have were I a young mum, a single mum, a mum already on the brink of crisis? At that moment, the battle lines were drawn. I would not pipe down or accept your nonsense because if I did, what hope would there be for anyone less fortunate than myself?

Mr. Teacher, when a child is struggling in your classroom, it is not okay that your first reaction is to blame the parents. Similarly, it would not be okay for me to assume you can’t teach. I began the year assuming you were a good teacher; you should have assumed I was a good parent. Equally, when you began a sentence in a meeting with my husband with the words, “I don’t think you are going to like this, but…” perhaps that should have given you an indication that the next words were not wise and should not have been spoken. Those words were: Your son is getting very good at manipulating adults.

No, Mr. Teacher, my son has a traumatic background and is seeking a feeling of safety. Yes, he will test your boundaries, we told you that. If your boundaries are inconsistent with someone else’s boundaries, yes, he will exploit that because it makes him feel unsafe. Yes, sometimes he will get dysregulated and his behaviour will challenge you. Of everyone in the world, we know how challenging our son can be. Here’s a thought: instead of lashing out, why don’t you talk to us? I’m in the playground every single day. On the few occasions I’m not, you have both of our e-mail addresses. Talk to us about situations or behaviours. We. Can. Help. You.

When you don’t communicate, I will come and find you. When I approach you on the playground, don’t think I haven’t noticed the look of “Oh Jesus, what does this bloody woman want again?” crossing your face. Know this: you aren’t exactly approachable yourself and I don’t really want to come and have an overly polite interaction with you again either. However, I will, because I want the best for my son (and others like him) and I will not shut up until his needs are met appropriately.

I get that I’m probably pretty annoying. I don’t leave you alone. I keep sending irritating emails and copying the Head and SENDCO in and I can’t get my child into your classroom and you think it’s all my fault, I get all that. Do you know what though? Imagine that ferocity on your side. Imagine if we worked together. Think of the power we would have! I’m your greatest ally, if only you would allow it. If you would listen to me and at least acknowledge that we have a problem, we could move on. If you would work with me, I could stop involving the senior management team. This doesn’t actually have to be a battle.

If the truth be told, I’m tired. I’m already tired of sharing the same information again and again. I am tired of educating the educators. I’m tired of having to battle for my son to have his needs met at school. I don’t want a war. I want to be allies, but you need to meet me half way.

We are also busy, Mr. Teacher. Do you know how much time it takes to draft and send e-mails, getting the words just right? How long it takes to schedule meetings and re-arrange diaries to make them? We don’t want this, any more than you do.

Oh, and one last thing – when that little girl was crying this morning because she didn’t want to come into your classroom either, it was not ok for you to say, “sit down, there’s no need for tears”, like you were telling her off for crying. She’ll be the judge of that. She evidently felt like crying so there was a need for tears.

If you don’t like having children hiding behind pillars and crying in your doorway, may I suggest a change of approach? Because otherwise you’ll end up with parents crying on your doorstep and I can’t imagine you’ll enjoy that.

Sincerely,

That Mother Who Can’t Get Her Son Into School

 

Dear Teacher,

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me when I sought you out on the playground again. Thank you for not pulling the “Oh my God, it’s her again” face and for smiling at me – it really did make the chat easier.

I appreciate it is tricky for you that I am reporting one thing at home and you are seeing another thing in your classroom. I tried to be a bit braver in our chat this time. When you said, “With all due respect, he seems happy in school,” I managed to say that I understood that but that you need to understand that from my point of view, as his Mum, it is very unpleasant for me to hear him saying he doesn’t want to go to school all evening or pretending he feels sick when he should be going to sleep. It is also unpleasant when he wakes me before my alarm to tell me he doesn’t want to go to school today. That is difficult for a parent to hear. Thank you for acknowledging my viewpoint, when I said that.

I also tried to tackle the way you engage with my son on his arrival at school. I didn’t really know how to say it and I didn’t want you to feel I was attacking you. I’m glad that when I mentioned some small things that had made a difference such as having Golden Time to look forward to or when his TA asked him for help with the photocopier, you realised you might need to change what you say to him to something brighter or more encouraging.

It was helpful for me to get some insights into the issues you might be facing with him in the classroom and for me to see that you do like him and you do spend time puzzling over his behaviour. You said you appreciated me coming to speak to you, rather than e-mailing and I said I found it useful too – perhaps we could speak more often?

I think our chat helped because this week, I haven’t had to propel Little Bear over the threshold at all. I noticed you came outside of your classroom door yesterday morning which was nice. It made you much more visible and easier to speak to. It’s a lot friendlier than the leaning.

I know you felt bad calling me over at the end of school a couple of days after our chat to tell me that Little Bear had called someone a name and had been a little over-familiar with his personal boundaries. I didn’t mind you doing that at all. I would far rather you spoke with me. It meant that I could chat about personal boundaries and social rules at home (over dinner, as one does) and I could send a consistent message to Little Bear: the rules are the same at home and school. It is good for him to know that we talk and that we agree with each other. I suspect you will see improvements in his behaviour if we keep it up.

We’re taking it a day at a time but hooray for a better week so far!

Let’s speak again soon,

The Slightly Less Stressed Mum

Dear Teacher

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.

IMG_0811 (1)

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…

DLD Awareness Day 2018