A Therapeutic Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Therapeutic Week

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