Mislaying The Positives

I think everyone knows that the last few weeks have been a little trying. Between school residentials and transition, there has been plenty to get my knickers in a twist about (if you somehow missed it, see Hysterical , The Big Trip and Is Dysregulation Rocket Science? ). This isn’t unusual, I’m frequently banging on about some issue or other, more often than not relating to LB’s education. I’m aware though, that in getting caught up dealing with the myriad issues, it can be all too easy to skip over the positives. It means that things, that when you stop to think about them are actually amazing, can pass you by with barely an acknowledgement. I don’t want to skip over these things – these achievements of LB’s – because they are massive within the context of his history and should be given the credence they deserve. I’m going to share one thing, in particular, today. First, I need to tell you some facts.

I don’t like bragging. That’s a fact. I can’t bear it when people go to parents evening then write #giftedandtalented on Twitter or Facebook. Or when someone asks you if you’re concerned about your child and you say yes, and then they say how they aren’t at all worried about theirs because they are exceeding expectations in every area. I don’t like it when people brag about how expensive their house is or how much they earn or how clever they are or any of the others ways that people try to seem better than other people. Just, no.

Here’s another fact. When LB started pre-school, his development was measured to be two years behind the typical expectations for his age – so he was functioning round about the level of a two year old, when he was four. That’s a very tricky educational starting point. There were many barriers between LB and formal learning – behavioural, emotional, linguistic.

When LB started reception class, he couldn’t count. I’m not exaggerating – he literally couldn’t count to three in the correct order. This was not through a lack of trying on anyone’s part – it was mainly due to his Developmental Language Disorder (DLD See Developmental Language Disorder or DLD & Education ), as well as his tricky start. It did mean that numeracy was going to be extremely difficult. It is impossible to do sums if you don’t understand the currency you’re dealing with. It literally must have been like adding apples and pears for him.

By the end of year 1, though LB had made incredible progress in all areas, he had never quite managed to hit an expected level in any subject. It didn’t matter. We were extremely proud of him because of all the things he had achieved and really, from a starting point of 2 years behind, how could he?

Year 2 felt like a big jump. Year 2 had SATS. SATS were going to be hard for someone working below the expectations of the curriculum; someone who had only been able to count for 18 months or so. Fact. We didn’t even know if we’d let him sit the SATS – if they were going to feel too big an obstacle.

Somehow, despite all those facts, at the end of Year 2, LB managed not only to sit his SATS but to pass his Maths SATS. Not only that, but he smashed it, gaining close to a ‘greater depth’ score. He has also been deemed to be working at the overall expectations of the curriculum in numeracy, so in his report, he got his first green light. In fact, he got one for science too.

Why are you telling us this, if you don’t like bragging? I hear you whisper.

I’ll tell you why.

The ACE’s index (Adverse Childhood Experiences index) came about as a way of measuring the impact in later life of various different adversities that could befall a child. This is important because it is only fairly recently that society has begun to acknowledge that things that happen during childhood can continue to impact a person throughout their life. It is important we understand that childhood abuse, neglect or the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death, imprisonment or moving into the Care system doesn’t stop impacting a person once the event is over. It is really important these things are widely understood. The old adage that ‘the child is safe now so the past can be forgotten’ really does need eradicating and something like the ACE’s movement helps with this.

The ACE index also tells us that the more ACEs a person has experienced, the greater their risk of mental and physical health difficulties, substance abuse and unemployment. In short, the worse your start in life, the higher the likelihood of your life outcomes also being poor. A double-whammy body-blow.

ACES another one

 

It is beginning to be recognised that though this information is well-intentioned and to some extent needed, by encouraging people to count numbers of ACEs, you are really misunderstanding the way trauma works. It’s feasible that a person could score just 1 on the index, for an event that may only have occurred once, on one specific day. The index would suggest that this event would only have a minor impact on the person. However, from what we know of trauma, this is isn’t accurate. Depending on the person and their own reactions, that single event could have anything from a minimal to a profound lifelong impact upon the person. Similarly, because you have a large number of ACE’s, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will end up homeless, addicted to alcohol and drugs and suffering several health complaints, and I think there is a danger in suggesting you would.

ACES

 

For a young person, growing up with the knowledge they have a high ACE score could well make them feel hopeless about their future, and is that really what we want for our most vulnerable children? Surely the message should be that, yes, rubbish things that happen in childhood can impact upon a person and as a society we acknowledge it. We should also be offering all the extras a child could need – therapy, education, social/behavioural/emotional support – to help them in overcoming the impacts of those ACES. We should be acknowledging that children with any ACE score need more from us – more care, more love, more support. We should be flagging them up as at risk of the future harm the ACE index suggests whilst providing them with what they need to negate that risk.

I think there’s a danger in suggesting that something that happens early on will categorically lead to x or y later. These things are not set in stone. With the correct support, children who’ve had adverse starts in life can and do overcome the barriers their early lives attempted to block them with. I’m not saying it’s easy – it will undoubtedly be harder for them than for children without ACEs – but shouldn’t we try? Shouldn’t we aspire for the best we can for all children?

So, when a child comes from two years behind expectations, having experienced neglect and the severing of links with their biological family, and several moves, and despite all that catches up with expectations for children who have dealt with none of that, shouldn’t we be shouting from the roof tops? I think so.

Often, it is the most privileged who brag the most. It is hard to be impressed by the gains of those who already had a head start, but when the one who was lagging behind, who joined the race a long while after the others and kept on running despite being so far back, manages to catch up, that’s truly brag-worthy.

This is not all about catching-up though. Even if LB hadn’t have caught up, but had kept running, that would be a significant achievement too. He’s still running when it comes to literacy and he may always be, as may many of his other adoptee peers who have educational mountains to overcome, and I think it’s important we acknowledge that every next reading level, every percentile, every point on every scale, is harder won for our children with ACEs. But they’re doing it. They’re out there, surpassing expectations all the time. And I don’t want that to be lost in schools that don’t understand their behaviour or in parents having to fight or getting dragged down by the multitudinous battles they’re facing. We mustn’t mislay the positives. These positives are huge and indicative of something bigger even than ACEs. They’re about human fortitude and our ability to overcome. And a beacon of hope for what can be achieved, when we properly support our most vulnerable.

 

 

 

 

 

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Mislaying The Positives

The Right Eyes

Today, Little Bear has been seen by another psychologist. This came about because the last time we saw an Educational Psychologist, I became very irate and had to resist the strong urge to tell him he didn’t know his arse from his elbow. You may remember this ranty post which tells you all about it: Conversations

Thankfully, the Bear’s school were none too impressed either and volunteered to pay for a private psychologist to ensure a non-biased, useful report. I know that I have moaned at times, about the school, but things have come a long way. I feel a real gratitude towards them that they genuinely care, about Little Bear and us, and that they are willing to be creative and do things differently if that’s what’s required. In these times of dwindling budgets, I’m well aware that many schools wouldn’t have funded such an assessment.

It isn’t just that, but by inviting a knowledgeable stranger into the school, they were laying themselves bare to observation and potential criticism. They took that risk because they want to do the best they can for our son and they are willing to make changes to their practice if advised. There is something about us having these shared vulnerabilities and this shared desire to ensure he reaches his full potential and is as happy as he can be, that makes me a little emotional. I think (I hope) that we have reached that much longed for status of Having A Good Working Relationship. And also Mutual Respect. I hope so, because I do feel like giving them a collective hug.

So, having got the right professional across the threshold, how was it?

Other than the times someone from our post-adoption support service has come into school meetings, this was the first time that somebody with an evident knowledge of trauma and attachment has observed Little Bear and seen what I see. There is a palpable relief in that. It isn’t in my mind; I haven’t concocted his needs; I’m not exaggerating. A knowledgeable stranger has come in and is sitting at the table I have sat at many times before and is observing things and recommending things that I have previously talked about, at that very table. She’s more convincing than me because she’s a psychologist and she certainly couldn’t be accused of being a neurotic mother, but even so, it makes me feel a little vindicated.

It’s refreshing. It’s also reassuring and hopeful. It means that instead of things being okay for Little Bear, maybe there is hope of them being the best they could be. I probably haven’t aimed that high for a while – just hoping we could avoid abject failure. School are willing and keen and they like the Psychologist and she is passionate and full of useful ideas. Surely this is the most hopeful our status has been so far?

I complained in my blog about the incompetent Ed Psych, that I knew more about trauma than he did and I’m sure that’s true. (Incidentally, today’s Psychologist said almost the polar opposite of everything he said. One has to laugh). I’ve written about  Being an Expert Parent and how our children necessitate us being so. I have always been a little reluctant about it though, so when a professional appears who is undoubtedly more knowledgeable than me and more experienced than me and I can learn from them, it’s brilliant. There is a surprising relief in it, that allows me to relax a bit, so I can attend the meeting as a Mum, not some sort of parent/professional hybrid trying to do several things at once. It makes me realise how exhausting navigating such meetings can be and how much of my emotional energy is eaten up week to week, trying to make sure Little Bear has what he needs in every area of his life, unwittingly filling the gaps left by others lacking in knowledge. Perhaps I can relax a little about his education now because between the psychologist and the school, I think they’ve got this.

It also highlights how rarely I’m in a situation with a professional who is knowledgeable enough to give advice about Little Bear’s needs. This shouldn’t be the case – that a professional who is trauma-informed is a rarity. Any professional coming to advise on children with developmental trauma should be suitably trained and aware. It is wrong that we find ourselves in a situation where the only way of getting that expertise is to pay for it, especially as childhood trauma is so prevalent.

Anyhow, with the right eyes on Little Bear, what did we learn?

There are some real positives about how things are currently being done. The Psychologist commented how lovely it was that Little Bear’s teacher and his TA are both willing to be physically affectionate with him and allow him to snuggle close to them. His teacher (a man), calls him ‘mate’ a lot and gives him reassuring pats on the back or arm. In this day and age where figures of authority have to be so careful about touching children, and some establishments have become so wary that they don’t touch children at all instead keeping some kind of unnatural and cold distance, it is heartening that the Bear’s school feel able to react to him naturally and to provide him with the physical comfort/connection he needs.

There are also real positives in terms of a multi-sensory curriculum and learning being fun. Little Bear is largely happy in the classroom and his trusting relationship with both members of staff is evident to a new onlooker. These things are reassuring.

What is more concerning is that Little Bear was not observed to be regulated at any point during the morning-long observation. I’m not surprised though. We achieve periods of regulation at home but that’s because we work really hard at it and we have spent three and half years getting tuned in and figuring out what works. I can see that without a trained eye, it would be difficult to figure out the underlying causes (often linked to Interoception in my opinion). I am still very much trying to untangle Little Bear’s sensory needs and that is with Sensory Integration training under my belt and a lot of time to puzzle. I can fully understand how, without the training or the experience, school would struggle to interpret and manage these aspects of Little Bear’s needs. The good thing is that today’s visit has brought them better understanding and the report will bring many practical suggestions for ‘sensory snacks’ to hopefully improve regulation across the day. I’m excited to read the ideas and maybe steal some for home too.

Little Bear was also observed to be anxious, hyper-vigilant and attachment-seeking in the classroom. Staff were observed to be inconsistent in making Little Bear adhere to the rules and at times punished possible self-regulatory behaviour. The big take home message for school was to ask themselves, ‘what is Little Bear showing us with this behaviour?’ ‘What is he showing us he needs?’ ‘What can we do to make him more comfortable/reduce his anxiety?’ instead of saying, ‘how can we stamp out this unwanted behaviour?’

The take home messages for me were more questions to ask of myself: ‘Are we doing enough to meet Little Bear’s sensory needs?’; ‘Should I get somebody else to assess him in this area?’; ‘Do we make appropriate accommodations for his sensory needs, particularly at mealtimes?’ I do find myself saying “sit down properly” a lot more than I probably should.

We talked a lot about difficulties with executive function and employing strategies to support that, such as visual supports, timers and short sharp bursts of learning, interspersed with sensory snacks. We talked about positive feedback, a proper meet and greet, a better transition for the end of lunchtime and closer supervision if unstructured play is leading to difficulties.

One of the main reasons we initially sought psychological input was due to the upcoming need to re-apply for funding for Little Bear. Today’s Psychologist was strongly of the opinion that Little Bear’s supportive adult should not be removed from him – he needs her support to get going with tasks and frequent check-ins to help him complete them. He cannot learn without adult support currently – an opinion we also hold strongly and one of the key reasons I got so frustrated with the LA Ed Psych who thought we should be working towards independence. The fact that today’s Psychologist independently and without any vested interest, drew this opinion is a great outcome and will hopefully add significant weight to our case for funding. I would love to say I’m not worried about that but I am because there are a few wider things also happening, relating to staffing at school and some problems with our back-up plan, should the funding application be rejected. There is always something to worry about it seems, but, today, I’m going to bed hopeful that now Little Bear has been seen through the right eyes, we might be on the right track to him getting the right support.

The Right Eyes

Speak Up For Communication

With absolutely no mention of decorating downstairs toilets this week, I am back talking about the serious matter of children’s speech, language and communication needs – SLCN.

Last year, I wrote this post – Ensuring Children’s Speech and Language Needs Are Met: A Call to Action– about The Bercow10 report – a damning reflection of the state of speech and language therapy services in the UK and the enormity of unmet need. RCSLT and ICAN last week began a new campaign highlighting the changes that have been successfully brought about in the year since Bercow10 and asked for renewed efforts to speak up for SLCN.

Of the 47 recommendations made in last year’s report, 17 have already been fully actioned, which is a promising start.

You can see some of the key successes here:

Bercow10 key successes

I mentioned the petition begun by @GillianRudd at the end of last year’s blog post. Following an incredible effort, this was successful, gaining 11,622 signatures and leading to a debate in Parliament. The government have stated they are committed to meeting the needs of children with SLCN, and Teresa May herself has committed to change during Prime minister’s question time.

However, there is widespread agreement within the speech and language therapy profession that this is not enough. Budget cuts have decimated speech and language services up and down the country. Yesterday, there was an article in the Daily Mirror about children languishing on waiting lists for as long as a year before getting any sort of meaningful help (see Mirror Article). The NHS department I used to call my professional home no longer exists – its contract having been lost to a private provider – and those children I work with in independent practice talk of long waits, minimal input and quick discharge in their NHS services. I never thought I would have to end up working privately to be able to give children the quality therapy they deserve and part of me is still saddened by it, not least because private services are out of reach for so many vulnerable children who need them.

Pressure on NHS speech and language therapy departments has been growing over a number of years, with an increase in need and a decrease in funding. Clinicians are under pressure to move children through services as quickly as possible and to be inventive with the budgets they do have. The department I worked for, put a heavy emphasis on others, such as speech and language therapy assistants and teaching assistants, carrying out therapy with children. This was part of being ‘lean’ and making savings but ultimately I think it has devalued the work and knowledge of speech and language therapists and contributed to the demise of services. We also worked to an ‘episodes of care’ model, in which children were seen for a block of therapy to target a specific aim and then discharged, with the plan for them to come back again when they needed more. Although this was effective for some children – the ones whose parents or school would make sure they did come back – I’m sure it put vulnerable children with poorer support networks at increased risk. Although the service was designed for children to come in and out of, I think it gave the message to some people that nothing else could be offered and that children’s needs had resolved, where they hadn’t, and were unlikely to for their lifetime. In trying to be frugal, I suspect some services have inadvertently misrepresented the severity and long-term nature of some SLCNs as well as lessening children’s chances of getting the additional support they needed at school (funding is difficult to justify if a child isn’t actually under any external services).

As it stands, Little Bear has also been discharged from speech and language therapy. He too could be re-referred but that would require energy I’m not sure I have. I would need to prove his needs were severe enough to get through referral criteria and no doubt start back at the beginning of the initial assessment to waiting list process again, which took a year last time. He clearly does have ongoing needs – he has Developmental Language Disorder – but proving the daily impact on him would be difficult now his needs are more subtle. Like any parent of a child with SEND, I am already pretty stretched with managing behaviour, seeking funding, trying to get school to understand his needs etc. etc. I’m not sure that I should have to jump through hoop after hoop to get him the help he needs. Yet I would have to. And so too do parents of children with SLCN in all corners of our country.

For me, it has been far easier to create a speech and language therapy programme for Little Bear myself and to train his TA to carry it out myself. Clearly this is a perk that other parents cannot rely on.

The majority of clinicians want what’s best for children and many are deeply frustrated by the limits of the services in which they work. In an unprecedented move, RCSLT and ICAN wrote an open letter to government last week, asking for SLCN to be given the attention it deserves. It was countersigned by 60 organisations, ranging from Autism charities to fostering and adoption charities, who share a deep concern about the future of children with communication difficulties. You can find it here: Open Letter

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Five key areas requiring change have been identified as priorities for action and are the five areas the open letter asked the government to act upon. They are:

Joint commissioning of Services – as SLCN impacts upon children’s emotional wellbeing, education, future employability and likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system, a joined up approach to meeting need would be ideal. It is hoped that this would also help to iron out the postcode lottery which currently exists in the provision of speech and language therapy services.

Long-term support for SLCN – although support has improved in the early years, support for the 10% of older children and teenagers who will have ongoing needs continues to be poor.

Professional Development – there is a pressing need for all teachers and those working in the field of childhood mental health to be aware of SLCN and the many ways it might present. Professionals need to be able to identify SLCN and be aware of clear pathways to support.

Incentivising schools – budget cuts are impacting on education settings too. In these times of reduced funding and fewer EHCPs, it is imperative that schools are supported from the top down to identify and meet SLCN. The anniversary report asks for provision for SLCN to be considered during Ofsted inspections.

Supporting vulnerable groups – as children who have been excluded from school, those in Care, those with mental health difficulties and those who are involved with youth justice are more likely to have SLCN and are more at risk of their needs going unidentified, improvements need to be made to the support available for these groups as a priority.

This is the main area where I have tried to make an impact – providing training workshops for adopters and prospective adopters to arm them with knowledge of communication development; how to identify red flags and what to do to best support SCLN at home. Myself and another speech and language therapist adopter have also written a social communication group specifically for children with trauma backgrounds which is currently being advertised. It is good to see that work is beginning to happen with children who have experienced, or still are experiencing the Care System in other areas, and training for speech and language therapists in this previously neglected area is becoming more common too.

There are pockets of hope but in short, our work is far from done. RCSLT and ICAN are asking for our ongoing activism. We need to continue speaking up for communication and for children with speech, language and communication needs. We cannot stand by and do nothing.

If you would like to help, here are some things you can do:

  • Use the hashtags #SpeakUpForCommunication and #SpeakUpForSLCN on social media
  • Make a Vox Pop clip to pledge your commitment to speaking up for SLCN and share on social media (advice here: Vox Pop Guidance ) . I’m still pondering how I can get involved with this anonymously…
  • Visit the website here: www.bercow10yearson.com where you can download speech bubbles and get tips on other ways to join in
  • Write to your MP, or tweet them. Are they speaking up for communication? They are our representatives in Parliament – we need them to know about SLCN and Bercow10. We need them to speak up most of all.
  • Retweet and share this blog
  • Tell anyone who will listen about SLCN

Perhaps if we all shout loud enough, real change will happen.

Speak Up For Communication

Conversations

Firstly, I’m sorry, I’m in a bad mood at this moment and I rather suspect it will be evident as this blog post progresses. The reason for my mood will also transpire.

Earlier in the week, we had some workmen over to do a job for us. I didn’t know them but we got chatting, as you do. Within minutes I had learned that the man’s son had ADHD and they’d had difficulties with his schooling. Feeling an immediate kinship, I felt I wanted to tell him that I also have a son and he also has some behaviour and learning needs. I was cautious though because I distinctly remember sitting in adoption preparation groups doing a practical exercise on who you should and should not share information with about your child being adopted. Workmen were a clear ‘no’. They knew where you lived: they did not need to know that an adopted child, who may be vulnerable, lived in your house. This was in the back of my mind but I also knew that this man had walked a walk which I understood. I decided to trust he was a decent bloke and shared that I also have a son with needs.

We shared some similar anecdotes and then he asked me what diagnosis, if any, my son has. I knew this would happen and this was the bit I had considered avoiding. However, I didn’t. I explained he’d had a traumatic start in life, was now adopted and his diagnosis was Developmental Trauma. The man understood what I was talking about and it turned out he knew an adoptive family well and their son had similar needs. It also transpired that the man himself was adopted so we chatted about that too.

It was a conversation I perhaps shouldn’t have had, but it was a thoroughly positive experience.

Today, we had a meeting with an Educational Psychologist about Little Bear. This was an official conversation I had to have but ironically, this was the conversation I wished I could undo. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, this is the reason for my furious mood. As a parent of a child with additional needs, when you have a meeting about those needs with a professional who is supposedly more knowledgeable than you are, the very least you can reasonably expect is to come away feeling understood. You would also hope to come away with some useful tips or strategies. You would not expect to come out sweaty-angry because things have got a little heated.

We’ve seen the Educational Psychologist (EP) before (see Seeing the Educational Psychologist and SaLT, EP & an Assembly ) and despite me having some misgivings, it went brilliantly. The man in question was knowledgeable and trauma-informed. Unfortunately, that EP has moved on and we have a new one.

Things started okay with this fellow. He’d done an hour’s observation first thing then we had met for a consultation, with the SENCO, class teacher and Little Bear’s TA also in attendance. The main purpose of the meeting, in my mind, was to review where we were up to in terms of re-applying for funding going forwards. I am fully aware that funding is not within the jurisdiction of the EP. However, I have been in enough of these situations to know that as a professional, you are often called in to inform a funding decision. You make an independent assessment and you write a detailed report detailing a child’s needs. It wouldn’t bother me in the slightest if people wanted to discuss funding in my presence. I wouldn’t be able to say whether a child should have it or not but I would be very clear about their needs and what measures are required to meet those needs appropriately. I thought the EP would do the same.

Instead, he was so touchy about funding (even though we didn’t mention it any point) that I came away believing he had a (not very well) hidden agenda. It meant that he wouldn’t give a straight answer about what level of support he believed Little Bear to require and wouldn’t comment in any detail on his needs. He kept saying, “I have no influence on funding”. We kept saying, “We know, we aren’t asking you to comment on funding”. At one point Grizzly said, “So, are we on the same page?” (in relation to a specific point) and the EP replied, “I’m on my own page”. When we tried to establish what that page was, he wouldn’t tell us. It was most baffling.

I also felt he had little to no knowledge of trauma/attachment. It was when we started discussing independence that things started to unravel.

The key reason that Little Bear has 1:1 support now is due to his extremely poor emotional resilience and lack of self-confidence. I’ve talked about it before and I think my post Jigsaws illustrates my point most powerfully. The EP evidently thought (though he only said so cryptically) that Little Bear has too much support and does not do enough work independently. He felt independence in his learning was a priority. I disagreed with this because I feel his biggest priority is building resilience, a love of learning and the confidence to tackle new tasks when faced with them. When those things are in place, he will manage independence. I struggled to get the EP to understand this.

He kept saying that Little Bear can be given a task he knows how to do first to break him in gently to a task he’s never done before. That makes sense in theory but what he doesn’t account for is Little Bear’s alertness to new tasks and the fact that, without the nurturing support of a trusted adult by his side, Little Bear will baulk at the task and not be able to begin. The EP, in his uninformed wisdom, reckons that with practise of working independently, Little Bear will learn to complete tasks alone. He won’t if he doesn’t have the requisite skills or belief. He will disengage and learn diddlysquat.

The EP went on to patronise us all by saying that children need to experience success in order to build resilience. I KNOW. I feel as though I have said it a million times myself. However, Little Bear currently needs adult support to begin and engage with a task. He needs an adult to support him to stay on task and reach the point of completion and success. Without that support, he will not experience success. You can’t remove his safety net and expect him to get there by himself.

I pointed out that we put him in challenging positions all the time. I didn’t labour the fact that we tirelessly work to match activities to ability (see Our Just right challenge) and carefully dampen or increase our level of support to ensure his success. He said, “But do you though? Do you do it enough?” It was an open question to us and school but I would like to have seen him take Little Bear canoeing when he was still in the feral phase or take him for a skiing lesson or horse-riding or on a plane or on a skidoo or a bike or supervise him with a sharp knife or a power tool. We have done all of those things and more and I did not appreciate the inference otherwise.

Grizzly had done well keeping fairly quiet throughout this debate and I wondered if it was just me. However, the EP went on to suggest a strategy of “planned ignoring” for when Little Bear interrupts or shouts out in class. Grizzly stepped in to point out that there is an attachment reason behind this behaviour and Little Bear shouldn’t be ignored because, if anything, it would inflame the problem. He needs to know the teacher hasn’t forgotten him and is holding him in mind, even if shouting out is not an appropriate behaviour. The teacher’s approach of saying; “That’s a lovely answer. I’d love to hear it when it’s your turn/ when you have your hand up” feels much more appropriate.

Overall, I felt the strategies the EP suggested were extremely basic and I felt defensive of the school who are already working hard and employing so many more complex strategies. The suggestions he made indicated a lack of knowledge and understanding of the complex behaviours we all experience.

The final straw, which we were unable to resolve, came when he said he had made a tally of the number of times Little Bear’s TA intervened to help him during a task. Apparently it was, “considerably more often than she intervened with others”. I queried this because Mrs. C is employed with Little Bear’s funding as Little Bear’s TA. I would expect her to help him more than others because that’s her job. I couldn’t understand the point of it as a statistic. The EP seemed to suggest the number was meaningful so we asked him what his interpretation of the number was – did he mean that Mrs C steps in too frequently or that Little Bear requires a high level of support? He refused to be drawn, saying he is there to gather the information, not to comment on it. He then returned to his rhetoric of not being allowed to comment on funding.

The Head, who was working quietly in the room, but not in the meeting, said, “They aren’t trying to trick you, I think they just want an answer” to which, there was no answer.

The more I reflect on it now, the more bizarre it seems. I get the impression this EP is used to coming to meetings, asking lots of questions, writing down the answers and going away again. I don’t think he is used to informed parents who ask difficult questions of him. I’m pretty sure he went away thinking we are a royal pain in the backside but I don’t really care. It isn’t okay to provide mediocre or downright rubbish services to parents because they don’t know otherwise. Services should be excellent because these are the most vulnerable children in our society. What we do now and what support is put in place for Little Bear now is going to be crucial for his life chances in the future.

I know people are under pressure because of funding cuts and I suspect he did have an agenda along those lines but children’s needs are their needs, irrespective of funding and I’m not sorry that I will fight for Little Bear’s needs to be met. I’m sorry we crossed paths with that particular EP and I’m sorry we have to have another meeting with him in a couple of months. I suspect it would have gone considerably better if we let our workman from earlier in the week chair the meeting.

I am sure it will all work out and with a child with additional needs, a meeting or three like this are par for the course. But they shouldn’t be. It isn’t ok and our children (and us if we’re honest) deserve more.

I do want to give credit to school though and specifically to Little Bear’s teacher, who has really listened and changed his approach and referred several times to ‘doing things differently’ in the meeting. I am extremely grateful to them.

Conversations

National Adoption Week 2018

Next week is National Adoption Week – a big push from the industry to raise awareness of adoption and to encourage would-be adopters to pursue it. This year the theme is ‘the adopter’ – who makes a good adopter and, from my perspective, what support do people need to succeed as adopters?

This is the third National Adoption Week since I’ve been blogging and it’s tricky to have a fresh perspective each time (the first year I blogged every day and last year I wrote The Little Things ) so this time I’ve asked the boys for some help.

Me: What should I say to people who might want to adopt a child?

Little Bear: Do it!

Big Bear: Do it because you’ll help save lives of children. You might regret it for a bit but it gets better and better and better.

Me: Is it something everyone should do?

Little Bear: Yes, because if they’ve not got good parents, they have to send them to good parents.

Big Bear: No, because you might be too busy or dangerous people shouldn’t be allowed. Parents need to be approved as good. It depends on their environment and home. They need to respect the child’s values.

Me: Is there anybody who shouldn’t be allowed to adopt?

Little Bear: Named a lot of people we know! I think this question was too abstract.

Big Bear: They can’t judge a child on colour or how they look. You need training. It doesn’t matter about shape or size. You really just need to be able to protect a child.

I think you can tell Big Bear has been learning about values and diversity at school. Or perhaps he has a future in politics.

Me: Have you got any advice for people who adopt children?

Little Bear: You should be nice and take care of them.

Me: Was there anything we did that you didn’t like? That we should have done differently?

Little Bear: You guys were really bossy but now you’re just perfect.

I suspended the interview at this point to smother him in kisses and tell him he is perfect too.

Big Bear: You can’t give children everything they want, just what they need. Help them. Support them. Ask if there is anything wrong. Don’t be violent to your child. Take it easy to start with. Don’t talk about horrible stuff.

Little Bear: Yeah, don’t let them see scary things.

*

Between them, I think the Bears have raised some salient points. Firstly, adoption is not for everybody, they’re right about that. Adoption is life-changing. I don’t see the point of lying to people in an attempt to snare them, only for them to find out the realities when it is too late. Adoption is challenging in all regards – emotionally, practically, financially. It is rarely a fairy tale. Adoption requires you to open your lives, not just to a traumatised child, but to the wider birth family who inevitably come with them. If you think they don’t come with them or that a child can just forget their past once they’re with you, adoption is not for you. If you do not believe in attachment theory or the impact of developmental trauma on the infant brain, adoption is not for you. If you believe that a child’s needs can be resolved by love alone, adoption is probably not for you.

However, if you are prepared to educate yourself in ACEs, trauma and therapeutic parenting, and you are willing to put yourself in the shoes of your child and are prepared to try your best to look at the world from their point of view, you might find out how amazing adoption can be. Adopters need resilience, a willingness to learn, a preparedness to fight for their child if circumstances require it, an open mind and an open heart. An ability to persevere helps and so does keeping going, no matter what. If you have not yet turned away or come out in a cold sweat, maybe you could do it?

I think there are some members of the adoption industry who are unwilling to tell this truth through fear of the damage it will do to recruitment of adopters. My view is increasingly that if people are put off by a few truths, they are unlikely to be cut out for adopting. We need people to go in with their eyes open, because discovering you can’t do it or it isn’t quite what you thought it would be once you’re already in, causes irreparable damage to all parties.

I don’t mean to point fingers – to some extent there will always be unknowns. There is the unavoidable disparity between understanding something in theory and experiencing it in practise. There is the unpredictable impact of moving a child from foster care to their forever home and all the additional losses that come with that. There is the unavoidable risk of relying solely on the information that is provided to you.

Risk cannot be fully mitigated in adoption.

However, I truly believe there will always be people who are willing to take these risks; people who won’t see the risks but the possibilities. Those people, they are the ones who are needed.

Everything in life is a risk isn’t it? Conceiving and given birth is riddled with risk but we tend to err on the positive when we talk about those. Riding motorbikes is risky. Buying shares is risky. Extreme sports are risky. Debts are risky. Crossing the road is not without risk.

We decide where to put our risk; when to roll our dice. We choose which risks are the ones we want to take. Which ones feel like calculated risks and which are a risk too far. I am one of the most risk-averse people you could meet. I wouldn’t roll my dice on debt or drugs or bungee-jumping or extreme-anything. In truth I’m hyper-aware of risk, worrying far too much about terrorism, planes falling out of the sky or getting squished on the motorway. But I took the risk of adoption. I informed myself so it was a calculated risk. I embraced everything about the idea of it, risks and all, because, for me, I believed it would be worth it. I believed it would be more than its risk. And it has been. So much more.

Adoption has been life-changing for us, in every way. Big Bear has become a brother through adoption. He has grown stronger and more self-assured because of adoption. He was always going to be a kind and empathetic young man but adoption has made him even more aware of others – the ways in which they might struggle, the ways in which he has the power to change outcomes for them through his words and actions and the ways other people’s lives might differ from ours. He’s very emotionally astute for a nine year old and I think adoption has played its role in that.

For Grizzly and I there is the obvious impact: we have gained another son. A son who drives us up the wall at times, who has found buttons we didn’t even know we had and pushed them, then pushed them again. A son whom we love entirely, just as he is. A son who we are immensely proud of and who brings each one of us joy, every single day. A son who is the funniest, kindest, most determined young man you could wish for.

Adoption has completed our family. It has brought our parents another grandchild; my brother another nephew.

For me, adoption has taken my career in new directions. It has led me to writing.

And as for Little Bear himself, it’s kind of hard to quantify. I don’t want to perpetuate the myth that adopters are like superheroes, saving children from a lesser life. There are no capes or bulging thigh muscles here and we don’t wear our pants on top of our clothes too often. There is no heroism in losing your temper or the natural mess of our daily lives. But it is possible to think about Little Bear’s starting point and the ways in which being adopted have undeniably changed his trajectory. He has gone from being a three and a half year old functioning at a 16 month level to a keen, enquiring and capable 6 year old. He has gone from attending a special educational needs nursery to literacy, passing through and leaving behind the lowest group in his mainstream class. Expectations for his future have gone from zero/ worrying to certainty he will succeed in a field of his choosing.

Adoption means Little Bear aches for his birth siblings. It means he has a lot of questions and we don’t always have the answers. It means he sometimes feels different and wonders where he belongs.

Adoption has given Little Bear stability, safety, self-belief and certainty. It’s given him a forever home and a family who will fight wolves empty-handed for him, if necessary.

Adoption has been life-changing for us all.

I can’t tell you to do it and I can’t tell you not to do it. It’s your risk.

If you think you can do it, do your research. Know the type of risk you are considering; arm yourself with knowledge.

I can tell you this: you cannot do it alone. You can be a single adopter, of course, but you need your people for the days when you don’t feel well or when your little darling has driven you three times around the bend. You need an adoption agency with proper, robust, actual post-adoption support for the times when only a reassuring, experienced professional will cut it. You need to acquaint yourself with self-care; what works for you, how much and how you will know when you need it, because adoption relies fully on you being okay.

Adoption is not the right route to parenthood for everybody. But if you like your risks with a high likelihood of progress, satisfaction and pride, it could well be the route for you.

National Adoption Week 2018

Unwanted Changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unwanted Changes

Pressure to Know

Right from the start of the adoption process I have been aware of the need to get knowledgeable. I mean, adopting is a massive life-changing decision and you should certainly go into it with your eyes wide open. I think my quest for knowledge started even before the process itself. I sought out adopters with zeal and bombarded them with a gazillion questions. I googled different agencies and scoured their websites. I kept meerkat-alert for anything adoption or fostering related on TV or in magazines.

Once the process-proper began the reading came thick and fast. Our Social Worker would give us relevant articles to read or suggested You Tube clips to watch. Prep groups were fairly intense and threw up several new issues we would need to research, even though the safeguarding side of things was already familiar to me through my work in the NHS. Reading lists were given; book suggestions made.

I think at that point my focus in reading was attachment theory (Vera Fahlberg, Kim Golding) and real accounts of adoption or fostering (Sally Donovan, Casey Watson, Cathy Glass).

I suppose as we came to the end of the process and towards meeting Little Bear I probably thought I was fairly well prepared; that I at least had a good grounding in relevant theory.

Then we met Little Bear and it is quite hard to describe what happened. Knowing the theory we had gleaned so far was helpful and we probably did apply it. Well, I think we did. I don’t really know because that period is a bit of a blur to me. I suspect we used the theory in a subconscious, surviving minute to minute kind of a way. I do remember routinely ‘meeting’ with Grizzly of an evening to dissect the day’s events and to analyse why things had gone wrong, what might be behind Little Bear’s behaviour and what we might be able to do about it.

We were certainly reflecting (wracking our souls) even if we did not turn to literature for solace. I think I may have dipped into the books I already had a couple of times but they didn’t have chapters called “what to do when you don’t love your child straight away” or “when your child says ‘go away stupid’ at 3am and throws things at you” or “ways of staying calm when you are fully losing your shit” so I’m not sure they were doing what I needed them to.

I hadn’t yet discovered adoption Twitter which may well have plugged that gap for me had I have known about it. Discovering it and the world of blogging was something of a watershed moment when it did happen in January 2016 (about 5 months in). It is hard to quantify what I have learned from online adoption resources but I guess one of the crucial things has been an adoption reality check. I am now much more aware of the variation in children’s needs; the variation in support; the whole spectrum of issues faced by adopters as well as the campaigning that goes on to improve things. Prior to that watershed moment I was quite naively unaware of the struggle that many face in attempting to traverse their adoption journey.

My online life has also brought issues to my attention that I likely wouldn’t otherwise encounter or consider such as the fact that some people view adoption as a scandalous and incredibly negative act; that adoptees struggle to have their own voice; that contact with birth relatives is not black and white and cut and dried. That some adopters have exceeded their contact agreements and have met, befriended and even invited members of their child’s birth family into their homes was shockingly revelatory.

Throughout the months and years since, my thirst for knowledge has not been quenched. I continue to scan the landscape meerkat-like for any adoption-related information, stories or articles. There have been further watershed moments along the way. One was reading an article by Beacon House (The Repair of Early Trauma A “Bottom Up” Approach) which caused the penny to finally drop that Little Bear has experienced trauma. Looking back I feel pretty stupid that I didn’t know that before (more of this in a minute). I suppose that my reading about attachment only ever told me part of the story.

Discovering Beacon House altogether was brilliant and I have since read many more of their articles and infographics as well as plundering their online downloadable resources which I like to tell others about too.

Reading that article led me to other books. Controversially I had never read any Dan Hughes (though I had obviously heard of him) and now felt it was time to welcome him and Bruce Perry into my life. Although the principles of therapeutic parenting seemed fairly instinctive to me, I had somehow never actually read about them.

At some point I also attended a Nurtured Heart course and became a fully paid up member of Adoption UK, opening up their magazine to me (another great source of information).

The problem, because there is one, with all of this is that the more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know. Ignorance is pretty blissful. I still have the same desire and the same drive to be knowledgeable but the further into that quest I get, the harder it seems to achieve. The end goal of knowing everything there is to know about adoption seems to move ever further from me as I realise exactly what that entails. It initially seemed like a narrow field that I would absorb quickly but as I wade in a little further, I can see the field widening out and including all these things that I never thought it would.

I can remember being 12 and being quite sure that I knew as much as grown-ups. I was convinced I had this whole knowing about life thing sewn up. I have a sneaking feeling I continued with that level of quiet confidence throughout my teens and twenties (obviously with moments of deep angst thrown in for good measure). As I reach the latter end of my thirties I fear I was incredibly vain in my youth as it is becoming increasingly apparent that there were many things I really didn’t know or understand about life in general.

As I’m getting older, I’m clearly not getting wiser and unfortunately it feels the same way about adoption. The more I find out, the more I realise I didn’t know before. Having the watershed moments I’ve described, and others like them, can actually be pretty painful. You realise you were merrily trotting along being ignorant about certain things and that realisation can be unbearably cringe-inducing. I seem to be a bit prone to self-doubt since entering parenthood and sometimes gaining knowledge only serves to undermine my confidence in the whole thing.

Being a parent and specifically an adopter seems to invite a high degree of self-critique. Are we really doing everything we can to meet our child’s needs? Do we have all the right knowledge and information behind us?

I often look to more experienced adopters and am in awe of their expertise. I know that their savoir-faire has been borne from necessity and often being the only person who is fully-versed in their child’s needs, which is a great sadness, but it has essentially led to them becoming extremely knowledgeable.

I’m lucky in that, so far, I have always had access to professionals who understand attachment, trauma etc. and I have not had to be a lone voice, cramming knowledge in order to fight for my child. I have encountered people who know little but have always had the back-up of people who know lots.

I am also lucky that I work with some of the most knowledgeable and experienced social workers that there are (I’m not exaggerating). This is a double-edged sword that offers me a huge, unparalleled resource but, at times, another reason to doubt the depth of my own knowledge.

Whilst I can’t help doubting myself (it creeps in without my permission), the sensible bit of me tells me I mustn’t allow it to cloud my decisions and approaches. Parenting is much better carried out naturally and without a negative voice over your shoulder. Theory is essential and knowledge is power but I need to remember that whatever I do or don’t know I am walking the walk. This parenting lark is happening. It is not waiting about for me to read another book. I am doing it. I have been doing it for some time.

I know what I know. I probably need to work a bit harder to accept that what I know is not everything there is to know. I may never know that. I need to accept that as I gain in knowledge it will expose gaps in what I knew before. That is inevitable. It is probably an essence of being human and one of those things that I thought I knew about when I was 12 but actually didn’t.

Becoming an adopter has involved a steep learning curve and is most likely going to continue to for a long time yet. I shall endeavour to scale the curve, absorb the knowledge and try not to undermine myself as I go.

 

 

 

 

Pressure to Know