Transition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think Mr. New Teacher seemed a little shocked.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Transition

Our Just-Right Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

Our Just-Right Challenge