New Teacher

You may have gathered, from my last few posts, that Transition has been the theme of the summer season here. See This Year, Last Year Fear of Loss if you don’t quite know what I mean.

Little Bear’s angst has been building for several months in anticipation of moving to Year 2 and getting a new teacher, reaching its zenith this week when the Big Move actually happened.

The first we knew about Little Bear’s sense of impending doom was in April-time when he announced he was scared of the Year 2 teacher. I’m going to call him Mr Jones for ease because Mr New Teacher is already feeling unwieldy. Mr. Jones seemed, from what little I knew of him, to be perfectly nice. He does, however, cut a substantial figure. I don’t mean he’s overweight but he is certainly taller than average. Grizzly is also a taller man so I wouldn’t have thought it would have been particularly noteworthy for Little Bear but evidently the broader build, deep voice and towering height were creating some level of fear for Little Bear. I suppose he must seem giant-like to a 6 year old.

We tackled this by chatting with Little Bear’s Year 1 teacher (whom I have never gifted with a pseudonym but I am feeling sufficiently guilty as to rectify that right now. She can be Mrs Potter henceforth.) Anyhow, we made the teaching staff aware and they made sure that Little Bear spent more time with Mr Jones in a non-threatening way. Mr Jones is a bit of a joker and told Little Bear that he doesn’t bite; not hard anyway. Little Bear found this pretty funny and it was one of the rare snippets of school he actually shared with me. Over time Little Bear got more used to Mr Jones until one day he announced he wasn’t scared of him anymore.

This was great but such was the state of Little Bear’s anxiety that where one fear was allayed, another immediately crept in. Now that Little Bear had allowed himself to accept he really would be going to Mr Jones’ class, the realisation hit that he would consequently be leaving Mrs Potter behind.

As for any child who has experienced severed relationships and developmental trauma, the loss of another key person is very triggering – it drags up the emotions of previous losses, wobbles the present and makes you question the certainty of the future.

I don’t think I’m over stating the situation when I say that Little Bear loves Mrs Potter. She has played a big role in his life so far. She visited him in pre-school and was a key person in his transition from pre-school to Reception class. She set him on course for his whole formal education. She has been responsible for him learning to read, write, do Maths. She has stayed with him for two full school years and in that time has been a safe, trusted adult who has stuck with him through some pretty testing times and challenging behaviour. Little Bear adores her and Mrs Potter makes it clear to him that the feeling is mutual. No matter what.

It was completely understandable that Little Bear would be bereft to leave her. To be quite honest, I was also a little bereft. It’s no secret that navigating the education system as the parent of an adoptee is tricky. It can be extremely difficult to get the system to understand your child rather than wanting to constantly change them. As a parent of a child with additional needs, it can be hard to get your voice heard and to be recognised as an expert in your child and seen as a valuable member of the team. At times in Little Bear’s education so far, I have struggled with all of these things. I have also had moments of utter panic at the level of Little Bear’s delay and how on earth he will ever manage to catch up (see LINK). Throughout these challenges, Mrs Potter has always been there. We have somehow managed to develop a really honest and mutually respectful relationship, something which I know is difficult to achieve. I also felt the fear of leaving that safety behind and taking a large leap into the unknown. I felt the fear of having to work really hard to create that relationship again, with another teacher, as well as instilling in them the same level of understanding of Little Bear as Mrs Potter now has.

This transition was a Big deal for all of us.

We tried to allay Little Bear’s fears by reassuring him that Mrs Potter was not disappearing from his life. She would just be next door, in her classroom. He could go to see her whenever he needed to. We (Mrs Potter was very involved in this) reassured him that she would not forget him and that she would still love him, even when he was in Mr Jones’ class. Little Bear and I made a present for Mrs Potter. I made a big deal of how she would think about him every time she looked at it and Little Bear really did pour his love and a few of his other feelings into the picture.

Little Bear started to feel better about moving on from Mrs Potters’ class but such was the state of his anxiety that where that fear was allayed, another crept in.

When we were getting organised with teacher gifts, I made sure to get one for Mrs C, Little Bear’s TA. Although she was going with Little Bear to Year 2, I wanted to thank her for everything she had done for him so far. Of all the teachers in Little Bear’s life, Mrs C has been on the biggest journey. I feel okay to say now that when they first met it was something of a personality clash. It was a disaster and I genuinely believed the wrong appointment had been made. I suspect Mrs C was pretty confident in thinking she’d easily sort Little Bear out with a bit of firm discipline. However, it was more like a head to head stand off and the harder she went in, the more he resisted and the more creative he became in testing her boundaries. I’m pretty sure he gave her the full works, including a few kicks and scratches and caused her to go home in despair on a daily basis, wondering why on earth she had taken the job.

However, I have to credit Mrs C with a very important trait: she has been willing to listen and to try something different. She was prepared to persevere and she stuck with Little Bear where others would certainly have thrown in the towel. She changed her approach, she read what we gave her, she listened and she has now become another trusted and consistent adult in Little Bear’s life, who understands him and is able to effectively support his learning. I would now be absolutely gutted if she left and feel as though she is the crutch that will bear the weight of this transition for Little Bear.

As such, I felt it was important I expressed my thanks. When I mentioned I had got her a gift, a flash of panic darkened Little Bear’s face. “Mrs C is going with me to Year 2 isn’t she?” he asked, evidently fearful she wasn’t. Yes, we reassured, she is. However, over the course of a few days, Little Bear made more comments indicating he thought she wasn’t really. I suppose it is hard to fully trust even your trusted adults when you have been so let down before.

On the last day of year 1, I didn’t really know how Little Bear would be but taking his gifts in seemed to be a handy distraction. Mrs Potter cried over him several times and both she and Mrs C gave him a cuddle in exchange for their gift. Little Bear was absolutely made up that they loved their gifts and evidently Mrs Potter let him believe that his gift was her favourite.

Surprisingly, the day ended much more positively than I had anticipated and much more positively than the end of Reception class which had involved a lot of throwing and screaming. I couldn’t even see Little Bear when I went to pick him up and it turned out he was so nonchalant about the whole thing he was busy sharpening his new pencil instead of being upset. Mrs Potter had bought each child a notepad, pen and pencil and Little Bear was so delighted that he came home and immediately started writing?!

Then, that Friday night, at 5pm, Mrs Potter and Mr Jones both came to visit Little Bear at home. This was absolutely above and beyond the call of duty and not something they usually do. However, because they understood Little Bear’s anxieties and are prepared to do things differently to help him, they wanted to. Little Bear loved the visit and I really feel it assuaged his worries. We had the calmest weekend we’d had in several weeks. It felt particularly poignant because it reminded me of when the foster carers came here to visibly give Little Bear their permission to be happy with us. I felt Mrs Potter was visibly saying “Mr Jones is taking over now and he’s a safe person too. I am ok with you being happy in his class” and that was so much more powerful happening in our home.

The preparation had gone as well as possible but we were in no way complacent. We had no idea what Monday morning would bring.

It actually brought a very happy Little Bear who was excited to be in Year 2. He skipped straight in without a backward glance.

My anxieties rose a little after school because Little Bear did his usual trick of not telling us anything that had happened/ telling us a clearly fictitious version. Later in the week I made sure to have a quick catch-up chat with Mr Jones – both to set the expectation that we need to be in regular touch and also to put our minds at rest.

Obviously I am far from having the relationship with him (yet) that I had with Mrs Potter but the chat felt positive. Mr Jones doesn’t feel Little Bear is testing him which is a good indicator that Little Bear feels safe and settled. Mr Jones has been laying out his boundaries but has not removed Little Bear from class or used any cards. He told me that Little Bear had not engaged well with a particular task but he had evidently gone away and pondered why that might have been and then asked Mrs C’s thoughts, knowing she has more expertise when it comes to Little Bear. I feel these are good signs of willingness to listen and look beyond behaviour and hopefully bode well…

I don’t want to count my chickens (especially after our recent fox-induced henmageddon) but at the moment it looks as though the anticipation of the transition was the biggest problem for Little Bear and that the measures everybody put in place to support him helped a lot. I have been really touched by the level of support we have recently received from school – it has come from a place of genuine care. As well as thanking the individual teachers, I have now e-mailed the Head Teacher to make sure he knows how hard members of his staff have worked and what a difference their commitment and support has made to us. I would be quick to speak up if the right support wasn’t in place for Little Bear so I feel it’s imperative that I am also willing to speak up when things are done well.

I am under no illusion that year 2 will be plain-sailing. Mr Jones has already discussed his aim of taking Little Bear from working towards Year 1 levels to achieving expected levels for year 2 in a year’s time. This is no mean feat and I don’t honestly know if it’s achievable. We also have the spectre of SATS on the horizon and a school residential. But for now, on the wind-down to the summer holidays, I am grateful for having got this far. The new teacher, myself and of course Little Bear are all taking our first tentative steps into this new situation. I just hope that we find a way to walk together.

 

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New Teacher

This Year, Last Year

One of the many benefits of blogging for me is that it keeps a record of how things have been for us at different points in the year. Now that I am in my third year (how did that happen?) there is quite a lot to look back on and patterns are starting to emerge. This time last year I wrote Sometimes it’s hard and you can tell from the title alone that we were having a tricky patch. This year we are also having a tricky patch. It is particularly noticeable because the first chunk of 2018 has probably been the calmest and most settled time we’ve had yet as a family of four and the contrast with Little Bear’s current behaviour is pretty stark. It is obvious from the timings and recurrence that Transition is the culprit.

Having a record of last year has allowed me to consider what has changed, both in terms of Little Bear himself and also our ability to cope with the tricky patch.

Last year I got called to speak with the Judo teacher because Little Bear had punched somebody. This year, he wanted to do the course again and I signed him up. The first two sessions were fine but on the third session, when Little Bear’s transition wobble was going full-throttle, he didn’t go. I was in the playground to pick up his brother and instead of staying in school to go to Judo Little Bear came out to me. I reminded him it was judo but his little lip started to wobble and he said he didn’t want to go. He couldn’t tell me why so I went over to ask his teacher how his day had been. His PE teacher told me that Little Bear had been fine all afternoon but somebody had just said something to him in circle time that had upset him and it was as though he couldn’t handle any more and had just exploded. Ah. I was faced with the choice of making him go because we’d paid for it and when you make commitments, you have to stick to them and all that or just taking him home.

I just took him home. He couldn’t tell me in so many words but I felt as though he was trying to communicate that he just couldn’t cope with Judo that day. Perhaps if I had have sent him, he might have punched somebody again. Although he still isn’t able to say as much, this year he was self-aware enough to get himself out of the situation and I’m more tuned into what he can/cannot cope with.

Last year, the village fete was blooming hard work. Little Bear disappeared from view several times and I ended up having to make him hold my hand the whole time, despite him thinking it was a terrible idea. We had to leave early and I didn’t enjoy the experience one bit.

This year, instead of labouring under the false hope that I might have fun at the fete, I resigned myself to the fact that it was going to have its challenges. I spent the day before the fete on my own, doing what I fancied, ensuring my resilience bucket was as full as it could be. Consequently I approached the day with a different mind-set. When the challenges inevitably came, I was prepared for them and ready to react therapeutically. Little Bear coped pretty well this time; so long as I followed his lead and let him choose which activities we did. It was fun watching him in the teacups and smashing crockery. There were flashpoints. He told me he hated me several times and didn’t really follow any instructions but I knew going into it that he wasn’t in a good place emotionally and also that the event itself was on the challenging end of things for him so instead of getting exasperated with him, I was mostly able to lower the demands and empathise with the tricky bits.

Last year, when I received Little Bear’s report, I was a bit upset about it (see Reports). It wasn’t the fact he hadn’t met expectations that bothered me but that the way it was communicated felt negative. I was disappointed at the time that Little Bear’s amazing progress wasn’t really reflected by his report. This year, I had learned from last and anticipated the report being a bit of a damp squib. Little Bear still has a row of red lights but I feel very differently.

I suspect that last year I was at a bit of a low ebb. The fact that we were in a tricky patch was getting on top of me and I wasn’t as tuned into self-care and how to make it work for me as I am now. This year I have been able to mentally set aside the negative reporting and listen to the words coming out of his teacher’s mouth. Little Bear has continued to do amazingly, especially considering the School Worries we had earlier in the year. His teacher tells me he is agonisingly close to expected levels now. He was just 4 marks away from passing the Year 1 phonics screen and it is mainly the fact he struggles to work independently that prevents her saying he is at the expected levels. He can meet many of the requirements if he has a trusted adult by his side to provide reassurance and focus. Genuinely, I’m not bothered by the levels. The fact that we are talking about him nearing them and having moved out of the lower group he was working in because he has overtaken those children is frankly incredible. To go from being over 2 and half years behind in everything on starting pre-school to almost catching up at the end of year 1 is truly remarkable and there is absolutely nothing about that to be sad about.

Last year I ended up taking both boys to the drop-in parents evening to discuss reports. I vowed at the time never to do that again, due to Little Bear’s rather out of control behaviour at it and I haven’t. This year I ensured I had help with the boys and went on my own. Last year I had somehow felt blamed for Little Bear’s behaviour and went away feeling quite misunderstood as a parent (who was trying her best and working her socks off yet nobody seemed to think so). This year, when I stood talking with Little Bear’s teacher about all he has achieved I felt very different. Somehow, despite a fair few challenges, meetings and not always seeing eye to eye, his teacher and I have managed to develop a really solid and friendly working relationship. I have a lot of respect for her and the fact she has got to know Little Bear so well and is so tuned in to helping him. She has been willing to listen to us and include us as part of the team and that has been crucial in making me feel better. I know that she values our input as parents and respects our knowledge/approaches, both through including us as she has and directly through the things she says. It has been lovely to get that affirmation (the feeling is mutual) though it makes me a little anxious to leave her. I can only hope that the next teacher will continue where she has left off.

As we navigate this tricky period, I can still see Little Bear’s progress, despite the regression we are currently in. The behaviour is as challenging and my therapeutic parenting skills as challenged but there is certainly more insight on all sides. We have been able to identify that this is a tricky phase quickly and have known what to do to ease it, even if that means more TV dinners, compromising on routines and shutting our ears to name calling. Little Bear has been able to point us in the right direction some of the time and talk a little about his fears with moving on. Slowly, slowly.

Writing this I do think the biggest change over the past 12 months is our ability to handle the tricky bits – to make space in our lives and brains to accommodate them and to care for ourselves well enough so that we can ride them out with patience and care. Having had a good spell and now not such a good spell, I look back to the times that were just one massive tricky spell with no let up and I wonder how on earth we managed it. It’s no wonder I lost my temper now and again.

These days I reward myself for staying calm – a TV programme I like here, five minutes sitting in the sun there, a spot of comfort-shopping here. It really helps. It also helps to know it is just a phase and hopefully, soon enough, the gorgeous little dude will be back to his usual self.

This Year, Last Year

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.

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