Reflections on Adoption 4 Years In

Every year since LB came home, I have written a reflective blog post to mark the anniversary of his arrival in our lives:

Reflections on Adoption One Year In

Reflections on Adoption 2 Years In

Reflections on Adoption Three Years In

It’s time for this year’s so I have just looked back at the previous three. In year 1, I reckon I played down the true horror of our experience. I probably wasn’t that comfortable sharing on social media yet and still very conscious of what others might have thought.

In year 2, I was analytical. It’s clear I had already come on quite a journey in terms of my knowledge of attachment, trauma, ACE’s etc., how it all fitted together and what it meant for LB. I was well into my constant quest to fathom his behaviour.

I don’t know what happened to me in year 3. I’ve just read it back and sneered to myself – and not in a good way. It’s lovely that I was so positive and all glowing about how ‘normal’ our life was but had I lost touch with reality?

I do think year 3 was a good year for us. I do remember struggling for blog-fodder because everything was ticking along and being quite unremarkable. Ha. What a fool. I should never have tempted fate with my glib positivity because in contrast, year 4 has been significantly more difficult. Last year, I seemed to have lulled myself into a weird false sense of security that we were following an upward trajectory and the only way to go was further up.

That was not the case. It’s not that things have been awful – they haven’t – but they’ve been hard enough that I know without a shadow of a doubt that our ‘normal’ is not normal.

I suppose in our third year as a family, LB was settled in his second year with his very favourite, gentle-natured teacher. Once he had formed bonds with his TA, there were no significant upheavals for him. Our fourth year has seen him have a difficult transition into year 2 and we’ve had the most trying time yet attempting to get his teacher on-board. Though we did eventually achieve significant progress and breakthroughs, it felt as though the entirety of the academic year was punctuated by mini-crises, every few weeks or so. This was exhausting, stressful and highly frustrating. I think I came the nearest I have come to having some type of school-based meltdown.

It follows that a tricky school year would equate to a tricky behaviour year and boy, have we known about that. I think the most concerning thing is that behaviours we hoped were long gone, such as Childhood Challenging, Violent & Aggressive Behaviour (CCVAB)  have returned. I don’t know if I would say they are worse than before but the experience now that LB is 7, instead of 3 or 4, certainly feels different. Thankfully he still can’t really hurt me but where I used to dither over whether his lashing out really could be classed as CCVAB when he was smaller, I know it would be now. He’s bigger, he tries to be intimidating and we have to work hard to de-escalate situations at times. Thankfully, CCVAB is not our everyday experience but it has become more frequent of late, making us feel as though we are regressing and as though we are re-living that challenging first year when we should be forging forwards with confidence into our fifth.

We are finding this an emotionally challenging parenting situation – one that is almost impossible to navigate without anxiety taking hold. How is it possible to be back here? If we are back here and we stay here, what on earth does the future hold?

Over recent weeks and months we have worked harder than perhaps ever to maintain equilibrium in our little family. Grizzly and I have had many despairing chats. We know our world has got smaller – we have said ‘no’ to more things because we know LB won’t cope, or, sometimes, that there is a high likelihood that LB will kick off which will make a situation a nightmare and we won’t cope. We are acutely aware that there are times when four people are ruled by one person and he’s the smallest.

I think one of our strengths as a couple has always been our ability to keep on keeping on – to brush off incidents quickly, to move on, to not let them mar our days or hang over into our tomorrows. Grizzly, in particular, has never stopped doing things because of fearing what LB might do – he’d pretty much do anything with him and if an incident occurred he’d deal with it. I’m naturally less like that but once that first year was over, I have never gone to bed worried about the next day. I might pick and choose activities carefully but I’d never overly concern myself with what LB might do somewhere or how I might cope with it. I suppose we have, in the main part, been pretty confident in our ability to parent him.

That sort of sounds like a happy accident but I think it has been a lot more actively cultivated than that – it has been born out of us being well-read and researched, having a clear priority list (think NVR baskets though we had actually not heard of them when we started doing it) and purposefully using a highly joined up approach. We have actively refused to fear the more challenging aspects of LB’s behaviour from the outset and always made sure we’ve had plenty of tools in our parenting toolbox. We have had a clear vision of how to handle things so it has almost been like we’ve had a set of pre-planned instructions we could just follow in any given scenario.

I have to be honest and say that confidence has taken a knock in both of us of late. I think it’s because of the aggression and LB’s increased size and his increased ability to cook up a major scene. I think it’s because we have found ourselves in parenting situations that have been, frankly, pretty scary and in which we’ve had no Scooby of what to do. I mean what exactly are you supposed to do when your 7 year old spits on you in public or threatens to punch you if don’t do x or y and then does punch you when you stand firm? Even when you read a book about Non-Violent Resistance you don’t really get an answer.

This last year has seen us have to re-think our strategies and employ different approaches. I think when children are smaller, it is an accepted part of parenting that occasionally your child might have a meltdown or refuse to leave somewhere and you can simply bundle them up like a sack of spuds and transport them out of there. Although we still see that type of behaviour, that response is no longer appropriate now that LB is large and extra-specially fighty. Verbal ways of managing such situations are tricky when your child is hyper-aroused and anything that comes out of your mouth will be seen by them as provocation. We have had to further hone our skills of staying calm, literally in the face of flailing fist and attempts to damage things. I very rarely raise my voice because there is now a clear correlation between that and escalation. Where once we would have stayed with LB no matter what he was doing (for the relationship and so as to show the behaviour no fear), we now sometimes find ourselves in situations where he appears purposefully provocative and ignoring or walking away are far more effective (and safer) strategies. One day, he seemed intent on damaging the house but when he realised no one was even there to see, he got bored and switched on the TV. Had we have followed him around, trying to coach him out of it, or even worse, used a traditional telling-off method, I know someone would have been hit or kicked. It was far wiser to make ourselves scarce.

I’m finding that a chameleon-like parenting ability is required so we can alter our approaches to match the ever-changing circumstances we find ourselves in. I have also reflected a lot on this, as I’m sure you have come to expect, and a controversial part of me is whispering that since we’ve upped our therapeutic approach to parenting, LB has potentially started to view us as weaker and easier to dominate. I’m a huge believer in the power of relationships and I’m sure that is the way to lasting change but I need him to get the message that threatening people is not the way to get what you want. And that violence is never ok. Though we will of course be persevering with all things therapeutic, I am increasingly of the point of view that LB also needs logical consequences to really underline serious messages.

Anyway, since we’ve agreed on this plan, I feel stronger in my interactions with LB. This sort of parenting certainly requires a plan, in a way which ordinary parenting doesn’t. Once you have a plan, you are much less likely to find yourself off balance, flailing for a solution in a challenging situation. You still find yourself in that situation but you have half a clue how to handle it.

This sort of out of the ordinary parenting (I prefer this term to ‘extraordinary’ because that sounds like we’re fabulous at this and as you can see, we’re just feeling our way through the swamp) requires an incredible amount of strength – to get up again; to do it again; to go there again; to get in the line of fire again; to do it cheerfully; to not let that incident haunt the next minute, next hour, next day; to not be quaked by it; to love unconditionally. Unconditionally: despite it all; including it all.

Sometimes I don’t know how we’ve got this far. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it really isn’t.

I suspect this is another trough in the typical peak and trough pattern of life with a trauma-experienced child. I talked last year about higher peaks and shallower troughs. Year 4 has involved many more oscillations and a more frequent swinging from peak to trough. Some troughs have been pretty deep but we haven’t languished in them for long. The weeks, and even months of relative calm I talked about last year have all but vanished. I don’t think we’ve managed more than a calm (ish) week or two before something has happened. And it has been harder than ever to pinpoint triggers. There have been some obvious things like a school residential, specific incidents in school, moments of poorly thought-through parenting etc. but at other times it has felt like a general malaise. LB certainly continues to struggle with his Interoception skills and feeling under the weather is generally expressed through increased fightiness only – he still doesn’t know he’s ill and we often don’t until several days later when someone else catches it. He has grown a lot too – I don’t know whether that could impact.

There is always a trigger. I know that. It is tricky when you are a person who over-thinks a lot yet you still can’t figure out what it is. I feel quite sure that LB rarely knows what’s behind his own behaviour at the moment – not in a way he can express in words anyway.

In the process of writing this, I’ve thought and re-thought and scrolled back through my Twitter feed looking for clues. I think I can trace the latest regression back to the blasted school residential. It wasn’t even two months ago yet LB has had three different bugs since then and just hasn’t been himself. As I say, at times it has been like stepping back three years. I wonder whether it has essentially re-traumatised him, re-awakening all those feelings he felt when he was uprooted and brought here. I think he had a taste of the wild abandon he used to experience in foster care (due to being in a large dormitory full of boys without constant supervision) and that has re-awoken his need to be in charge of his own survival. Certainly we have been able to soothe him by staying around the house, with a high level of nurture – the kind of thing we would have done when he first arrived – but as soon as we try to spread our wings a little, we are rapidly back to a tricky place. My conclusion, now I have some possible insight, is that he needs more of his world being kept small and the close nurture and the bonding. I don’t think there’s going to be much excitement for the remainder of the holidays. I hope it’s going to be enough because LB in school, trying to learn, when he’s in this survival state isn’t going to be pretty.

*

I’m sorry that I have been more negative than usual this year. I have always been mindful of frightening people but the further into this we get the more important it feels to tell the truth. In some ways it has got harder to do that – this year has also seen a rise in people questioning the very concept of modern adoption. There are many who see deep flaws in the current system – who view the permanent separation of children from their birth families as morally corrupt; who see all adopters as wrong-doers. There is a very strange juxtaposition between having an awareness of that and living this. I suspect a hard year has felt harder within a hostile climate.

All of that said there have of course been positives. Yesterday was lovely and it has never been more important to stop and acknowledge and enjoy these moments.

I am hopeful of a better school year. I was wondering aloud the other day whether the next teacher would heed any of the plans we made in our transition meetings when lo and behold we arrived home yesterday to a package she had hand-dropped off with a post card for both boys and a book for LB and an offer to meet in the holidays if it would help him. I’m so grateful and feel she understands things on an instinctive level Mr. Previous Teacher, though he was lovely in the end, just didn’t have.

Despite our wobbles, we remain positive and resolute. I remain optimistic. Here’s to some of that mystical normality I once knew making a re-appearance in year 5.

Reflections on Adoption 4 Years In

Is Dysregulation Rocket Science?

This is the question that has been playing on my mind this week. I’m pretty sure that dysregulation is not rocket science, but I do know that, as a concept, it seems exceptionally difficult for others to get their head around. For me, the fact that people can’t understand dysregulation is a much more difficult conundrum than dysregulation itself. How could it possibly be so difficult to understand? But it seems it is.

So I suppose a good starting point is what I take ‘dysregulation’ to mean. For me, it is about emotional and behavioural balance. When things get out of balance – because we are worried, upset, scared, angry – we are dysregulated. Most of us are able to regulate ourselves to stay within balance but children who have experienced trauma, such as LB, are not always able to do so. LB struggles to recognise that he is out of balance – physically (see Interoception ) or emotionally – and therefore can’t even begin to bring himself back into balance again. He has to rely upon tuned-in adults, who are adept at reading the outward signs of his inner turmoil, to help him find ways of getting calmer. That might mean them giving him a change of activity, using a sensory strategy or his calm box, encouraging him to rest, giving him food, encouraging him to go to the toilet or perhaps, generally reducing the demands made of him for a period of time. At home, that might mean allowing him to have a tele-tea, helping him with everyday tasks such as dressing (even though we know he’s capable of doing them), staying at home/ not taking him to places that require lots of listening or co-operating, skipping tricky tasks like reading.

Dysregulation can be hard to manage, so often it is the environment which needs to accommodate the child who is struggling, rather than expecting them to be able to make better decisions. Part of understanding what dysregulation is, is seeing that a child cannot manage more at the present time and therefore, as grown-ups, it is us who need to do something different. If a child cannot cope with formal learning today, perhaps we could allow a sensory or play-based approach to learning instead. If a child cannot manage to sit still today, perhaps we could do their lessons outside. If a child cannot cope with assembly, perhaps they could skip it and do something they will enjoy instead.

To me, this is instinctive. To schools, it doesn’t appear to be. There seem to be concerns about rewarding poor behaviour or setting precedents or missing chunks of curriculum. It is hard to get across that learning (of the traditional, reading and writing kind) is not physically possible while dysregulated. It is hard to make teachers see that differentiation applies to behaviour too. We cannot say, “but key stage 2 requires more sensible behaviour’ if the child in question is functioning at an emotional age of 3 or 4. We cannot ask children to do things they are not physically/emotionally capable of doing. Yet, we are.

My biggest frustration, I think, is the school staff’s inability to identify dysregulation in the first place. They see spikes in behaviour, they see oppositional, they see defiance, they see absconding, they see aggression. All those things are dots, that when joined up, reveal a picture. That picture is dysregulation. Why can I see it, but they just see unrelated dots?

Why does absconding not equal flight? Why does aggression not equal fight? Why are they blind to a child’s distress? Why do they think that punishing these behaviours is appropriate?

I don’t know why. I wish I did. This is what makes me think that the concept of dysregulation is a harder concept to grasp than I think it is.

Schools not being able to identify dysregulation, is a very real problem because they then do not respond in the most therapeutic way, often using approaches that will inflame, escalate, worsen, instead. LB had an incident last week where school clearly got too much for him and he ran out of the classroom onto the playground equipment. To me, the running is a clear sign of him trying to get away and him needing a minute. Instead of leaving him alone until he was calmer, a member of staff chased after him and demanded he get down at once, in a stern shouty voice. So he told her he hated her and to shut up. Then he got into trouble for using inappropriate language.

I mean, come on people. Had they have stopped and thought about what his behaviour was communicating – that everything had a got a bit overwhelming and he needed a break – they could have checked their response. They could have applied the strategies in the psychologist report (that they used school funds to pay for yet aren’t heeding). Had they have left him a minute, he would not have used any ‘inappropriate’ language at all. By not recognising his dysregulation, they escalated the situation and blamed him. This isn’t okay. It is also extremely frustrating to somebody such as myself, who has gone to great lengths to explain LB’s dysregulation about a gazillion times before.

School have got better at linking some dysregulated behaviour to triggers, where the trigger has been a specific situation immediately prior to an outburst e.g. a disagreement with a peer or finding a particular piece of work difficult, but I am having a devil of a time getting them to understand that big events such as a school residential or transition to the next class can lead to a generally dysregulated period. I can’t make them understand that an event last week can impact on behaviour today, as could an event in three weeks’ time. Admittedly, if the event is nothing to do with them, I can’t expect them to be psychic, but everyone knew about the residential and I laboured the possible impacts I thought it could have. I can see them looking at me strangely though, as if I’m being obtuse by trying to link him staying away from home last week with him refusing to do his work today. I can’t make them see that emotions and fears feed behaviour. If something has happened, such as a residential, that has such magnitude it shakes the core of your own sense of belonging and safety, ripples from that will be felt across the days and weeks before and after. The ripples will manifest as tricky behaviour. They will mean the child is generally more sensitive and less tolerant. They will not be able to cope with the same demands, as their being is busy dealing with the aftershocks.

I don’t know how to explain that in another way that is any clearer. It feels pretty clear.

When you truly understand dysregulation and the specific ways that it impacts a specific child, you can predict how big events might impact them. It was so obvious to me that LB would behave as he did the day after the trip, that I didn’t think to spell out my predictions to school – I assumed that after all the training and meetings, it would be obvious to them too. But it wasn’t. They seemed flabbergasted that his behaviour had suddenly taken a dip and disbelieving when I linked it directly to the trip. Instead of two plus two making four, it’s as though computer says no.

Something is going fundamentally wrong. I don’t know whether it’s a refusal to hear it, whether I (or PAS or the psychologist) still haven’t got the explanation right, or whether it’s more sinister. If a person still, deep-down, believes a child is behaving a certain way because they ‘are naughty’ or because there are flaws in their parenting, perhaps they just won’t accept that dysregulation exists. Is that why they don’t join the dots? Because they don’t actually believe they’re linked by anything more than wilful disregard for school rules?

I don’t know, but the lack of certain members of school staff being able to identify LB’s dysregulation, let alone deal with it appropriately has made me raise some serious questions.

It’s been a long week. I have been extremely frustrated and exhausted by being here again and doing this again and saying the same things, again.

And then I met the new Head Teacher.

Wow. What a lady. For the first time, in a very long time, I didn’t need to educate an educator. She listened to me, she pre-empted most of the things I wanted to say and positively encouraged me speaking up and speaking out. I think she might have arrived just in the nick of time, before I lost the plot with school entirely.

Here’s to the penny finally dropping. Keep your fingers crossed guys, I may have just happened upon a very much needed ally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Dysregulation Rocket Science?

The Big Trip

Last week I was getting all irate because I couldn’t get LB’s TA to understand the magnitude of LB going on a residential – see Hysterical . I was also worried about how LB himself would cope, following moments of distress and him struggling to sleep.

After that, things improved a bit, seemingly because they’d spoken more about the details of the trip in school, resulting in LB realising they weren’t in fact camping out in tents. The idea that they were must have been worrying him because he did settle when he realised they weren’t. I have no idea where he got that idea from in the first place – it just goes to show that not all worries are predictable.

I didn’t press any issues with school because things seemed to be ok.

The night before the trip, LB grew anxious again. He really struggled to get to sleep and got himself in quite a state. He was worried about “missing us too much”. The next morning, we woke to him to him crying and shouting the house down. It was such a shame to hear because it isn’t like him to get so distressed.

LB came into bed for a cuddle and soon rallied. He started doing my make up while I was still half-asleep and, despite, or perhaps due to me looking a state, it cheered him up considerably.

When BB got up, he did a fabulous job of encouraging LB – telling him that he was nervous when he went on the trip too but that all his friends would be there and it’d be ok. He is so instinctive that boy, it really does make my parenting job easier.

It was almost as though once LB got his head straight that he wanted to go and that it would be fun, even if he was nervous, he just focussed himself on getting ready. Soon we were at school, amongst a throng of similarly excited children and LB was fine. He didn’t struggle to separate at all (as I thought he might have) and went right on in.

I had a quick word with the TA and impressed upon her the importance of calling me, should he need her to. I could see her reluctance, but ensured I got my point across.

 

It was a very strange evening at home, that night. It was so quiet. And so tidy. And something was palpably missing.

Our thoughts were not far from LB all evening. I checked my watch every ten minutes, trying to think what he’d be doing at each point. I was surprised by how much BB worried about him – he too wondered aloud about him much more frequently than he would if he had been staying with grandparents, for example. We all knew this was a huge deal and could have gone any which way.

From about 8pm onwards, I kept thinking my phone would ring any second. But it didn’t.

I kept checking the school Facebook feed but it hadn’t been updated since 4pm so that revealed nothing.

By about 10pm, I figured it was safe to take my shoes off and have a cup of tea, whilst simultaneously wondering if they would call the second I sat down.

But they didn’t. It seemed unlikely they’d call during the night so I assumed this was us: he was really doing it. It would have been really appreciated had someone taken a couple of seconds to send me a message saying he was fine, but that didn’t materialise either. I half thought, due to them having me down as mildly hysterical and neurotic, that they would have sensed the need for such a message. But there we go.

 

By school pick up time yesterday, I was very keen to get him back again. I had half envisaged him running out of the classroom door to be swung into a swirling hug, but, this being LB, our reunion was a lot more nonchalant. I had forgotten that we’d probably get a bit of the cold shoulder because we had been separated for twenty-four hours. That’s always the way of it. But, in the grand scheme of things, it was ok. He didn’t hate us, he was just a bit quiet and standoffish.

He was also, what Gary would technically describe as, “dead dog tired.”

It happened to be parents evening, so between the information LB shared, the chats I had with his teachers and accusations made by random children in his class, I managed to piece together an accurate-enough account of what actually went down. I think he enjoyed it overall. Apparently at teatime on the first day, LB began to droop and asked to go to bed. He does go to bed early and his body is very much ruled by a strong circadian rhythm, and affected by not sticking to it. The staff jollied him along because they hadn’t done the bonfire and marshmallows yet. LB managed to power through but then, obviously, went beyond tired and by the sounds of it, struggled to get to sleep. I suspect there was a degree of high jinks. However, I’d rather that than him be upset and crying for us. And, according to his TA, “all the boys were a nightmare for bed.” And, well, I did warn them.

I suspect the second day was trickier – LB was tired and no doubt struggling with regulation. But, he came back in one piece and so did all the staff.

I think this is a probably a time where I don’t need to worry about the details too much – instead focussing on the bigger picture. That picture is that LB, at seven years old, with a history of neglect and trauma, has managed his first residential, without any significant ill-effects. What a guy.

I thought he’d have been fast asleep early last night, but no. I suspect if there are any lasting effects, it will be tricky bedtimes for a few days, while he re-adjusts and maybe a dysregulated weekend – no big deal.

I hope that him going away and us still being here when he came back is powerful for him. We all told him how much we missed him and how weird the house was without him. We told him how proud we are of him for managing it. I hope it’s another step forward with his attachments, and with his self-confidence too.

LB might be the smallest member of our household but my goodness he’s a big presence. Even when he’s asleep, the house feels fuller and more complete when he’s in it. I think the trip gave us all a strange vision of what life would be like without him. It would undoubtedly be tidier – the tornado of discarded clothes and toys notably missing; quieter and calmer. But, jeez, it’d be boring. Who wants sedate when you could have exuberant, unpredictable and hilarious? I know which I’d choose, and there’s no contest.

 

Addition – Saturday

As you can tell from the above, I thought we’d survived and were kind of okay.  I didn’t anticipate that I would be called into school on Friday evening, faced with teachers who were surprised at LB’s lack of ability to control himself and have a smiley face chart waved under my nose as a supposed cure-all.

I actually despair.

Surely it is not that difficult to attribute dysregulated behaviour the day after a trip, to the trip? Surely, it should have been obvious to all that Friday would be a very tricky school day? Surely, or so we naively imagined, the demands and expectations would be reduced accordingly, to accommodate LB’s temporarily reduced window of tolerance? Surely?

Err, it would seem not.

Instead there was outrage that LB wouldn’t do what was asked of him and that he was rude to some teachers. We just cannot accept this behaviour, there have to be consequences.

Groan.

Then, without consulting any of the members of staff who know him best, and without reading any of LB’s paperwork, two members of the senior leadership team thought they knew how to sort him out. A smiley face chart. Seriously. I think they actually thought I’d be pleased with this new fangled invention.

I’m just so frustrated that every time we think we’re there; that school understand LB’s needs and how to support him, something like this happens to suggest the polar opposite.

Grizzly and I now feel we shouldn’t have let him go on the trip. School clearly aren’t able to accommodate and support his needs properly when dysregulated. They can’t even recognise that he is dysregulated. Essentially, they can’t keep him safe. And if that’s the case, they can’t take him on any trips. Its so frustrating because I told them and I told them, but they thought I was exaggerating. Then when the behaviour we predicted does occur, they think its nothing to do with the trip, it’s him getting spontaneously extra naughty. Not my words – how I imagine they think of it.

I could scream.

And while I’m ranting, getting dragged into school means my children are left in the playground, to their own devices, which is clearly unwise for LB. I’m discussing his behaviour while he’s given further opportunity to misbehave.

It is exhausting being a parent of a child with behaviour needs – not because of their needs – but because schools just cannot wrap their heads around them, despite training and meetings and about a gazillion discussions. The patience of a saint is required and mine is running out.

 

 

 

The Big Trip

Hysterical

One of the biggest problems, I find, with attempting to get other people to understand the emotional and behavioural needs of your child with SEMH issues is getting your points across without those people drawing the conclusion you are hysterical. I’m pretty sure I’m not being paranoid about this – I have read it frequently in people’s body language, facial expression and even in their choice of words. Here she goes again, being all over-anxious and fretting unnecessarily, they think. When I say people, I mainly mean teachers, though this isn’t exclusive to them.

When you do have a child with SEMH issues, you become adept at predicting their triggers. You know the sorts of situations that may challenge them and, in an attempt to parent them the best you can, you try to anticipate potential problems in advance so that tweaks or alternatives or supportive measures can be implemented to minimise their stress. For me, that just makes good sense. Why leave a child to flail and panic and worry, when you could prevent that with a bit of forward planning or heightened awareness? Obviously you can’t predict everything, but where you can mitigate potential problems, why wouldn’t you?

It’s this attitude that brings me to teachers, raising possible problems with them in advance of them happening. Unfortunately, what I see as a wise anticipation of issues is more often than not interpreted by them as over-anxious parenting. I’m pretty sure they have conversations about how I’m creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and bringing LB problems where he didn’t have any before. “Her anxiety will be rubbing off on him,” I can imagine them whispering, “It’s not him, it’s her”.

This has come to the fore because next week LB is going on his first residential. I do not feel it is excessive to say this is a big deal for him. Staying away from home without any of your family would be a big deal for most 7 year olds but is even more so when your early life has involved moving from place to place: staying away might trigger all sorts of difficult feelings and anxieties, not least whether you will actually return home again. This is compounded by embarrassment that you wear pull-ups at night when your friends don’t and the trip will involve you staying up way beyond your bedtime; a time that you already struggle to stay regulated for in your own home.

So yes, I think there are some very real concerns about the trip and in an attempt to help LB as much as possible, I have been pro-active in discussing my concerns with his teachers. I wanted them to be aware of his continence issues so they could help him subtly. I wanted them to know his bedtime is early so that when he starts to spiral they will be able to recognise it as dysregulation due to tiredness, not bad behaviour. I wanted them to be aware of the reasons why a trip away from home might trigger feelings from his past. I wanted them to be aware of all this so they could support him through it.

I thought this was all tickety-boo. They had seemed to listen and had been reassuring about how they would deal with it all.

However, as the time draws closer, LB’s behaviour is beginning to spiral. I have noted it at home. They have noted poorer listening, poorer compliance and an increase in fidgety behaviour at school. LB has started saying he doesn’t want to go on the trip. To me, it is obvious he is anxious about it. This anxiety is being expressed through the changes in his behaviour.

School, on the other hand, are scratching their heads about this change of mood. Why is he all of a sudden throwing things and threatening to kill his TA, they wonder. To help them out, I’ve tried to make the link between the two things for them. This has involved me having to elaborate on why exactly the trip might be anxiety-provoking now, before it has even happened. The problem is that I don’t think they’re really getting it, so I find myself harping on more than I’d really like. The more times I even reference the trip, the more convinced they become that I am a hysterical, over-reactive mother.

This morning, as a small part of the coherent explanation I was trying to weave on the spot, I mentioned that LB has only ever stayed with us or his grandparents (I thought the ‘since he’s been here’ part was obvious) so staying somewhere else might be quite triggering. “He won’t be alone in that,” his TA says, “many of the children won’t have slept anywhere else”, as if I am being quite unreasonable by making a point out of something common to all the children. What I want to say is something along the lines of, “Yeah, but, before these other children moved to their forever home, did they live with foster carers who randomly took them to other houses for respite, with people who were not always registered as carers? Did they get left there without explanation for inordinate periods of time? When they came to their forever home, were they just dropped off by people they had lived with for several years who would then just disappear never to be seen again? Before that, were they suddenly removed one unpredictable day from the family who conceived and gave birth to them? Where they? No? THEN IT REALLY ISN’T THE SAME!”

Obviously I said no such thing, smiled sweetly, took a deep breath, and attempted again to explain things in a calm manner that might actually get my message across. That’s how it was from my point of view anyway. I suspect that from theirs, they thought, “Oh, she’s still going. I’ve covered off that point so she’s trying to concoct more. Definitely hysterical.”

What’s infuriating is that when you don’t feel heard, there aren’t many options. I don’t believe in shouting or being rude (it’s all about the long game and building relationships) so I’m really left with repeating myself or trying to find other words or other arrangements of words to get the ideas to strike home. I often find myself reaching for more extreme or more shocking examples when the tamer ones don’t resonate. It is as though I have to escalate the severity of what I’m saying to get my messages heard. The thing is that if they are still not heard, I am surely seen as increasingly hysterical.

I suggested today that we must monitor LB. Yes, some anxiety is to be expected. But as he is already at threatening to kill people levels, perhaps we don’t want him to escalate much more. Perhaps, if he does seem to be spiralling out of control, we might need to come up with a plan to soothe his nerves. Perhaps, and I was just throwing things out there, we could reassure him that we would not make him stay somewhere he doesn’t want to (trust and all that) and we could offer to pick him up from the day-time part so he can sleep where he feels safe: at home. Though, to me, this makes perfect sense, I can see that school find it an outrageous suggestion – the kind that would only be made by a mother struggling to loosen her apron strings. “She doesn’t even want to let him out of her sight for one night, for goodness sake,” I can imagine them commenting. The response from the TA only confirmed my feeling they had been talking about me in this way – “Mr Teacher doesn’t want you to do that,” she said, when I suggested it.

It really is quite a challenge to remain dignified in these situations. It is a constant balance between persisting in getting messages across and presenting like a non-hysterical, credible source of information. I do a lot of internal swearing.

I understand that they have taken hundreds of children on trips and that every parent gets a bit worried about it and that they will do their best to look after LB and that if he gets upset, they will deal with it. I know they haven’t had to call anyone’s parents before, but, if we’re honest, that’s more of a gauntlet than a reassurance. When they say, “he’ll be fine,” I hear, “we’re not taking this seriously enough”. If only they could acknowledge this is a huge deal for him, we’d be grand.

Obviously we are doing all the prep stuff and giving reassurance at home. LB does seem to be coping better now he’s realised they aren’t camping outside (you really can’t anticipate all the issues) but I am typing this outside of his door as we have another tricky bedtime. I intend to monitor him/ his behaviour over the weekend and should things have worsened, I shall be back at the classroom door, making myself look hysterical again. And I don’t really care what Mr Teacher thinks about it – should LB be crying and hanging from my leg when I drop him off for the trip, I will be picking him up at bedtime.

As tempting as it is to just pack LB off with them, with little instruction, to let them deal with whatever happens themselves, I can’t shrug my shoulders of all responsibility. He’s our son and it’s our job to meet his needs as best we can. If that means occasionally having to overrule school and to lose street cred over being anxious parents then so be it. LB’s needs are paramount and if that makes me hysterical, then I guess I am.

 

 

*The irony of me writing last week about how much I love the school is not lost on me. I should have known that singing their praises would nudge the universe into trying to prove me wrong

**The word ‘hysteria’ derives from the Greek word for ‘uterus’, suggesting that to be a women is to be hysterical; that being overly emotional is an intrinsic failing of having a womb. Marvellous. I wonder whether any of the dads out there experience a similar thing when they have worries or if this shrugging off of concerns is more prevalent when they are raised by mothers?

I’m not really trying to make a feminist point, I’m genuinely wondering.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hysterical

When is a school a good school?

It’s the twenty million dollar question isn’t it? How do you go about picking a school for your child that will do all the things you want it to? Do you go on their Ofsted: outstanding schools only? Or on their league tables? Pick the one with the best SATS scores? Do you go on recommendation? Do you consider staff turnover? Or exclusion figures? Do you avoid the ones with chequered pasts?

Which measures should you look at to get the most accurate indication of an establishment’s ability to educate your child? This is a huge question and I fear this blog is going to mess with heads more than answering it.

The thing is, on paper, the boys’ school might be considered dubious. It is currently rated ‘good’ by Ofsted but before that it ‘required improvement’. There is an on-going question over leadership and all sorts of political shenanigans happening that I really can’t go into. It does fair to middling on league tables. There is quite a bit of muttering in the playground and some parents have decided to talk with their feet in recent months.

However, despite all that, I bloody love it. It isn’t that we’ve always had the easiest time or that relationships were built immediately or that they just ‘got’ LB because none of those things happened. In fact, at times, I’ve been tearing my hair out. If you want to know more about our history with school, you can read these posts: Adoptive Parent: Behaviour Detective 

School Worries

Alleviating School Worries

Dear Teacher

Stop. Collaborate & Listen.

There are several factors that have led me to having the warm, fuzzy feelings I have towards them now. First of all, despite LB’s behaviour being difficult to understand, difficult to cope with in a busy classroom and it requiring novel practices, not one member of teaching staff has ever given up on him. Not at any point. They have never rang me and asked me to bring him home. They have never made us feel that they can’t/ won’t help him or us. His TA, who has to get a special mention because I wasn’t always sure she was the right appointment, has been there for him, day in, day out, for two years now, even though he has hurt her and called her names and refused to do anything she says (at points). She could have handed her notice in and gone to find a much easier job, but she hasn’t. She’s changed her days when LB has needed her to and she has put up with uncertainty over the funding which pays her. She has visited him at home during the holidays and brings him things from her home she thinks he might enjoy in school.

I don’t know how to quantify that sticking power/commitment or which sort of league table or report would validate it.

And the teachers/TA don’t just tolerate LB, they love him and it’s obvious (to him as well, I imagine). At least two members of staff have cried with pride at what he has achieved. Unlike some schools which have strict ‘no touching’ policies, they are all willing to show LB he is loved through cuddles and physical reassurance if he needs them to, including his current rugby-playing male teacher. It’s hard to do that in this day and age but LB needs it, and the teachers know that.

They are very instinctive about his love for animals too and don’t bat an eyelid about him going into assembly with two guinea pigs, or spending some time with the school dog. They do forest school (big tick), plenty of sport and are happy to fly in the face of convention or go above and beyond if necessary. Two members of staff will visit us at home, as part of transition, for example.

I think much of what makes me so happy about the school, comes from the genuinely caring people who work in it. We’ve now worked closely with four different teachers and the TA and every one of them has cared enough about LB and about meeting his needs the best they can, that they’ve been willing to listen and to do things differently. Again, I don’t know how to quantify that willingness but it is essential. Without it, I would still be tearing my hair out. In fact I’d probably be fully bald and rocking a rebelliously coloured wig.

The teachers were not experts in trauma when they met LB. I would say their knowledge has ranged from none to some but, crucially, they have been open to other professionals coming in (post adoption support & a psychologist) and to listening to them. Over time, though I won’t lie about the difficulty in achieving this, they have become willing to listen to us too.

One of the biggest journeys we have been on has been with LB’s current teacher. We have gone from inappropriate comments about ‘attention-seeking’ and ‘manipulating adults’, born out of not knowing any better, to him pro-actively passing on key, attachment sensitive strategies to the next teacher. He has literally turned things around from LB refusing school and being anxious in his classroom, to LB being happy, making accelerated progress and having a warm, trusting relationship with each other. That willingness – to admit there’s a problem, reflect on it, take advice on it and action change – is immeasurable. As a human, it is uncomfortable and can be confidence-shaking to go through that sort of process. Many teachers are not willing to lay themselves bare in that way, instead becoming entrenched in how they’ve always done it.

We all sat in a transition meeting yesterday – him, us, LB’s next teacher, his TA and the acting SENCO (reception & yr 1 teacher) – and it actually felt like a team meeting. Like we were LB’s team and we were all working together to make sure the transition is as smooth as possible for him. It wasn’t combative, there wasn’t disagreement, I didn’t leave despairing or feeling they think I’m neurotic – all of which have happened many times before. It felt like a collection of people, each with their own set of knowledge and skills, and a mutual respect for the others, brought together by their shared commitment to provide the best they can for LB. It has felt a long time coming, but my goodness I’m grateful for it. And not only that, I’m proud of it.

I’m proud of our persistence and unwavering commitment to being friendly even when things have been tough – these relationships would not be so solid otherwise – and without somehow building up a foundation of respect and trust, it is almost impossible to effect change. I’m proud of the teachers for their openness, commitment, willingness and genuine care. I’m proud of LB for teaching a bunch of grown-ups the most they’ve learned in a long time and for persevering when the strategies have not been right for him. I’m proud, that with the support of his exceptional school, LB continues to confound expectations.

I don’t give a fig about the Ofsted report, the league table, the SATS scores or even the political shenanigans (though we could do without them) because none of it really matters. Its people and relationships that make the difference and LB’s ‘team’ rocks.

 

When is a school a good school?

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

Stop. Collaborate & Listen.

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

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

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

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

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

Things for teachers to think about

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

Things for parents to think about

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

 

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

Stop. Collaborate & Listen.

I’m Stupid

The following comment was written in Little Bear’s take home book recently: “Little Bear keeps saying he is stupid when we’re doing English. Obviously we tell him he’s not but he’s very insistent”.

Firstly, I could hear the discomfort in Mrs C’s voice, the TA, as I read it to myself. Hearing a child say they are stupid is a very unpleasant thing to hear. Generally, as grown-ups, we’d rather they didn’t say that, about themselves or anybody else. I can hear the unwritten plea: how can I make him stop?

Well, as we have discussed on several occasions in school meetings, telling him he isn’t stupid isn’t going to work, for the simple fact that he believes he is. Let me turn to all round adoption guru, Dan Hughes, to explain this:

“When your child verbalises his shame, it is important not to reassure or argue with him – this would only make him think that you do not really know him or that you are lying to him. A more helpful response will be to express empathy and then curiosity about his sense of shame”.

I have interpreted this as needing to say, “It must be really hard to feel stupid. I wonder if it is because you are finding x, y or z a bit tricky?” I usually go on to say that I know he can do whatever it is that is being asked and that I will help him. I then put whatever measures are necessary in place to ensure that he succeeds at the task. I might make the task a bit easier or shorter, do part of it for him or just give general encouragement to have a go. I think it’s essential that he completes the task though in order to get a sense of satisfaction at the end. What better way to prove to yourself that you CAN do something, than actually doing it? (See Jigsaws for more detail on how this can work).

I have definitely explained this process to Mrs C before but I think that sometimes she doesn’t believe what I say/ doesn’t believe I know anything and, aside from my own personal insecurities that I can easily distract myself with, perhaps this is just a difficult way of working for some people. It certainly isn’t something that I would naturally have done: I have only been doing it on Dan’s advice. After trying it a few times I was fully bought in. When I get the wondering right, Little Bear often crumbles, seemingly with relief that somebody actually gets it. I don’t always get the wondering right, his little mind being as complex as it is, but on some level I think he appreciates the trying. It is certainly better than a flat “no, you’re not stupid” which, when you think about it, is more about the adult’s need to stop hearing it, rather than being of any therapeutic benefit to the child.

Funnily enough, I had a chat recently with another adopter (not in a work capacity), who said their son also frequently says he is stupid too. Their way of dealing with this uncomfortable comment has been to ban the words ‘bad’ and ‘stupid’ in their home. I know I shouldn’t judge someone else’s parenting but by banning those words from a child’s lexicon, you are effectively banning their ability to talk to you about their inner state of mind. How are they supposed to work through their shame if they are not permitted to discuss it? I suspect that just adds shame about having shame to the big pot of unwanted, hard to deal with feelings.

Obviously I don’t want my gorgeous, clever, funny Little Bear to feel stupid. Of course I don’t. But if that is how he feels, I really do need him to be able to tell me. How can I help him otherwise?

Sometimes, to help with challenging those self-beliefs, I have gone to some strange lengths.

As I’m convinced that a child needs to experience success in order to change their feelings and beliefs about themselves, the biggest challenge is often getting them to have a go at whatever the activity is in the first place. It turns out that donning an American-esque cheerleading/ army PT instructor type of vibe is pretty useful in these situations. Grizzly is very much a natural at this and I have witnessed him many a time getting a child to do something they aren’t too confident about by shouting ‘push it, push it’ or ‘come on smash it’ in his naturally loud voice. It isn’t a shouting at them kind of way, it’s more of a pumping everyone up before a match kind of way; an exuberant boosting of their self-esteem and public show of your belief in their ability to do it.

Whilst I do not have a loud voice or such an exuberant manner, I am not against stealing good ideas.

Over the last few weeks Little Bear has been avidly watching a programme on Netflix called Beast Master. It is like Ninja Warrior, only harder. As Little Bear tends to, he now thinks he is the Beast Master (see Fantasy versus Reality). At bedtime the other day, he was telling me all about his Beast Master abilities. How good he is at flips, how long he can hang for etc. We then got onto the reading part of his bedtime routine and his demeanour drastically changed. “I’m no good at reading”, he said, “I’m stupid at it”. My inner cheerleader kicked in. “Well, I’m shocked at you Beast Master. I didn’t think you would be all miserable about reading a book. I thought you would smash it like the Beast Master course”. He looked at me and I could see him wondering if that was really true, if he really could smash it. Leaving no time for doubt, I continued a la Grizzly, “come on Beast Master, smash it”.

And he smashed it. He read with more drive and determination than I have seen for a several weeks. He knew he’d smashed it too. We high-fived (am I actually turning American?!) and made a big deal out of how well he had done. It’s just one instance of succeeding at reading but I really believe that all the small instances add up and one day, he’ll really believe he can do it, because he can. The Beast Master won’t work every time, I’ll have to stay on my toes and come up with new ways of motivating and encouraging him but it’s worth it, because every success, no matter how small, is a step in the right direction. A step in the direction of leaving the “I’m stupid” feelings behind.

In order to really maximise the opportunity offered to us by Beast Master I needed to share it with school in the hope they too might be mad enough to give it a go. I did feel like a bit of a wally explaining it in the take home book and wondered what on earth they would make of our alternative methods. Thankfully, Little Bear’s teacher fully understands the need to use a child’s interests to motivate their work and bless her she totally did the Beast Master thing. Apparently, the Beast Master was in attendance at school, he smashed his reading and he completed lots of other work that hadn’t been done over previous days. He had an extremely successful day: more success, more steps forwards.

I also shared that little snippet of life with my Bears with school in order to try to change the narrative away from “no, you’re not stupid”, to something more constructive. I know Little Bear’s teacher gets it and I’m so grateful for her open attitude towards teaching him. I don’t know whether Mrs C gets it. I suspect she thinks I’m bonkers.

We still have plenty of work to do on Little Bear’s self-construct, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and every piece of genuine praise, every experience of success, every time he exceeds his own expectations of himself, takes us one step closer to the robust self-esteem we are aiming for. And if that involves us chanting “smash it, smash it” occasionally then so be it.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m Stupid

Alleviating School Worries

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about how Little Bear was doing at school (School Worries), the apparent desire to keep us at arm’s length and my concerns about the school’s ability to support and educate him. Little Bear’s behaviour was spiralling and his teacher was tearing her hair out. It was going badly and I was very worried. Since then I have had several conversations with his teacher, parent’s evening and we finally had the big meeting we had been asking for.

The landscape now is very different. I think they are getting more right than they are getting wrong and Little Bear is starting to thrive. I thought it might be helpful to share some of the things we/they have done that have made the difference:

A Timetable

Don’t ask me why but when Little Bear started Year 1 there was no set timetable of what he would be doing each day; sometimes it could be Maths then literacy, at other times Phonics then Maths etc. His teacher realised after a few weeks that he might cope better if the expectations were clearer and his day was more predictable. They created a timetable for him but things were still going awry. I wondered aloud one day whether Little Bear was able to see the timetable himself. It turned out they were showing him the black and white typed adult version which was of course entirely meaningless to him.

Little Bear now has a timetable made up of digital photos of him doing all the different tasks. This is working fabulously

He knows the routine and seems much happier to get on with what he is meant to be doing. Plus he actually likes the timetable because he is in it and is therefore much more motivated to engage with it

Choose time

As Little Bear finds it difficult to concentrate for any length of time we agreed that he would do a short work task and then a fun task then a work task, then a fun task to keep him on track. The fun task would be used as a carrot in a NOW work, THEN fun task kind of way. The fun task might also involve moving about to give him a physical/sensory break from sitting still. The fun tasks have been chosen carefully so they are still educational (they might involve developing his play skills or turn-taking or creativity etc.) and are actually motivating to Little Bear, not just perceived to be motivating by an adult.

The choices are presented to Little Bear in photo form (with him in the pictures) and he picks in advance of each work activity.

This is also working brilliantly to the point where some mornings he is now able to complete all the work tasks on his timetable and doesn’t need any fun tasks at all.

A consistent approach

None of the above would be working if it wasn’t for this. The teacher and TA have now figured out their strategy and are being much clearer with Little Bear. There is no shouting one minute then letting him off with something the next any more. I think they have settled on a calm, firm approach much like we use at home. They have realised that the rules need to be clear and they can’t change from one day to the next.

They have also realised that Little Bear benefits from some extra rules where other children wouldn’t. For example, if he is tired one day and therefore allowed to read just one page, instead of 3, he will expect that he can do the same thing the next day. If he can find a chink in the armour he will exploit it. However, if there is a blanket rule e.g. every day we read 3 pages Little Bear knows where he is at and is much happier to adhere to it.

I think his TA was feeling mean but has found out the hard way that Little Bear actually feels a lot safer when he knows exactly what is expected and adults around him are consistent with their boundaries. If he doesn’t and they are not, his anxiety will spike and his behaviour will become increasingly challenging. Now that he feels safer, he is much more open to learning.

A discipline re-think

I have to say that whatever errors school have made I am extremely grateful for their willingness to listen (in the end) and to try something different. A little willingness goes along way for our children.

The school as a whole were using the Good To Be Green behaviour system, which involves children getting an amber warning card when they do something they shouldn’t and then a red card if they do something else or do something violent. Thankfully they did see early on that this didn’t work for Little Bear. There are the immediate issues with public shaming but for us the main problem was that once you get an amber or red card you can’t work your way back to green that day. Once you’ve got in bother and already had a red card, what is the point of trying to control yourself for the rest of the day? You might as well just go for it and do whatever you like. It is a very negative system.  Also, Little Bear was getting upset by the card changes because he isn’t naughty, he just finds controlling himself really difficult. He was frequently very annoyed with himself for seemingly having failed, which impacted his mood for the rest of the day.

Thankfully school recognised that they couldn’t continue with that system for him so came up with Magic 1,2,3 to use instead. They didn’t want to single Little Bear out with his peers so have changed the system for the whole of his class, a very sensitive gesture I felt.

I’m not sure that I love Magic 1,2,3 per se but it has an accidental benefit which is crucial for Little Bear. Basically the teacher counts each time you do something you shouldn’t so you get 3 chances to make amends or make a different choice. If after 3 chances you still haven’t co-operated or you have had 3 separate misdemeanours, you have to sit on the thinking chair.

Now, I know a lot of parents won’t like it because it is basically sitting in the corner. However, for Little Bear it gives him the calm down time he desperately needs.

I have struggled to get school to understand that when Little Bear is thoroughly pissed off the last thing he needs is someone lecturing him, talking at him and verbally chastising him. He needs to sit somewhere quietly until he is ready to talk. At home, we just ask him to sit wherever he is. He sits on the floor and we stay nearby and usually he’ll say “I’m ready Mummy” after about 3 seconds (a ‘time in’). However, it turns out that school weren’t ever allowing him this time so it wasn’t any wonder he was nearly blowing a gasket sometimes and going straight from one incident to another.

Sitting on the thinking chair gives him just the de-compression he needs. Also, it is in the classroom so he is not isolated or left alone.

I don’t think this would be the right thing for every child but it is suiting Little Bear much better and his behaviour has calmed enormously.

Praise & positive re-enforcement

Little Bear’s behaviour was becoming such an issue in school that I felt all the positives were getting lost. They had pretty much got to the point of thinking there weren’t any.Other than me pointing this out I don’t really know what changed but the teacher and TA have certainly got better at looking for the positives and making a big fuss about them.

Again this wouldn’t work for children who can’t handle praise but Little Bear really thrives off it. School have cottoned on to this and whenever Little Bear tries hard or produces something good, they encourage him to share it with the class. He absolutely loves this and I think it helps his peers to see him as someone who is successful, not just someone they think is naughty.

Working as a Team   

I do feel that school have recognised that they had cut us out of the loop and are now keen to include us more. I think they can see the benefits and that when there are meetings it is not because we want to tell them off or be difficult it is because we genuinely want to work in partnership. We have 2 further meetings arranged before Christmas which has allayed a lot of my concerns.

We have agreed common goals e.g. to extend Little Bear’s reading from 3 pages to 4 in one sitting and to encourage him to work independently for 2 minutes instead of 1. The goals are achievable and measurable which is exactly as they should be and because we are working on them at home and at school I’m sure they will be met more quickly.

A key part of the meeting we had was to share information about Little Bear’s history with his new TA. She didn’t know how long he had been with us, what his developmental starting point was etc. I have pointed out it would have been much more helpful for her to know all this at the start because then she could have adjusted her expectations accordingly from the outset. However, we can’t undo the past and at least she is now armed with all the facts.

Communication

To help school to communicate with us in a way that works for us, they invited us to have a frank discussion and be clear about what we actually want to know. We have agreed that they will comment on Little Bear’s behaviour each day and how he has got on with his independent working, hopefully in a one thing that went well and perhaps a thing that didn’t go so well sort of a way.

I can’t honestly say how well this is working yet but I’m hopeful.

Lateral Thinking  

School have been great about being open to different ideas and ways of doing things. Sometimes they still struggle to get Little Bear to have a go at things; he might flatly refuse or say he hates whatever it is. They have agreed to try things like offering Little Bear the opportunity to go and show his brother his work if he tries hard at it. I think he will be extremely motivated to do that and Big Bear is happy to be involved and relishes the added responsibility.

As the TA directly asked us for some advice on how to manage this, we were also able to talk about wondering and empathising e.g. “It must be hard to get your work done if you hate English. I wonder if that’s because you find it tricky” rather than a dismissive, “You don’t hate it”.

 

It meant more than they probably realised to be asked and to be considered a source of knowledge about our child. The Head teacher also apologised to us and admitted they had got the transition badly wrong. He asked what could be done differently next time.

We left the meeting feeling reassured, listened to and that Little Bear is in safe hands. They might not get it right all the time but at least they know that and are not afraid to admit it and ask for help.

I feel hopeful now.

 

Alleviating School Worries