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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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