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?

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?

High School Visits

It’s very hard to believe the time has come for me to be thinking about this but now that Big Bear is in Year 5, apparently it has. The deadline for completing the high school preferences form is early in the autumn term of year 6 so most high schools recommend you look around in year 5. So despite the fact that Big Bear is only 9 years and 1 month old, we have visited two local high schools this week. It has been enlightening to say the least.

I have had many chats with other parents in similar positions and have asked them their thoughts. A common theme has featured in the conversations: parents are keen on discipline in high schools and look for those where lessons will not be disrupted by the behaviour of others. They want a strong focus on academics and opportunities for extra-curricular activity. Apparently performance in GCSEs is also important.

When I think about my own education, there was a strong focus on academics. We sat exams twice a year, every year from year 7 onwards. Exam results were impressive, ranking well in comparison to the rest of the country. I was a diligent student and placed a high level of pressure on myself to achieve. My academic performance was important to me and I set exacting standards for myself.

Why then, when other parents were describing the education they wanted for their child, an education not dissimilar to my own, did I feel a sense of discomfort and dissonance? What was it exactly that I wanted from a school for my boys, if it wasn’t that?

We visited the first school. I’ll call it School A. I tried to assess it objectively – what did I like about it? What didn’t I like? I liked the building. It was clean and fresh. It had good facilities. The staff were friendly. We wandered around and there wasn’t anything especially wrong or right about it. It seemed fine but I had no idea at all how we were supposed to make a decision. Big Bear didn’t look too comfortable though. He looked like a rabbit in headlights. Observing his reaction was important because it would be him going there every day, not me.

The Head was doing a presentation in the Hall so we went to listen to that. She began by saying, “We are not an exam factory. That is not what we are about.” She went on to describe a very well-structured and comprehensive pastoral care system. “If children don’t feel safe in this school and they don’t feel valued and they don’t feel loved, we know they won’t be able to learn,” she said. She went on to talk about the importance of building self-esteem and giving children a belief that they can achieve. She talked about personalised learning journeys and matching support to need. She spoke passionately, saying that when these fundamental things are in place, the academics will naturally take care of themselves.

Feeling a little tearful, I had a mini-revelation. I looked between Big Bear sitting beside me, pale with anxiety, and the Head extolling the virtues of pastoral support and I thought: I have two very different children and one school may not meet both of their needs. School A didn’t seem a good fit for Big Bear, but it was hard to imagine anywhere better for Little Bear.

We should keep an open mind but now it would be really interesting to see what School B was like. We went there this evening and the first thing we did was listen to the Head speaking. We had been given an information pack on arrival. We flicked through it while we waited for the speech and noted there was a leaflet about how they extend learning for those who are gifted and talented. I asked Grizzly to pass me the one about SEN. He couldn’t because there wasn’t one.

The Head began to speak and her first point was around their outstanding exam results. She talked about how they always strive for more and push students to the next hurdle where they can. She talked of twice yearly exams and practice interviews and preparing for future careers. She talked about setting aspirational targets and achieving them. I knew I was supposed to be impressed. I sat amongst a sea of other parents who were no doubt impressed and keen for their child to be a part of this educational wonderland.

I know I was once a part of this academically focussed world and I suppose it has done me well. But I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with what I now often find to be academic snobbery. Yes, it is great if you are gifted with intelligence and you work hard and you go on to achieve fabulous grades. But what if you are not? What if, through no fault of your own, you have been dealt a different hand? What if you have various life-induced hurdles putting blocks in your academic path? What about you? How do you fit into this daunting and challenging world?

I found out how you fit. You don’t.

The Head at School B said this: “I will not tolerate anybody disrupting lessons. Stealing other student’s learning time is selfish. It is selfish and it will not be tolerated here.” At this point, Grizzly and I exchanged a look. The look said, “There is not a chance on God’s green earth that we will be sending Little Bear here.” People like discipline, they do. I like discipline when it is about clear boundaries and predictability. Other people like discipline when it prevents their child’s learning getting disrupted by another child. The problem is everything feels very different when the child doing the disrupting is yours.

Little Bear would never purposefully disrupt a lesson. He would never disrupt a lesson for the pure reason of being selfish. But he might disrupt a lesson and yes, he might disrupt your child’s learning. By saying he, or anyone else who might find school difficult, disrupts lessons selfishly and then sending them to the ‘internal exclusion zone’ places the blame squarely on the child. It assuages the adults of having had anything to do with it and it suggests there is no reason to consider why the child behaved like that. They were selfish. That’s why they did it.

In reality, Little Bear would disrupt a lesson because he was dysregulated, anxious or overwhelmed. That being the case, I don’t want him to be punished by being sent to sit alone somewhere. I don’t see how that would help him or how it would make something different happen next time. If anything it would increase his anxiety or frustration and increase the likelihood of future disruption. I am not suggesting that all children are angels or that they shouldn’t be taught to take responsibility for their actions. Of course they need to learn to self-regulate and to behave appropriately but with the best will in the world, not all children can, all of the time and I don’t see how its fair or appropriate to punish them when they lose control. When it is your child who struggles with behavioural and emotional regulation, you feel very differently about behaviour policies. You also feel pretty uncomfortable when other parents tell you how important it is to them that their child’s lessons are not disrupted by ‘bad behaviour’.

As things stand, with Little Bear’s needs as they currently are, we couldn’t consider sending him to School B. I don’t think he would be able to reach his potential there because he might not feel safe and there’s a good chance he wouldn’t feel loved. Big Bear, however, was visibly happier there. He felt safe, comfortable and interested. He will cope with the academic focus. There is very little chance of him disrupting lessons or ending up in the exclusion zone. Ironically, he would cope much better if he didn’t witness disruptive behaviour, a point which ties me in complex emotional knots. We can imagine him at the school and I’m sure he would thrive. This time it is about Big Bear and we all think the right school for him is School B.

It is another 4 years until we have to make a proper decision about Little Bear. His needs could change immeasurably in that time (as they already have done over the past three) and maybe School B could be right for him by then. But maybe it won’t be. Perhaps School A’s ethos and sporting opportunities and tailored curriculum would suit him much better. It doesn’t matter because I have two very different boys, each with their own set of strengths and challenges and now I know what I want from their high school education. I want them to be happy there. I want them to have access to teaching and pastoral support that meets their individual needs. I want them to be supported to reach their full potential because I know they can both achieve great things. I’m not really interested in those achievements being measured in terms of letters or numbers but in terms of working their hardest, doing their best and being satisfied with their own efforts. I want them to enjoy learning. I want them both to gain a sense of self-belief that will allow them to go on to further education or employment. I want them to be proud of themselves.

If that involves sending my children to two different high schools, so be it. But I certainly won’t allow Little Bear to be blamed for having the needs he has. He didn’t ask for his start in life and it isn’t his fault it has impacted him. If a school can’t understand this, he won’t be gracing their corridors.

 

 

 

 

High School Visits

New Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This transition was a Big deal for all of us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

New Teacher

This Year, Last Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Year, Last Year

TP, or not TP, that is the question

We’re having a bit of a weird week of it here at Adoption: The Bear Facts. Little Bear is not feeling good. It could be the hot weather but we rather suspect it is more than that. We think it is likely to be the anticipation of moving classes at the end of next week and with it, more of the Fear of Loss that I talked about last week. This time he is fearing the loss of his teacher, whom he has had for two years and who is really the only teacher he has ever known at big school. He is very, very fond of her and they have a lovely relationship. I know she is very fond of him too. I suspect she doesn’t often get the opportunity to make such a difference and see such an unprecedented level of progress in one of her pupils. This transition is a Big Deal all round.

The magnitude of the deal is being expressed through the medium of Little Bear’s behaviour. It is a little shocking after several months of relative calm and my parenting has certainly been tested. As such, I have been pondering on Therapeutic Parenting and how TP I really am.

Here’s a confession: I talk about being a therapeutic parent now and again but when I’m saying it, I’m often wondering if I actually am a bone fide therapeutic parent or, in fact, just a parent. That probably sounds a little ridiculous but I often feel that TP is a Holy Grail of adoptive parenting that can rarely be reached and can also be used as a larch branch with which to beat ourselves. I am certainly not somebody who often refers to ‘how to guides’ on TP, preferring to make things up as I go along. I’m not sure whether I mean ‘wing it’ or ‘follow my well-informed instincts’ but either way, my process of (therapeutic) parenting is fairly organic.

It is also fair to say that some days feel more therapeutic than others. Sometimes being therapeutic is a little less practical than other methods, which can lead to less of it being done. For example, the school morning routine has taken something of a dip here recently. In the dim, distant past, Little Bear used to need a lot of help with getting ready. All the demands were too much so I used to need to help him with dressing, teeth-brushing etc. However, he has made lots of progress and for quite some time now he has been able to complete the whole morning routine himself, with just a few prompts or reminders from me. That was, until Wednesday.

Wednesday’s routine did not go well. Little Bear was completely uncooperative, growly and intent on doing everything other than getting ready. I could see, after a quick thought or two, that there had been signs of decline earlier in the week. It was evident Little Bear wasn’t coping and I knew that the solution was to reduce the demands on him. However, that is not as easy or practical as it sounds when you have a finely timed routine, need to make two packed lunches because you weren’t organised the night before, haven’t eaten your own breakfast or got dressed yet and barely have time for those things, let alone any other things. As it is not socially acceptable to do the school run in your nightie, I made a quick decision that I didn’t have time to do it the therapeutic way. That sounds pretty bad in black and white but part of me thinks such is life. We do have deadlines and timeframes and sometimes Mums have to nag.

On Thursday I was a little more organised and Grizzly was working at home and I was more prepared for the possibility that extra help might be needed. However, I find having to do TP the very first second I wake up pretty challenging. I am not a morning person. Little Bear woke up in a foul mood. This is rare and doesn’t bode well. Little Bear got his I pad, got back into his bed and wouldn’t get out. Having dragged myself out of bed despite my internal protestations, I gave him lots of chances; pleasantly then more sternly. I was further irked by him shushing me every time I spoke. I did not react therapeutically. I expressed my crossness, though I managed not to shout and I banned his I Pad because without the bloody thing he would actually have got up. Little Bear continued not complying and I asked Grizzly to take over while muttering something about throttling him.

This is why I cannot possibly write a guide to therapeutic parenting.

However, after a moment’s peace and a few bites of breakfast, I was able to take some deep breaths and get a bit more TP. I observed out loud that he didn’t seem to be feeling too good today and wondered what that might be about. I don’t think I got my wonderings right and he was still grumpy. He demanded I feed him. It was not a particularly polite request but after modelling a nicer version just for him to hear, I did feed him. I also dressed him and put his sun cream on for him, all the while ignoring anything rude and trying to soothe him with my tone, pace and words. He went to see Ronaldo, his hen, who flapped her wings in his face and hurt him. I cuddled him, wiped his tears and made him laugh saying she thought his toes were worms.

I think my conclusion from that is sometimes the best way of being therapeutic is knowing when to step away and let someone else handle it. The bit when I kept my temper went pretty well as Little Bear got ready for school with very little demand on him and we successfully dropped him off without issue. Was I TP though? Or just parenting patiently?

I braced myself for school pick-up, rather suspecting the day wouldn’t have gone well. It hadn’t. Apparently Little Bear had thrown another child’s water bottle and smashed it and got into trouble for giving a different child a shove. I didn’t raise any of this with him, just telling him I had chatted with his teacher to see if he was ok because I was a bit worried about him. Little Bear asked me to watch him on the climbing wall and I did. Then I said it was time to go home. Little Bear wanted to do the climbing wall again. I re-iterated that it was home time and began to walk across the playground. Little Bear scream-growled and called me a name. I chose to ignore that and continued walking, knowing he would follow.

The first part of the walk home was fine. Little Bear announced we were going to play football when we got home. Big Bear said he wasn’t playing. I said I didn’t think any of us should as it was far too hot and a cold drink and a little rest would be a better plan. Little Bear began shushing me. By far the hardest part of trying to be therapeutic is overcoming your instincts to go mad when directly provoked. It took some effort but I ignored the shushing and tried the empathising route. Little Bear stuck his fingers in his ears and walked ahead. Whilst this pushed my buttons, I made myself take a deep breath and not get sucked in.

At home, Little Bear was still cross. He announced that if I spoke to him he would tell me to ‘shut up’. Usually, if he tries to threaten me like this, I call him out on it and explain about why threatening people isn’t nice. However, this evening I was just able to stop myself. This behaviour wasn’t really about being coercive; I think it was about needing some peace and his rather rudimentary way of asking me to be quiet. It can be so hard in the heat of the moment to look beyond the behaviour at what might be causing it but that is something that I seem to be getting a little better at with time.

I decided to go for the killing it with kindness approach; rallying around with a cold drink and snack. I suppose once-upon-a-lack-of-TP-knowledge I might have thought this was rewarding bad behaviour.

I left Little Bear with the TV and sat outside with Big Bear for a few minutes. “He isn’t having a good day is he Mum?” Big Bear asked. No, I agreed, he isn’t. I explained I thought it was because he was worried about the transition to the next class.

Later, at tea time, I tried to find out a bit more from Little Bear about what had happened in his day. As usual it was high tales, plot-twists and publishable fiction. Trying a different tack, I asked him how his friends were feeling about going to year 2. “They’re upset about it,” he said, “They really love Mrs Current Teacher and don’t want to leave her”. Aha. We explored the situation a little more, through the feelings of his ‘friends’. I have no idea if this is a known TP technique but it was up the sleeve and seemed to work.

At this point, Big Bear joined in and I was struck by the fact it shouldn’t be called Therapeutic Parenting because the whole family do it. Maybe it should be Therapeutic Family-ing. I sat back in admiration as Big Bear reassured him how close current teacher’s classroom would still be; how cool future teacher is; how Little Bear (or his friends) could still go and visit current teacher if they wanted to and how current teacher would miss him too. He told him it would all be ok and cuddled him.

Big Bear has never read a book on TP, he probably hasn’t even heard of it, yet sometimes he is more instinctively therapeutic than Grizzly and I stuck together.

It felt like a good time to talk to Little Bear about giving his teacher a present. I have been agonising over what to get as I really want to get it right for them both. I am extremely grateful to her for her pivotal role in his learning so far so want to give her a token of our appreciation that feels right for what she has done. I also want Little Bear to have some involvement and ownership in at least part of the gift. Whilst it certainly seems possible to overthink a present, I have finally decided that Little Bear should draw a picture of him and his teacher and we will get crafty with a mount and frame it. I put this idea to Little Bear over tea. He was pretty bought in and wanted to get started immediately. After tea, he sat and concentrated hard and put lots of effort into his drawing. The idea that his teacher will have something he has done to keep and will think of him every time she looks at it seems to be helping him.

I have to admit that by the end of the day I felt like I might have done some therapeutic stuff. We certainly managed to end on a better note than we had started with.

Days like yesterday can be challenging. There are extra things to think about; you need to be on your toes; you need to override your natural reactions. You need to have your wits about you and you need to try as best you can to get into your child’s mind. Usually, when I’m not rushing around in my nightie, I try to do these things. However, I struggle to do them well first thing in the morning, when I have PMS and at other random points when my resilience dips. I occasionally mutter under my breath, give rash consequences and sometimes raise my voice. Is that TP? Or not TP?

I genuinely don’t know. I just know that I’m trying my best and to be TP 24/7 would take a Herculean effort. Can we change the acronym to Trying-your-best Parenting? Cos I think I’ve got that sewn up at least.

 

 

TP, or not TP, that is the question

Transition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think Mr. New Teacher seemed a little shocked.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Transition