Our Just-Right Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

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Our Just-Right Challenge

Football: A Yardstick for Progress?

Back in the summer of ’15 (no, I am not re-inventing a song) Little Bear had just arrived. It was both a blessing and a curse that this momentous event had taken place during the summer holidays. It was great because it answered the question of how we were going to possibly manage meeting our youngest son a couple of hundred miles away whilst also managing the needs of our elder school-age child.

However, once we were back, the days stretched out interminably ahead of us. Grizzly and I were both on leave and there was no school or pre-school to give some much-needed structure to our days. There was just us and a very unruly seeming energetic mass of a child who at the very minimum needed to be kept out of immediate danger all the livelong day. With the benefit of hindsight I can say that he was traumatised and emotionally at sea. At the time I don’t think we quite knew what had hit us and I’m pretty sure we had barely a second to think about it.

We discovered, within the first hour of his arrival, that being inside the house with Little Bear was kind of difficult. He could not be contained in one room and wandered, nay prowled about, seemingly looking for the most dangerous or unwanted (by adults) tasks to engage in. He was everywhere: up shelves, in cupboards, under furniture. Little Bear was not in any way tuned into language so didn’t respond to any verbal means of trying to shape his behaviour. We spent the first weeks trailing after him, like a Police dog trailing a criminal, trying to anticipate what he might do next, trying to keep up with him, trying to offer distraction. We had to physically remove him from dangerous situations, which triggered his fight response and we were often bitten, scratched, hit or kicked.

It quickly became apparent that we might fair slightly better outside. Wide open spaces were good because there weren’t many things you couldn’t touch and Little Bear could be freer. Obviously the not responding to language thing was tricky, especially when you wanted him to come back. There was many an occasion when Grizzly had to sprint after him but notwithstanding that, things were easier.

You cannot actually live your life in a field though so we did have to try to make do with our small-ish back garden some of the time.

Left to his own devices, Little Bear would have spent the whole day watering the garden with the hose until a flood came and we would have needed Noah on speed-dial. We did of course allow Little Bear some hose time but it was essential we introduced some parameters if we were ever going to gain a modicum of order. As an aside, on one occasion of supervised hosing, Little Bear accidentally caught the sunlight at just the perfect angle to create a rainbow. It was one of the first times he responded to my communication to “look” and together we shared the same reference point and together marvelled at the amazing rainbow. I remember feeling more happy than you might think about that because I had actually reached him. After that we often tried to make a rainbow collaboratively and he began to see the point of me in an interaction. He also learned the word “rainbow” which was a big deal in his otherwise depleted vocabulary.

While the rainbow moment was a mini-turning point, I still did not want a flooded garden and knew that Little Bear needed help to engage with other outdoor activities too. Big Bear was 6 at this point and had recently got very into football. He was keen to be outdoors and was never far from a ball. Little Bear was also interested in the ball and generally ran straight though the middle of a kick-about with the sole purpose of nicking said ball. This was incredibly annoying from Big Bear’s point of view.

We tried to explain that Little Bear was little and didn’t understand games yet or that there were rules and he was really just trying to play. Big Bear could entertain this type of reasoning and would try to follow Little Bear’s lead. Little Bear would pick up the ball and run off, saying ‘catch me’ and looking for you to chase him. Big Bear or one of us would oblige. As he was shouting ‘catch me, catch me’ that’s what we tried to do. Only, when we did catch him, all hell would break loose. I guess because when the catching actually happened he decided he didn’t want it after all. I suppose being grabbed by people you aren’t sure if you trust yet is pretty frightening.

Little Bear would cry, we would be scratched. We would try some reasoning but Little Bear couldn’t process it. Five minutes later Little Bear would be running off with the ball shouting ‘catch me, catch me’ and the whole merry-go-round would begin again.

It was very difficult to manage or to see how to manage it a different way. All we knew was, it was a very inauspicious start to a footballing career and we probably had not just adopted the future David Beckham.

In the summer of 2016, things had developed a little. Big Bear was now getting good at football and wanted to practice properly. Little Bear had fallen totally in love with his brother and wanted to do whatever he was doing. If Big Bear was playing football, Little Bear was close by. Unfortunately he still had a penchant for ball-snatching and though Big Bear is extremely patient with him, it really did push his patience to breaking point. Most football games ended in one or the other or both in tears or storming off.

By this point Big Bear was pretty knowledgeable about the rules of the beautiful game and both he and Grizzly did their utmost to teach the basics to Little Bear. There were a few problems. One was that Little Bear could be (and still can be at times) rather oppositional so rules were like a red rag to a bull. If you told him he wasn’t allowed to pick up the ball, his first urge was to pick up the ball. Another problem is that Little Bear had very poor resilience then and the smallest knock or comment or his own perception that he had done something bad would be enough to cause him to purposefully kick the ball out of play or boot it at someone or call someone a name or hit them. Football continued to be a source of stress, distress and very little enjoyment for anyone involved.

Thankfully for Big Bear, he played football at an after-school club and he joined a club outside of school so he could get his fix somewhere. Interestingly, he had had a rough time because he didn’t like football when he was younger and it had really impacted on his ability to be accepted by the other boys. We had been reluctant about allowing him to join a club as it can be so competitive and the last thing we wanted was for his confidence to take a further knock, for example by being kept on the bench if he wasn’t perceived to be good enough.

Grizzly researched all the options and found a club with an inclusive ethos where all children get an equal go, irrespective of how good they are. Despite our reservations, it was a fantastic experience for Big Bear and did wonders for his confidence, both inside and outside of school. He continues to play for them now and apart from a recent appearance of nerves (a whole other tale, there is always something!) he loves it.

By the summer of 2017 a glimmer of football-related hope began to appear. Little Bear was beginning to tolerate the rules. He accepted they were there but was often in conflict with himself over sticking to them. He was still easily upset and something like the other team scoring a goal could be enough to cause a bit of a situation. However, the situation was generally less dramatic than before and mostly involved him stropping off to a corner of the garden for five minutes.

Alongside this, Little Bear’s language skills had now developed unrecognisably. We could start to talk about how he was feeling and what might be causing his behaviour. We could say things like “I think you are feeling a bit frustrated because the other team scored. That’s ok. Sit there for five minutes then join in again when you’re ready”. We generally didn’t make too much of a fuss and often if we ignored the outburst he would just join in again a few seconds later by himself. We always praised the good decision he had made to come back. We also tried some other techniques like bringing a squidgy stress toy outside with us and Little Bear would go and squeeze that if he was getting annoyed, rather than shouting at somebody or running off with the ball.

Football still had its moments but as the summer wore on I realised that the boys were starting to have a kick-about on their own after tea, while I did the washing up (handily positioned in front of the back window where I could keep a watchful eye). More often than not, the game would go without hitch and I would silently count my blessings when they came back in. They even started to set each other up for specific bits of play e.g. Little Bear would throw the ball so Big Bear could volley it in. Maybe football could be fun in the Bear household after all?

Not long after term started again, Little Bear began asking to join the after school football club that Big Bear attended. I had a lot of concerns. He is extremely tired after school, making listening harder than usual. We were having a very rough phase in the classroom and Little Bear was frequently in trouble for being disruptive. The guy who runs the football is lovely but not especially firm and I’d always rather suspected the children ran amok. Little Bear is not a child who should be allowed to run amok. It is not wise. It could be extremely detrimental.

Little Bear clearly wanted to go though and I had to listen. I decided this was a rare time that a sticker chart might work. I was clear with Little Bear that I couldn’t let him go to the club if he wasn’t going to listen to what he was told because that could be dangerous. The rules would be there to keep him and his friends safe. He gained stickers by doing what he was asked in school, at home and if he was with others like his grandparents. If he didn’t manage to do as he was asked, nothing happened. If he did manage to, a big fuss was made about his ability to make good decisions and he got a sticker.

By October half term the chart was full and I kept to my word and signed him up. I did speak with the football coach about Little Bear’s needs; that rules need to be clear and consistent for him and that he needs to know that the coach and I will talk and if things are not going well, the coach will tell me.

I knew I had to let him try but I was worried.

Last week, out of the blue, I received this message:

Just a quick one, I know you were unsure about signing Little Bear up for football but he has been amazing! I love coaching him, football or PE, just wanted to drop you a message to let you know. And then Big Bear is something else, great kid that doesn’t get the credit he deserves, he’s fantastic.

And my heart melted.

How lovely of the coach to take the time to send me that? I wonder if he really knows how much that means?

I couldn’t possibly have predicted, back in 2005, mid back garden flood, that my little dude would be able to overcome so many hurdles that he would be able to not just cope but flourish in a football club only 2 years later. He’s a phenomenon.

Maybe we did adopt the future David Beckham after all?!

 

And as for Big Bear, he is an extremely patient and lovely big brother and I hope that I at least give him the credit he deserves.

Football: A Yardstick for Progress?

Fantasy versus Reality

Little Bear has been everywhere, man. He really has. He has been to America, Spain, the Eiffel Tower, Australia, the jungle. He has even been to Paradise. Any country you can name, he has been there.

And the things he has got up to! He’s wrestled sharks, ridden elephants, punched President Trump in the face and even witnessed the death of Princess Diana. Many people have tried to harm him along the way but he’s killed them; or punched them in the face at the very least. He’s very strong. SUPER strong. In fact, probably stronger than Batman or maybe even the Hulk. And he’s got guns. A whole arsenal of them. He’s taken out many a good man.

And he has two Fathers, but sometimes one is dead. His Father is also VERY strong. He can do ANYTHING. He has fast cars. He’s encountered a plethora of sharks, tigers and poisonous spiders himself.

Oh, and did you know Little Bear has a special car? One that can fly to heaven and bring people back from the dead! He quite often pops there and back in the day apparently. And all those songs you hear on the radio? Little Bear sang those. And all the sportsmen on the television? Little Bear.

As for that school he attends! Well, there are frequently brawls in the classroom and the teacher seems a right one for throwing the first punch. Sometimes the Head teacher joins in. Sometimes they do PE on roof. And they hardly ever feed them lunch.

Apparently.

According to Little Bear, anyway.

I wouldn’t describe it as lying, because Little Bear thinks these things are really true. I think I would describe it as a very fertile and fantastical imagination. Most of the time, Little Bear’s high tales are very entertaining and I’m sure that when he is a little more adept at writing, he will be able to conjure up some amazing stories. Perhaps he will be an author, or film-writer; he certainly has the creativity for it.

It does have its drawbacks though. It is virtually impossible to know when he’s telling the truth, especially as he seems so good at convincing himself that things that haven’t happened really have. Due to that he can get genuinely annoyed with you for saying something isn’t true (even though it very clearly is not) as he is so bought into the idea. We can’t rely on reading his responses because his own position of what he thinks happened is so skewed.

Most of the time, I don’t attempt to call him out on his stories. The only parallel I can draw (and please bear with me as it is a bit dubious) is that if somebody had confusion (Dementia) and kept forgetting things, you wouldn’t continually tell them they were wrong and draw attention to the forgetting and the repeating. You would just go along with them so as not to upset them. There would be no real benefit to either of you to insist upon correcting them.

It feels the same with Little Bear and his fantastical tales. What does it matter if he claims to have met the Queen or have been on a midnight adventure with a friendly lion? It doesn’t matter and there is no harm in it. To be honest, we mostly find him hilarious and he often takes us by surprise with a new, even wilder tale. The story-telling is part of his charm and we wouldn’t want to discourage it.

However, it is essential that, as he gets older, he does learn to know the difference between truth and lies and that he can be relied upon to tell the truth (even if he still likes some fantastical escapism). There are times therefore that I do call him out and label what he has said as a lie. This tends to be when he has said something that sounds more like an accusation or relates directly to one of us. For example, he does have a tendency to say that people have hit him when they blatantly haven’t. I could sit with him and a grandparent or Grizzly the whole time and despite me having seen everything, he might still claim that somebody present hit him. It’s not generally malicious, more that things just come out of his mouth and sometimes he can be purposefully provocative.

At these times I will call out the lie. I will say “you shouldn’t say that Little Bear, because it didn’t really happen. It is a lie.” I generally go on to explain what the possible consequences of telling the lie could be e.g. the person you are saying hit you could get into a lot of trouble with the Police. Occasionally, over recent weeks, when he has a made a wild claim and I have asked him whether it is true or not, he has sometimes admitted it is a lie, which is reassuring and shows he is starting to develop some awareness.

Obviously I have no idea if this is the right way of handling it, I’m just following my instincts (AKA making it up as I go along).

I have to admit that I have also duped him into telling me he’s lying sometimes by convincing him that our noses really do grow like Pinocchio’s when we tell an untruth. I have no idea what possessed me, it’s a very un-me thing to have done, but I’m reluctant to reveal the truth just yet as sometimes Little Bear will make a bold claim then a few seconds later say, “has my nose grown?”. Then I know I’ve got him. It’s the only time I can be certain he’s lying. It’s quite useful for situations such as ‘have you washed your hands after the toilet?’ where you really do need to know the right answer.

Don’t worry, the irony of me lying to him about his nose having grown is not lost on me in a blog about lying! I have to be a little bit wily though otherwise I would be constantly outwitted by a five year old.

We have discussed this issue with school and with PAS. Not because we are really worried about it but because school obviously experience it too – apparently Little Bear’s account of our summer holiday began with the boys enjoying the sea in their wet suits and ended with some sort of killer shark massacre.

The conclusion we have drawn is that Little Bear is in a developmental phase that would usually happen earlier. A quick bit of research suggests that typically developing 2 and 3 year olds lie frequently and spend a lot of time exploring the boundaries of fantasy/ reality. Most studies seem to suggest that around 3 is a pivotal age for being able to separate your imagination from real life.

Little Bear has such a spiky profile that it is quite possible that this is the level he is functioning at for this particular aspect of his development. We do wonder though how much this has been impacted by his language difficulties and whether he would have been able to move into this phase earlier had he have had a wider vocabulary at his fingertips. His language skills have leapt forwards again recently; perhaps this has allowed all those thoughts and ideas that have been in his brain for a long time to finally get out?

Often, when he is telling his tales, I am not worrying too much about the content but am marvelling at his fantastic turn of phrase and narrative structure. Only a Speech Therapist would say that, obviously, but nevertheless, I stand by it as a year ago, when he started school, Little Bear really struggled with those reading books without words that require you to make up one sentence to describe what is happening. And here he is, using words like ‘return’ and ‘sadly’ and ‘supposed’ and structuring a whole story that is cohesive and makes sense. It’s incredible really.

Whilst I do think this is likely to be a developmental phase, I came across something else today that really resonated. I was reading the Coventry Grid*, a resource developed by Heather Moran, to pull out the differences between the presentation of children with Autism and those with attachment difficulties. In the ‘mind-reading’ section, there is a subheading of ‘problems distinguishing between fact and fiction’. Here are the descriptors for children with attachment difficulties:

FullSizeRender (11)

 

I’m sure you can see why it resonated. Who knew that this type of presentation could be another result of a neglectful start? Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have so much to answer for I’m finding; their effects being so pernicious and wide-ranging.

It also amazes me how much there is to learn about our children and despite reading a lot and thinking about Little Bear a lot and writing about him a lot, I am still learning new things and continuing to grow in my understanding of his behaviour.

 

 

*The Coventry Grid is an excellent resource that I would highly recommend. You can find it easily on Google.

I don’t actually spend all my days reading sensible things; I was working at the time. I was interrupted by a giant anteater appearing from my computer screen though. It sipped my tea with its long snake-like tongue before engaging me in a sword fight. I won.

 

Has my nose just growed?

 

Fantasy versus Reality

The Little Things

This week is National Adoption Week. Last year, my first year of blogging, I was all keen and wrote a blog post for each day of National Adoption Week. I’m not doing that again because it nearly killed me, and also because my feelings on the subject have grown more complicated. Last year I was happy to use any small influence I might have as a blogger to raise awareness and potentially encourage others to consider adoption.

I say ‘potentially’ and ‘consider’ on purpose because although I was less knowledgeable then I still wasn’t naïve enough to think that everyone should be happily hopping out to round up some children.

The theme last year was ‘support’ and I did take the opportunity to point out some support needs adopted children and their families may have – specifically around blending birth and adopted children and speech and language therapy ( Speech and Language Therapy Support for Adopted Children, Ways to support your child through adopting a sibling)

In the year since then I have continued to read voraciously around the topic of adoption. I read lots of blogs. If there is a new article or TV programme I am keen to have a gander. I read the Adoption UK magazine and order books that pique my interest. I have met many adopters through my workshops and always love to hear their stories. The more I learn and the more I reflect the more complex the adoption landscape seems.

Are we considering adoptee’s voices enough (or at all)? What exactly is the birth parents role in all this? Do they get any support? How should I feel about them? Are there alternatives that could be better? Do we really need alternatives? How would they work? Should we consider more direct contact with birth families? How would we keep it safe for our children? Why is post adoption support so variable? How come I am able to access excellent support but Twitter friends are left to fend for themselves? Why don’t schools get it? How could more people get the speech and language training and support they need?

I could fill this post with questions. I don’t know the answers by the way, but it makes National Adoption Week more complicated. I can’t really just say “do it! Adopt! It’s brilliant!” It is brilliant (for us) but while I have all these questions floating round it would seem a bit disingenuous to encourage others to be doing it.

Which leads me on to wondering what role I should be playing in promoting adoption anyway as an adoption blogger?

For some, National Adoption Week gets a bad rap: it is accused of using perfect-world pictures and stories to ‘trap’ would-be adopters; to lure them in, naïve and unawares, into an imperfect, tumultuous and unsupported world. I am aware of the responsibility incumbent upon me, as a blogger, to be balanced. I do think it is important to be honest and to get real stories into the public domain, so potential adopters know about the realities and risks. I certainly try to be frank when I’m writing.

Then there is the other side of the coin: if we are too honest and too vocal about the difficulties, are we going to cause some serious publicity damage? Are we going to terrify the pants off prospective adopters to the point where no one wants to adopt anymore? And what then?

I feel a real affinity with prospective adopters as it is not so long since I was one. I have never had as many sleepless nights as when we were engaged in the Matching process. It is a worrying enough time without hearing all the scary stories too.

As a blogger I certainly don’t want to frighten anybody. While I feel my responsibility to inform, share and wear my heart on my blogging sleeve, I hope I do it in an accessible way that allows others to see that whatever the challenges are, I love my son, I am 100% happy with our decision to adopt him and that he completes our family.

The thing is that for us adopters there are many big things to fill our thought-spaces: developmental trauma and how it is manifesting in our homes; any additional needs our children may have and how they are being met; whether our children’s educational establishments truly understand them and can meet their needs appropriately; any sibling issues or family dynamics that might be going on; any contact arrangements we might have with our child’s birth family, to name but a few. It is no surprise that adoption bloggers spend most of their time writing about the Big Things. Perhaps, when I think about balance, we can be guilty of omitting the Little Things.

Any respect you did have for me is about to evaporate as I turn to One Direction to illustrate my point. They sing about the Little Things and I could easily steal their words for Little Bear:

 

Your hand fits in mine like it’s made just for me

But bear this in mind it was meant to be

And I’m joining up the dots with the freckles on your cheeks

And it all makes sense to me.

 

You never love yourself half as much as I love you

You’ll never treat yourself right darling but I want you to

If I let you know, I’m here for you

Maybe you’ll love yourself like I love you oh

 

I’ve just let these little things slip out of my mouth

Because it’s you, oh it’s you, it’s you they add up to

And I’m in love with you (and all these little things).

 

The song (as most songs are) is really about a bloke singing to a girl about how he loves her with all her perceived imperfections but the words really resonate with me. There is nothing lovelier than Little Bear’s warm hand in mine; than his drainpipe laugh (that is no longer restrained by self-imposed limitations); than his huge brown eyes wide with mesmerisation. And there are all the Little Things Little Bear does that fill me with such pride and happiness. It is the Little Things that show me his progress.

Little Bear has always favoured the colour black and would only draw or paint with black. He has recently started using “mix-y colours” and making things look “bootiful”. It’s a Little Thing but it’s a lovely thing.

IMG_9174

Little Bear, despite having Developmental Language Disorder, has started having spelling tests at school. He has achieved full marks 3 weeks in a row. It’s a Little Thing but it feels HUGE.

I have tried to up the therapeutic part of my parenting recently. I have been wondering more. When I get my wondering right Little Bear often bursts into tears. I know this sounds like a bad thing but it’s good because previously he would have hidden his real feelings behind anger. Now he lets it hang out. We couldn’t have verbalised his feelings before but now we can. Little Bear might say “I still feel upset mummy” and let me comfort him a bit. It’s Little Things but these sorts of Little Things can really help with the Big Things.

Big Bear was feeling unwell recently so he lay on the floor on the landing. Little Bear went to him and sat beside him, gently stroking his hair. It is a Little Thing but it shows me what a lovely little human he is.

Last night Little Bear said, “You know Van Gogh Mum? He painted Starry Night and The Potato Eaters”. It sounds like a Little Thing but this is a boy who used to struggle to talk about the here and now. He didn’t know his own name or a word for TV but now he can tell me about a famous artist and name 2 of his paintings. It’s phenomenal.

A few days ago Little Bear told me about Venus Fly Traps. He couldn’t quite remember the name but he gave such a good description and gesture that I knew exactly what he meant. It’s a Little Thing.

Everyday there are Little Things.

If I’m thinking about whether others should adopt I can’t lie about the Big Things. There are Big Things in adoption and you need to know about them and be as ready as you can be. You need an Agency that will be there for the long haul and that will truly support you with the Big Things as and when you need them to. The variation in post-adoption support is, frankly, criminal. Do your homework about any adoption agency, choose carefully, they are not all the same.

I would say that if you feel you can handle the Big Things (bearing in mind living it is not the same as imagining it) then know you will get the Little Things too.

The Little Things are amazing. For me, the Little Things make everything worth it.

I guess there have been times when the Big Things have taken over but a Little Thing will always have popped up from nowhere and made me smile.

Adoption is complicated. There are no straight answers with good reason. There are many viewpoints and voices to consider. Personally, I will always be grateful to adoption because it has brought me my second son and all his Little Things.

There is an unparalleled joy in having a heart full of Little Things, even if your head is full of Big Ones.

 

PS. I’m very sorry, One Direction, if you happen to read this and notice that I’ve wantonly quoted bits of your song to suit myself.

PPS. I do wonder how Little Bear is going to feel if he reads my blog when he is bigger and sees that I talk all about him and his life. I hope that he won’t see it as a misappropriation of his story. I hope he sees that he has a Mum who loves him very much indeed and spends an awful lot of time thinking about the best ways to help him.

PPPS. I fully appreciate the need to hear adoptees voices and I can’t wait to be able to include Little Bear’s once he is able to contribute.

 

The Little Things

School Worries

Last week in Adoptive Parent: Behaviour Detective, I wrote about my growing concern for Little Bear. Although I was struggling to narrow down the possible reasons for the changes in his behaviour, I was seeing warning signs that school could be at the root of it.

I was pinning my hopes of resolving the whole thing on a meeting with them which we had scheduled in for Tuesday. Hopefully a good chat and picking through the issues together would help us get back on track.

On Monday I got called in again. Would it be ok if we cancelled the meeting? They just felt that the things they have recently put in place (a timetable) need more time to bed in and they don’t have any updates for us.

I wasn’t really ok with this because Grizzly had re-jigged his ridiculously busy work diary so that he could attend. Although school don’t feel they have any information to share with us, we certainly feel we have many unanswered questions and do not yet have a clear picture of what is actually happening in the classroom.

We feel in need of a meeting.

However, I have always liked Little Bear’s teacher and feel I have to try to trust her. Although I tried to suggest the meeting would still be beneficial she was immovable. Mrs C, the TA, had already been told it was cancelled. She really felt it would be better to wait – its parents evening next week anyway. This didn’t reassure me much as Grizzly will be in America then and I’ll only have a ten minute slot…

It would be useful if Grizzly could be there because I’m pretty sure school have me down as a neurotic mother.

Not wanting to be completely fobbed off I asked about Little Bear’s behaviour as I stood there in the classroom door. It isn’t good. He is frequently refusing to do any work or anything he is told. In the whole class group he is silly and disruptive. He keeps getting himself sent out of class.

It sounds as though the TA has a lot of training needs. She is currently vacillating between getting cross with Little Bear and letting him do whatever he wants. Her management of him sounds inconsistent.

Evidently Little Bear doesn’t know where he is at with her. Unsurprisingly this is leading to a spike in his anxiety. He is pushing the boundaries because he needs to feel them there, sure and sturdy. Without clear boundaries Little Bear is anxious and out of control. He tries to claw control back in other ways like refusing to comply. When he pushes against a boundary it is because he needs it to stand firm. Predictable, consistent boundaries make him feel safe. If the boundary keeps moving or is there sometimes but at others not life is very confusing and unsafe. Life is how it used to be before he was truly parented: when he was in charge of his own survival.

We know this because we have lived with and parented Little Bear for 2 years now. We have introduced boundaries into his life (because we had to for everyone’s safety) and we have stood firm and united against the full onslaught of his behaviour, day in, day out, until he began to trust us and feel safe. Consequently he is unrecognisable from the out of control firework of a child who first swept us, quite literally, off our feet. At home he is now usually co-operative, able to listen and to engage appropriately in family life.

I don’t mean to sound full of my own self-importance when I say this but we are the experts at managing Little Bear. No one else understands his challenges or has as many strategies that work as we do.

I don’t think school know this or believe this.

I haven’t spelled it out in as many words but I have offered countless times to help. Perhaps we could meet? Perhaps we could problem solve together? Perhaps we could share ideas and agree a common strategy?

It is essential in my eyes that we work as a team – the consistency shouldn’t just be within our home or within school but across both settings too. This will undoubtedly help Little Bear to feel safer and less confused about what is expected of him.

School do not seem to want us to engage with Mrs C in this way though. In fact I feel they are actively keeping us apart. I’m quite confused as to why. Yes, I ask a lot of questions and I e-mail and I pop my head in. I guess I take up their time but I have never been cross or anything less than pleasant.

I can’t help feeling that they don’t value the contribution we could make. Perhaps they’d rather do things their way.

I reassured Little Bear’s teacher that no matter how well Mrs C is or isn’t coping with Little Bear, we appreciate that she is keen and willing and we completely empathise with the challenge he is providing her with and how this might be making her feel. Because we have lived this and we have felt those feelings. We get it.

We could help her.

In the meantime we are becoming increasingly frustrated and concerned. Each week that passes is another week of Little Bear being the class clown or naughty boy. It is another week of wasted potential.

I wish I could say with confidence that it is one week closer to a breakthrough but what if it isn’t? What if it is one week closer to not coping with mainstream education?

Sometimes it doesn’t do to have too much knowledge. Sometimes knowledge feeds fear. I keep abreast of adoption in the media. It hasn’t pass me by that one of the biggest stressors for adopters where things have gone wrong is navigating the education system for their child.

Ironically this week I’ve also visited a new school in my professional capacity. It is billing itself as a last chance saloon for children who haven’t coped in any other school. It is going to be the one place that won’t give up and that provides children with all the therapeutic input they need as part and parcel of their education. It sounds brilliant. I don’t think I can work there though because every time I drove up to the building a deep seated fear would be awoken: would this be Little Bear’s future? Is he going to become one of these children who is misunderstood, mismanaged and ultimately failed by our mainstream school system?

I told Little Bear’s teacher that I am worried, that the situation is worrying. Yes, she confirmed, it is worrying. Even Grizzly is worried and he usually says everything will be fine.

The worrying is tiring. I have a virus I can’t get rid of and two cold sores. It is not surprising.

The not knowing and the not being given updates and the being kept in the dark about what is happening day to day is only fuelling my anxiety. I would feel much better if had more information. I have mentioned several times that unless the teacher or TA tells me about things that have happened I won’t know about them. Little Bear does not come home and tell me. I am not psychic. We can’t talk things through with Little Bear and help with understanding what might be going wrong or what strategies could be put in place if we don’t know what the problems are.

Neither Grizzly nor I are any good at sitting around and just waiting to see what happens. We are both naturally pro-active. Just waiting and seeing does not seem a good plan when things are evidently going tits up.

I worry.

Post script:

Since I drafted the above, there has been a development: I got a phone call from the Head Teacher. He informed me that, on Tuesday, instead of the meeting we had asked for, they had had an internal meeting about Little Bear. Yes, a meeting without us. They had concluded that things were not going well and they would require some external support to help them.

He sounded very pleased with himself as he announced that he had done some research and found a great organisation that would be able to help us, had I heard of them? Err, well, yes, as a matter of fact I had because they are our post-adoption support service and I work for them sometimes! He went on to apologise that it had taken them a while to sort this: they needed to figure out what the right sources of support where.

It took me all my strength not to scream “why didn’t you just ask me?!” It’s so incredibly frustrating because once again we have been passed over and dismissed. I could give him a detailed account of the organisation in question and their offering. I provide part of their offering. We could have had a free consultation from the service, which I had mentioned several times but evidently this fell on deaf ears as a referral has now been made for costly assessment/training instead.

The Head also mentioned that they feel Little Bear is presenting with ADHD and that his behaviour in Year 1 “has taken them by surprise”. I’m baffled about how they are surprised. We are not surprised. We have described several times his behaviour at home and how his behaviour has changed over time. What they are now seeing is probably about a tenth of the behaviour we dealt with for the first 6 months or so of having Little Bear. We warned them before he started school what they might encounter.

In fairness, Little Bear surprised us all in Reception by taking the start of school pretty much in his stride. Looking back, I suspect very few demands were made of him in Reception whereas now the demands are constant throughout the day. It is obvious (to those of us who know him well) that this would lead to increased challenges.

Whilst I had to rant quite a lot yesterday and steam was coming from my ears, I have to focus on the salient points. An organisation which I have deep faith and trust in is now in Little Bear’s corner. I know they will help us. I am confident they will help school to see that we do know actually rather a lot about our son.

I was direct with the Head Teacher about some of our concerns: crucially that we need them to recognise us as part of the team. He was placatory but I fear still dismissive.

I am quite disappointed in myself that I have somehow come across as irrelevant. As a professional person working in the field of adoption and being an adopter, you’d think I might have a voice. I dread to think how other parents are made to feel.

I still worry.

 

School Worries

Seeing the Educational Psychologist

I recently requested a progress meeting with school to discuss how Little Bear is getting on. I feel lucky that so far the staff have been very approachable and accommodating. We had the meeting and as usual were able to identify progress and also areas that we want to work on. During the meeting Little Bear’s teacher wanted to ask me something: would I consent to him being seen by an Educational Psychologist (EP)?

She explained that the EP had made routine contact with school to check whether they needed to consult regarding any pupils this term. The SENCO had thought of Little Bear. What did I think?

I had a couple of initial thoughts, most of which I kept to myself. Firstly, eek! Out of the whole school of almost 200 pupils Little Bear was the first child that they thought of. In fact, I have since found out that he was the only child. What did that say about the severity of his needs? Those old feelings around whether I really do accept his needs, just as they are, were getting a little airing.

My main thought though was one of cautious gratitude. I couldn’t see any negatives of involving another agency and if anything it could lead to positives such as more tailored input or dare I even think it, funding. My previous experiences of working alongside an EP Service elsewhere were of an extremely stretched and in demand service. Children frequently waited long periods to be seen and schools had to juggle and prioritise the most needy to maximise their allocation of time. Once a school’s EP allowance ran out, children just had to wait, irrespective of their level of need. Given that experience I felt lucky that in his second term at school, Little Bear was already getting an opportunity to be seen, without me even having to ask for it: no battle needed.

I consented straight away then instantly became anxious that the appointment might happen without any of my involvement (not that I’m a control freak!). When I worked as a Speech and Language Therapist (SaLT) in an NHS Department I worked closely with the EP’s. I knew them and they knew me. We had a mutual respect for one another’s work and often spoke regarding specific children. Occasionally we would have some healthy professional debate (AKA a polite argument), usually when I was putting my neck on the line about a child needing a specific provision that nobody wanted to pay for. However, most of the time we worked in partnership to make things happen for children.

It was feeling very strange to be on the other side of this equation. Would I be respected and listened to in my role as parent? Would I be involved at all?

Increasingly I have also found myself taking the role of Little Bear’s SaLT – out of necessity to fill the gaping void left by our local NHS Service. I wondered whether my opinions with my SaLT hat on would be considered or valued when the EP came either.

When I asked Little Bear’s teacher whether we might be able to meet with the EP or be part of the consultation when the time came, she replied with a brisk “I wouldn’t have thought so”, confirming my fear that they thought I didn’t have anything to contribute as a parent or as a professional. Feeling a little disheartened and somewhat undervalued I felt as though I would just have to go with it. I can see how easily you can become disempowered as a parent, particularly one of a child with additional needs.

However, something changed somewhere and a week or so later I got an e-mail inviting me to attend the meeting with the EP. Greatly relieved I then began to wonder what the EP might be like. Although not meaning to stereotype I assumed it would be a middle-aged no-nonsense lady.

This week Grizzly and I have attended the meeting. It turns out that the EP was actually a young man and he was lovely. He was very good at listening to us and tweaking his advice accordingly. He wasn’t in any way judgemental and we did feel like valued members of the meeting. I think that is so important.

We had been told that the EP would have seen Little Bear prior to the meeting and would be feeding back to us. However, in reality it was a consultation meeting and the EP had never met Little Bear. Apparently we would create strategies during the meeting and then reconvene to review them before deciding whether Little Bear would require further assessment or not. I think school might have felt a bit fobbed off by this.

In the meeting, Little Bear’s teacher talked about his educational levels, his behaviour in the classroom (generally a little less challenging than at home) and his attitude to learning. I had expected much of the focus to be on his communication difficulties and ways to manage that within his learning. However, we talked a lot more about his social communication, his ability to identify and regulate his own emotions and ways to develop his skills in these areas. The EP seemed versed in early trauma and attachment and was interested in our perspectives. He was clear on the links between Little Bear’s early life experiences and his approach to learning now. We talked about how he can be oppositional and how the very fact of you wanting him to do something makes him not want to do it. We talked about him not showing his full ability and sometimes making purposeful errors. We talked about Little Bear easily entering fight or flight mode and how that can lead to him lashing out.

Whilst acknowledging and problem-solving these things with us the EP was not alarmist. At the moment the challenges do not seem to be things that we cannot overcome. The strategies seem practical and hopefully fun for Little Bear – including an adapted version of Lego Therapy to help build his resilience and ability to play with his peers with less adult support. We had to adapt it because Little Bear doesn’t always have the resilience for Lego so school have agreed to try it with Duplo instead.

A lot of the strategies were around Emotional Literacy – giving Little Bear a wider emotional vocabulary; helping him to identify his own feelings; giving him strategies to use when regulating himself is difficult. School are going to identify a safe space for him to retreat to when he needs it and will support him in using it appropriately.

We both came away from the meeting feeling pleased.

Another bonus for me was some of the comments the EP made. He said he felt we had “already done a lot of psychological unpicking” and that we understand Little Bear’s needs well. At the end he commented that he had enjoyed listening to our story and was pleased to hear so many positives in our descriptions of Little Bear.

It is very easy to forget how hard we work (I mean all adopters) and how much time and effort we put into trying to understand our children and what makes them tick. It is easy to forget that we are experts in them. If I went on Mastermind and my specialist subject was Little Bear, the only other person in the world who could beat me would be Grizzly. Nobody knows him like we do. It is hugely beneficial and confidence-boosting for that to be acknowledged by a Professional person working with your child.

I also found it surprisingly emotional to tell our story (the EP knew nothing more than Little Bear’s name so we had to fill him in on his background and progress to date) and to hear Grizzly sharing parts of our story. In the day to day craziness of our lives, it’s so easy to forget the highs and lows of the rollercoaster ride we’ve been on. At one point we spoke about how Little Bear used to bang his head and I had honestly forgotten that he used to do that. I felt proud of us as a couple for having tackled so many things in such a joined up way. As a parent it is easy to fall into a mode of constant self-deprecation but occasionally you have to allow yourself some credit. Perhaps we are doing an okay job after all.

At the end of the meeting we booked in a review date. The EP said he felt he knew Little Bear quite well now and didn’t feel the need to actually see him. Grizzly said he felt an observation would be useful and so did Little Bear’s teacher. She commented that in all her years of teaching, she had never taught a child quite like Little Bear! And I don’t think she meant because of his background as she has 4 other adopted children in her current class, irrespective of any who have gone before. I do know what she means; he is a complicated little chap.

So observation is going to happen and the EP is going to attempt some 1:1 assessment. Oh how we laughed when he said he would allow 1 hour for that! Little Bear finds 5 minutes of an adult-directed table top activity challenging. I would love to be a fly on the wall. I guess we are going to find out what the poor EP is really made of..

 

 

 

 

 

Seeing the Educational Psychologist