Managing the long summer holidays can be tough and the return to the school routine is welcome but for adopted kids school isn’t always plain sailing.
Data published confirms that adopted children often struggle to succeed at school:
- According to Government statistics adopted children are more than twice as likely to receive poor GCSE results with
- 22.8 per cent — securing five or more A*-C grades at GCSE, including English and maths. The figure in state-funded schools is 57.1 per cent.
(Extract from Times, 20 August, 2016)
Why is it so hard for adopted children to succeed at school?
The new school year brings a fresh lot of challenges for adopted children.
New school year, new people
New teachers, new teaching assistants, new kids in the class. On top of that we have new lessons, maybe new subjects, probably harder work and more homework.
It’s hard to be ‘good’
Being in back school means we have to be ‘good’.
I know my kid tries to be ‘good’ and is a really good kid. The trouble is there’s a little voice in their head that has already convinced them they are bad, and when you feel bad about yourself, it’s hard to think you can be good.
And then the simplest things for most kids has become a monumental challenge for my child.
- Sitting still for five minutes is now an Olympic sport
- suppressing the urge not to poke the kid sitting next to them or flick their rubber across the room is now a task of herculean proportions
- And controlling what comes out of their mouth. When my kids are stressed, there is no edit button, whatever they are thinking comes right out – unfiltered!
Playtime isn’t fun
Most kids can’t wait to rush out to play.
All that sitting still, listening, they need to release pent up energy, run around and return to the classroom relaxed and refreshed.
It’s the opposite for my kid because playtime has just turned into an assault course, trying to anticipate the unanticipated.
If we are going to have a problem at school you can be sure it happened at playtime.
For adopted kids, like mine, playtime is fraught:
- Released from the structured environment of the classroom to the unruly, rowdy playground
- The change of staff – while teachers are having their lunch in come the lunch-time staff – more grown ups to get to know
- Having way too much choice of what to do in a whole forty-five minutes. Free-time + no structure = panic
- And if people don’t want to play with me, that means they don’t like me, that must mean I am bad
The result is that stress level shoot up, adrenaline and cortisol rocket through the roof and what should have been a friendly game of tag or super heroes ends in thumps, thuds and tears.
Those darn sticker charts
The bane of my school life is the classroom sticker chart.
Our school back in the UK ran a traffic light system: Green for good, yellow for ooh stop messing about, red for you’ve been naughty.
For one of my kids it was impossible to stay on green, just impossible. A good day for us meant the day ended on yellow but usually we lurked somewhere around on red.
Then things got worse, the school introduced, silver and gold along with end of term super-duper prizes.
My kid really wanted that cinema trip. Heart sink! I knew that we were never going to make it to the cinema – that was way out of our league.
Our self-esteem crashed at rock bottom.
Sod the school sticker chart, we’ll do something for ourself and manage our own personal goals. Keep your silver and golds to yourself.
The noise and chaos
The external environment is very important for my kids, at home we can organise our environment around their needs.
But our school in the UK was big, really big, almost 500 pupils and up to 30 kids in a class (I know just a typical local, state primary school).
But the noise, moving classes, the interaction with other kids created a minefield – and we were always experiencing explosions.
Our current school in Paris is much smaller, kids are always taught in the same classroom, each child has their own desk, they have their own stationery and text books. There is much less opportunity for distraction. Lunch-time and play is 90 minutes, including a trip to the local park, with their teachers, to run off excess energy. The environment is just better suited to my kids sensory needs.
There seems to be no getting away from it school and class size make a big difference.
The end of the day
At pick up time, it was my kid holding the teacher’s hand, with a face like thunder as the teacher explained how todays incident unfolded.
Often it was minor, a knock in the playground, a bump in the corridor but it was my kid’s overreaction that landed them in hot water.
Being hypersensitive, on constant high alert meant they were unable to make a controlled, considered response to a seemingly normal interaction.
What is going on? Why is school so hard?
1. Attachment theory in the classroom
As an adopter I have to get to grips with attachment theory.
The theory goes that the earliest bonds formed between a parent and child have a long-term impact on their life. For an adopted child those bonds are disrupted as a result of early life trauma.
Think about how you stare adoringly into your baby’s eyes, notice every little change, wonder in amazement at how you created this little being, coo when they gurgle, play peek-a-boo, when they cry you comfort them and attend to their every need – even at two in the morning. For many adopted kids, most of this may not have happened.
An adopted child has had to try and build a relationship with a number of adults (birth parents, foster carers, social workers) before they find a permanent, loving home. As a result they may struggle to make secure attachments and the effects can be devastating.
Attachment theory is well understood by social workers, and other health practitioners, but less well known by teachers.
Kids who have experienced early life trauma may have poor concentration, difficulties with relationships, be withdrawn, disruptive, appear unfocused, and have the need to be in control.
When a child in the classroom exhibits this type of behaviour they are labelled as ‘aggressive’, ‘naughty’ and ‘disruptive’. Once labelled it is hard to change that perception.
According to psychological research,children who have suffered neglect or abuse in the first three years of life are much more likely than the generic (i.e. non looked-after) population to present with the range of behavioural problems as their needs were ignored at a time when their brains should have been fast developing (between 0-3 years).
The neuro-pathways necessary for healthy development were not properly forged, so the amygdala which governs the ‘flight, fight or freeze’ mechanism in the brain does not learn to regulate itself and nor do the stress hormone surges of adrenalin and cortisol which accompany them.
As a result, these children are sent into a recurring state of ’flight, fight or freeze’ at any hint of threat to their wellbeing, or whenever they perceive that their needs are not being met.
(Extract from the Children and Families Bill, Parliament, UK)
3. Sensory integration in adopted children
Sensory Integration is how the brain organises information and how we respond to our external environment.
While researching this post I discovered this article on Parents. As I read this lightbulbs just kept pinging in my brain. This is my kid! No wonder school is tough!
- Oversensitive to touch, sound, taste (check)
- Seek out sensory stimulation – falling, tripping, can appear aggressive – playing rough with toys and other kids (check)
- Unusually high activity level (Oh hell yes!)
- Easily distracted (check)
- Low self esteem (check)
- Not aware of other people’s personal space (check)
All of this DOES impact a child’s performance
Experts say that adopted children struggle at school because seven out of ten of them are taken from their natural parents due to severe abuse and neglect.
Research suggests that pre-natal and abuse in early years has significant effects on the development of the brain, which often has knock-on effects in terms of children’s behaviour, relationships and cognitive development.
Parents of adopted children often believe schools do not understand their children.
(Extract from Times, 20 August, 2016)
How can I help my adopted child succeed at school?
What I have been doing for the last few years is putting together a plan to educate my kids teachers about adoption, attachment and how best we can, together, manage my kids’ behaviour:
- Early on in the school year I get a meeting with the new school class teacher and just explain the issues, the probable behaviours they are going to experience, and what works best coming from a stand point of I aiming to help and support the teacher.
- Offering assurance, the behaviour they will experience is typical of a child who has attachment issues, early life trauma and abuse. I live with this kid 24/7 and see this behaviour on a regular basis.
- If I felt I was not being listened to, I have brought in my post adoption social worker. Having a professional with authority at my side, re-affirming everything I had been saying for months – let’s say we made progress
- Have regular meetings with the SENCO to update on progress
- In our new school in Paris, I took in a copy of ‘Let’s Learn Together” and highlighted the relevant sections were relevant to my child – they were really grateful
How can schools help adopted children succeed at school?
- Take adoptive parents seriously, early life trauma has real repercussions in everyday life for a child
- Get the Head to get their head around attachment theory
- Check out Attachment Aware Schools
- Recognise Sensory Integration
- Be prepared to adapt behaviour policies and put in place interventions. For example letting adopted kids to play with younger children during lunch breaks, this did wonders for my kid boosting their self-esteem no end, and this in turn had a positive effect on classroom behaviour
- Set up nurture groups to foster social skills, help kids take responsibility their actions, and to regulate themselves
- And you know what just praise that kid – it costs NOTHING! After months of hearing what was going wrong, I asked the teacher to tell me what was going well! Just hearing they were capable of being good helped their confidence and self esteem.
Resources and reading
- PAC-UK has a range of training, some of which is aimed at teachers
- Let’s Learn Together
- Adoption UK runs training workshops for parents of school age children and for teachers
- Attachment Aware Schools training programme, partnership between Bath Spa University, Bath and North East Somerset Council, the National College for Teaching and Leadership, a range of third sector organisations, attachment specialists and schools
- Place2Be in-school support and expert training to improve the emotional wellbeing of pupils, families, teachers & school staff
- Coram Adoptibles Schools Toolkit