How to help your adopted child succeed at school

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.

2. Dysregulation

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?

  1. Take adoptive parents seriously, early life trauma has real repercussions in everyday life for a child
  2. Get the Head to get their head around attachment theory
  3. Check out Attachment Aware Schools
  4. Recognise Sensory Integration
  5. 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
  6. Set up nurture groups to foster social skills, help kids take responsibility their actions, and to regulate themselves
  7. 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
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60 Comments

    • Thank you! It’s pretty tough being in school, and for adopted kids, there are so many challenges. I do hope the advice helps.

  1. This is a really interesting and informative read. I can’t believe your school in the UK had that traffic light system is sounds so wrong!

    It sounds like you are doing everything in your power to make sure your child is understood in the school environment by both the teachers and the children. It’s sad to hear that adoptive children have to deal with this. #KCACOLS
    Maria recently posted…Beauty Event at Bentalls, KingstonMy Profile

    • I know that traffic light system would cause so much misery but I think it’s widely used! Am trying my best to be an advocate for my child, and raise awareness of adoption. Thanks so much for dropping by.

  2. Thank you for this post. it is very informative. I don’t have adoptive children but I know people who do have them and they have been through the same. It is very important that teachers are there to support them. My eldest daughter is very shy too and she had moments that felt a little bit lost but thank God with the support of her teacher we were able to help her. She is very happy now. Thanks so much for sharing this at #KCACOLS.

    • Thanks so much for commenting. A teacher who is understanding and has empathy can make such a difference to a child’s life a school. You’re daughter is very lucky! Hope she has had a good start to the school year!

  3. A very interesting and thought provoking post. You are obviously very well informed on the subject and in the best place to help your child make the necessary adjustments. Thanks for sharing on #fortheloveofBLOG

    • Thank you. It’s been a case of necessity but I have been happy to do it. Information is power!

    • Thank you! I agree those statistics are sad, but at least I know what I am dealing with. I do try and stay informed, as they say information is power!!!!

  4. I am not surprised that children adopted can have bad days at school too. Being a teacher, I can reassure you that a lot more is done to help these students. I know it’s still minimal but it’s a start. Now teachers are fully aware of this kind of information and have to take it into account when they teach. Great post, I know that a lot of people discovered a lot, me included! #DreamTeam

    • Thanks The Frenchie Mummy it’s reassuring to hear a teacher say that. And like you say there are moves in the right direction. Thanks so much for you comment, I really appreciate it!

    • Oh thank you so much, I am sure it will be of great help to him, his colleagues and any adopted children in the school.

  5. This is very interesting to read. I am not adopted or has adopted a child, but I was in a boarding school at a very young age from 5 years old – so I do feel I have nowhere to belong to most of the time. The traffic light system is very insensitive. It is great that you have found a school in France that is willing to support your boy. The UK system education system really do it from the text book sometimes. Thank you very much for posting this interesting and educational post. It is really good to know and I admire you very much for your research for your son. #FabFridayPost
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    • Thanks so much for your comment. I agree about the traffic light system, and I think a lot of schools use it. I’m a little out of touch with the UK education system now, but from what I have heard they are really pushing up the levels, and it’s been tough on some kids.

  6. Our little boy has Autism so we have a very different school experience too. I just had no idea that adopted children can have so many struggles with school, great job on raising awareness of the differences in children. A little bit of awareness goes a long way x
    Toni | Gym Bunny Mummy recently posted…FAKE IT TIL YOU MAKE ITMy Profile

    • Thank you.I hope all goes well for your little boy at school. I have a few friends with children who are autistic, and it can be a struggle but with the right support and attention they really flourish.

    • Oh thank you! I am truly blushing. It is hard for adopted kids at school but with the right attention, support they really can flourish!

  7. So much to think about here – thank you so much for bringing all these thoughts and ideas together. Will really help when we start thinking about choosing schools.

    • Hi there, not a problem at all. I hope school will be great for your kid, but if there are a few bumps along the way then it’s always good to see how others have dealt with situations. Always happy to share my experiences.

    • Thank you! The whole school situation is tricky. And yes you do need the right school – it may not be the OFSTED Outstanding school that everyone is trying to get their kids into! When selecting a school it’s really worth getting a one-to-one with the Headteacher and getting a feel for their philosophy and how they support children with additional needs. Good luck when the time comes!

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this insightful post. Your Paris school sounds a lot better than your UK one. It makes me feel sad hearing about how children are constantly compared to each other in schools, easy to see why kids can have a low self esteem. Imagine if in the work place there was a traffic light system for everyone to see! Thanks again for sharing #FabFridatPost

    • Thanks for reading my post, I think a lot of kids these days do suffer from self esteem, there seems to be a lot of pressure on little ones these days.

      But hey, I love the idea of a traffic light system at work – can you imagine the uproar! Could be pretty hilarious (maybe even a naughty corner if you missed a deadline!).

  9. Am definitely going to look into the ‘attachment aware schools’ stuff. You’re right this is something schools could be much better on. I also HATE all the reward charts etc…. I always think of the other 29 kids who are feeling a bit miffed while one of them is being rewarded! #fortheloveofBLOG

    • Thank you! I agree about the reward charts, it can be so demoralising for some children, who try really hard but find it tough to succeed.

  10. Our son came to us behind, academically. He is naturally very bright and is scrapping by at school so they don’t see the problem. So many kids struggle for various reasons, teachers look at our boy and see how far he has come in 3 years and that seems to be good enough for them. Meanwhile, if they would invest some resources in him, he could go so far. It is frustrating for all of us. Thanks for the great post!
    Mama Bear recently posted…3 YearsMy Profile

    • That’s so sad when schools won’t go the extra mile for a gifted child! Take them up on the pupil premium, £1900 is not to be sniffed at! What are they doing with that money and how is it benefitting him. I have also learned if you’re not happy with the school – change!

  11. I had no idea that the traffic light system was used in so many schools – how demotivating for such a lot of children. The playground is where all the drama happens – I didn’t enjoy it as a child, and I can imagine for anyone who struggles with the social side of things that it’s a really stressful place. I love how well you understand your child, and how determined you are for getting the support of the school too. I’m sure this will be such a helpful read for anyone in this situation. Thanks so much for sharing it with us at #SharingtheBlogLove
    Katy – Hot Pink Wellingtons recently posted…#SharingtheBlogLove #10My Profile

    • It’s a very common behaviour management tool, and to be honest pretty arbitrary. I think just praising a child for having done something well goes a long way – the remember that and are more likely to repeat that positive behaviour.

      I remember those the playground dramas, it always felt like survival of the fittest out there, and anyone who was just a little different had a hard time.

      And thanks for you lovely comment, I just simply think of myself as my kid’s advocate – and as mums I think thats what we are.

  12. A brilliant article! My kids have only been home a year and my daughter has had such a difficult time in Year 1. I used to dread the teacher walking out at the end of the day to talk to me – and it broke my heart that she was labelled as ‘not bright’. The shock on the teacher’s face when she passed the phonics test with flying colours was a sight to see! We’ve made the decision to homeschool our daughter for the next year to at least give her a fighting chance in school. Our kids have so much they are going through – they don’t need to fight in school as well! #fortheloveofblog
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    • I have very strong memories of doing the playground ‘walk of shame!’ My boy started in year 1 after days of being with us and of course there were lots of issues. But teachers didn’t seem to grasp that all the emotional turmoil he was going through would affect his behaviour and academic performance.

      I can’t believe your child was labelled as ‘not bright’ – I am hopping mad. Our kids have so much to deal with, it just takes time – and you know what they get there! It’s great that you are homeschooling – there are so many adopters who end up choosing this option because of issues they have with teachers and the teaching methodology. And high five for your kid acing her phonic test!

      Thanks so much for stopping by – stay in touch!

  13. This was a very educational read, I had no idea about any this stuff or how difficult it would be for your adoptive child in a school environment. It’s great you’re taking all the necessary steps to make sure your child succeeds.

    Jordanne || Thelifeofaglasgowgirl.co.uk

    • Thanks so much, it has been tough, but we are making small steps in the right direction. Thanks so much for your comment.

  14. Gosh I had never really considered how hard for must be, all those changes. You are right praise costs nothing and it can make such a huge difference to a little one. I hope the new school year is ok for your little one x

    • You are absolutely right – praise costs nothing and can make some real dramatic changes. We started school yesterday, so far so good!

  15. My eldest daughter starts school next week and I worry for her. It brings back memories of my own childhood and hating the playground where that is always the time where you have to try and fit in, hope that today your friends are going to want to play with you. Playtime is such a long time for children and so much can happen during it. I hope my daughters school doesn’t introduce stickers as rewards, that isn’t vey inclusive for children. x
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    • I remember the playground day! I hated them too. I remember worrying in class even about the 15 minute break. If its a good school they will have plenty of staff on hand. One thing we did was to have a named lunch-time supervisor for my kids which did help. Someone they could go to if they needed to.

      Yes, the sticker / reward charts – it’s a just a behaviour management system which I feel is a little outdated – and really doesn’t work for kids who struggle to be ‘good’. Thanks for you comment Laura and hope you little one does enjoy school!

  16. I wasn’t adopted but I was long term fostered which is essentially the same thing and I can relate to a lot of this. I found it hard to not go into that stage of flight, fight, freeze’ for a while.
    Ana De- Jesus recently posted…My First Rayban’sMy Profile

    • You have done so well and have come along way!

      I know it’s tough, I often see my son go into flight/freeze/flight he switches in the blink of an eye and feels completely out of control. But we are helping to try and cope with the unpredictability of life and other people, and it all takes time.

  17. I’m not an adoptive parent or adopted myself but I was a super shy & sensitive young child myself and your post bought back so many memories of my own early playground experiences! Eeek! Wouldn’t want to have to go back & do that again for sure! Thanks for sharing – a really interesting read & has certainly raised my awareness.

  18. This is really interesting. I have two adopted nieces, one was fostered at birth and stayed with the same fosterers until she was adopted. The older sister suffered lots of abuse until she was finally fostered at 2, even then she was moved to a couple of different homes. 7 years on they are thriving thanks to brilliant parenting and wonderful teachers but there is still a marked difference in levels of concentration and self esteem between the two girls, which is heartbreaking. Sounds like you’re doing an amazing job! #sharethebloglove

    • That’s such a brilliant story! Thanks for sharing. Our kids have been with us for a number of years, and we notice the self esteem issues, the lack of focus / concentration, always the need for routine. But they are doing well.

  19. I’ve never heard of sticker charts, but I’m so glad they don’t do that in T’s school. I can imagine how awful it is for a child to receive the dreaded naughty colour, it will make them even feel worse 🙁

    • Yup tell me about it. Not the best way to make your kid feel proud of themselves.

    • Not at all! It’s great to know people are willing to learn a bit more about adoption. Thank you!

  20. This is really interesting. I’m not an adoptive parent, but my daughter is highly sensitive and I imagine she sometimes feels similar in the playground with so much to process with all the children running about. The sticker chart sounds terrible! There’s lots of brain science nowadays to support the fact that it’s emotional upsets that causes children to ‘misbehave,’ and that a simple sticker system isn’t going to help much in the long run. It’s a shame that a lot of schools haven’t caught up with it yet! #BloggerClubUK
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    • I completely agree with you. I think schools are way behind with brain science and behaviour modification tools such as sticker charts aren’t going to work with some kids. Thanks for you comment.

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