My adopted child struggles at school

My adopted child struggles at school

Like many adopted children, Wonder Boy has been struggling at school. At lunch playtime when most kids are released from the confines of a classroom is met with rapturous joy, for my little lad it is anything but. A whole hour of unstructured play is greeted with fear and dread. In his mind, not knowing what will happen next is just too much to bear. Playground argie bargie, joshing and teasing is responded to with fright and aggression.

At the end of last term the school finally put in place lunchtime support. It started this term and it’s really helping Wonderboy cope. When I asked Wonderboy why he liked the nurture lunchtime sessions his response was: “I know what is happening”. That statement said it all. Wonder Boy had been trying hard to hold it together, but lunchtime was too much for him. The unpredictability of unstructured play was too noisy, too chaotic and just ripe for getting into trouble.

This week I had a follow up meeting with the school, and thanks to a fabulous new SENCO who has recently joined the school, the lunchtime provision will continue into the new academic year, Wonderboy will have an attachment figure at the school for the remainder of this time there – the fabulous new SENCO (result!).

At last I feel like I am being listened to. Towards the end of term, we will reconvene and discuss Wonderboy’s transition to the next year group…and involve his new year group teacher…double result! I am literally skipping round the house with joy!

I want to send big thanks to adoption blogger Gareth Marr, I happened on his tweet which linked to this brilliant blog post, a potted version below. It helped me frame my discussions with the school. Thank you Gareth for sharing.

Dos and Don’ts in the Classroom

  • Identify a consistent attachment figure in the school. Children with attachment difficulties need to feel safe and secure at school as well as at home. This could be the Designated Teacher or the SENCO or a Deputy Head. It should be someone other than the class teacher who can be a constant as the child progresses through the school.
    It’s most important to manage transitions during the school day. These are times of heightened stress for children with attachment difficulties. Consider support at morning meet and greet, before class starts, at break time, lunch time, when lining up, and at pick up time. Teacher changes, absences, sickness, supply teachers are also transitions that can disturb these children. Give warnings and explain reasons wherever possible.
  • Playground management. Watch for socialising problems, isolation, bullying. Consider support for those identified as vulnerable. A place of safety, supervised play , trained playground assistants. (Every one present agreed that lunchtime was the the most difficult both for the children and the school to monitor. The inset sessions will have a big focus on lunchtime strategies.)
    Lunchtime eating. Supervision of some children at lunch might be needed. It might be too stressful to concentrate. Ensure that they are eating and drinking. Without lunchtime fuel breakdowns in the afternoon are more likely.
  • Basic classroom strategies. Where to sit? Facing the door with back to a wall might be best. Essential that TA’s supporting in class have an understanding of the effect of attachment and trauma. Consider regulation management, allowing rocking, rhythym, using exit cards, having a chill space. Small target in every lesson, to be linked to a bigger one for the week. Link to agreed rewards for each small step. Avoid star charts and any other technique that might publically identify poor performance.
  • Use praise not criticism, promise don’t threaten. When was the last time you were told you were wrong made you feel good? No naughty books, corners or chairs, naming and shaming, behaviour charts, ineffective consequences (if you do that again you’ll miss golden time (so? that doesn’t compare with a cigarette burn).
  • In all interactions with a child who is struggling with their emotions remember the four Rs. Regulate yourself first, be calm. Only when you are regulated can you then Regulate the child. Once both are regulated you can then move to Relating to the child, understanding that they are upset, that they are struggling. If the first three Rs have worked only then can you move on to Reasoning with the child. Sometimes the reasoning will not happen until much later, even the next day. “Now then, you know that was wrong, I want to tell me why you did it.” will not work with these children. It will build bigger barriers for you surmount later and sometimes they will get too high and you will have lost the child.
  • Understand Dan Hughes’s PACE: Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, Empathy, and use it with the children. Rhythm is the best regulator ( Bruce Perry). Walking, rocking, calm language, music can all help. Even allowing a child to rock on his chair in class can help.
  • Consider using the child’s talents. Hyper attentive children can make good playground monitors. They don’t miss much! Don’t assume that because they do not play well with their own age group you must reject them as suitable playmates for younger children (causes stress) and make them play with their year group (causes more stress). After lunch they will come back even more stressed. Not an ideal mind set to be taught. A 10 year old with delayed social skills would love to help with KS1 children. @greehillolivia tweeted “Consider letting bigger kids ‘help’ littlies in nursery or giving lots of responsibilities.” These steps will boost confidence and self worth. @CindersJj tweeted “If they are implementing consequences, don’t make the child wait. It’s mental torture to them.” and “Be careful how you phrase things. Children with attachment issues will take things literally.”
  • Support the parent/carer. Send a school reports that focus on achievements, not just behaviour. Realise that many adoptive parents, especially mothers, might have been through trauma themselves of infertility and failed IVF cycles.
  • They are likely to have missed out on post natal activity, mother and baby clubs and nursery experiences. They might have only had this new, strange and possibly disturbed child for a few weeks before the first day at a new school. Parents in these situations often report they then become the problem mother of the problem child to some teachers. @hlmeasdows tweeted “Don’t make parents or children do the ‘walk of shame’ at pick-up time. Don’t embarrass us. It’s hard enough as it is.”
  • Understand the current home situation and how this may impact on the child’s ability to focus and complete work. @greenhillolivia tweeted “Ask that they believe us when telling them about behaviour at home rather than looking disbelieving and saying how well they behave at school.” Be aware when there are outside stresses. These could be birthdays, mother/father days or even just school holidays. Christmas and summer breaks are not always times these children want to remember. Another example could be the time before and after a contact visit with birth siblings.
  • Know where to get support. Always involve the Virtual School, especially if things are getting difficult to manage and exclusion is being considered.
  • Conduct an attachment audit. Every school will complete this audit as part of the training programme 20150406 Attachment aware schools audit. (thanks to )

And… look after yourself! Working with children who have experienced early life trauma can be draining, both professionally and personally. Team support and empathetic supervision is needed especially when crises occur.

(First published 25/04/15)

Photo credit Back to school, Leland Fanscisco, Flickr


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