Your child is starting school — standing at the threshold of the wonderful world of education and knowledge. How marvellous.But getting your adopted child an education might not be as straightforward as you think. In fact, the whole process throws up so many issues that it would be impossible to write anything sensible about it in one article. Just for starters, here is a list of things that have caused us concern as a family over the past 12 years of school life for our children:
- Teachers and other school staff
- Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) and Statements of Special Educational Needs (SEN)
- Separation anxiety
- Friends and socializing
- Special schools vs mainstream
I expect if I spent a bit more time thinking about it I could double this list. So, for this article, I shall look only at the first entry.
Teachers and other school staff
The lack of knowledge and understanding amongst educators around quite basic adoption-related issues is quite staggering. I would place a large bet on practically every adopted child coming home at least once with a school project to do about their family tree accompanied by a demand for a baby photo of themselves.
This is irritating and insensitive, but most adopters are able to step in and smooth things over and explain matters so that their children are not unduly upset. Of course, they shouldn’t have to, but no amount of begging teachers to think sensitively about topic choices and how they might affect a child who has been abandoned/neglected/abused by his or her birth family seems to make any difference. On the whole, the attitude I encountered on this subject was that we were just being a bit oversensitive and making a fuss about nothing.
OF COURSE THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS AND LOTS OF AMAZING TEACHERS WHO WOULDN’T DREAM OF MAKING SUCH A FUNDAMENTAL ERROR.
Please mentally insert the above sentence at regular intervals as you read this article, because it is quite true.The focus of this article, though, is on what one might realistically expect from your child’s school staff and what to do about things that do not go well. If your child has one of those exceptional teachers (this year) you probably won’t be reading this anyway.
Insensitivity is one thing, but it is another matter entirely when school staff cannot (or will not?) understand how best to work with traumatized children who are experiencing high levels of anxiety as they enter yet another unfamiliar setting. It is up to you to do everything you can to try and educate your child’s teacher and the support staff. If you are to get anywhere at all, they must understand that your child is different and needs a different approach. Their tried and tested ways may not only be ineffective, but harmful.
First, you need to get the head on board, because you want every single person who encounters your child to have some idea as to how to interact with him or her. This includes the lunchtime supervisors, the caretaker, substitute teachers, sports coaches, outside agencies who run music and drama groups, and so on. My advice would be to focus on the key issues that you think your child will find difficult or the school staff will find most challenging. There are lots of excellent resources that you can give to schools, but sadly, in my experience, these are not often read. If every adult who worked with your child had read and taken on board Louise Bomber’s excellent book Inside I’m Hurting, for example, you would have very few problems. But this is unlikely to happen, and to be fair, many educators are overworked as it is and are unable to take on a whole lot of background reading.So, instead of trying to get them to understand the whole picture, you might do better to break it down for them and focus the information you provide on the priorities you have identified.
Of course, the very first year your child goes to school you will be nearly as ignorant as the teachers are. You will need to inform yourself before you can help them. Don’t be intimidated by what you assume to be their far greater experience and expertise. Chances are that’s not true when it comes to a child with a particular set of adoption-related issues. I am tempted to insert here, that often heard admonition: “Don’t forget, you know your child best”. If they have been living with you for four weeks before they start school, that’s clearly nonsense, but you still shouldn’t rely on teachers knowing better. You need to get smart fast on the adoption side of things.Fortunately, the internet is awash with this sort of information. So much so that you can drown in it if you are not careful. I find that adoption-related internet forums can be a useful place to ask for recommendations for reading about specific issues. The National Association of Therapeutic Parents publishes form letters for schools that look useful and have plenty of other useful education related material available. I would also recommend that you take the time to read Louise Bomber’s book yourself: Inside I’m Hurting: Practical Strategies for Supporting Children with Attachment Difficulties in Schools (Worth Publishing, 2007).
While your child might not have diagnosed attachment difficulties I believe that all adopted children have experienced feelings of loss and rejection and that the strategies used for children with full blown attachment disorders are equally useful for children who might not be as severely affected.
Be warned, though, even if you have made yourself the ultimate expert on educating adopted children, try not to come across as a complete know-it-all who is able to teach the teachers their jobs. You will just get their backs up and they won’t listen to a word you say. Preface a lot of what you say with that very useful phrase “As you, of course, know…” or “I imagine you may already have encountered this research…” Refer to your child’s individual experiences and subsequent needs rather than making generalised educational statements.If you can, try to persuade the head to spend some of your child’s Pupil Premium on sending teachers and support staff on courses about attachment disorder, early childhood trauma and the like. Many local authorities and adoption charities run these courses. They are usually not too expensive and only last for a day or two. Some organisations offer in-house training. If you do manage to get your school to send a teacher on a course, please let me know how you did it, because after many years of trying I never did manage it. I still think it’s a good idea though…If you have opted to send your child to a special school, you may understandably assume that the staff will be much more clued up on the types of issues that surround educating adopted children. Don’t. Some of the support staff may be quite minimally trained and experienced even in “ordinary” SEN, and will be highly unlikely to know anything about attachment disorder, for example. The teachers may be SEN experts, but again have next to no knowledge about other issues. Interestingly, I have found SEN specialist teachers particularly resistant to being given extra information on how best to educate your child. I suppose, they feel they are the real experts in the field. It is worth persevering.
Your adopted children may not be very good at relationships, so you are going to have to do a lot of this work for them. Start with the head. Make him or her love you and your child. Make him or her really “feel” your child’s situation. You don’t have to go into the details of your child’s past, but you can push the whole “society has let down this child, it is up to us to make sure we don’t do that too,” angle. Don’t let them get away with a “well, he’s adopted and loved now so everything is fine,” attitude. Make sure you can talk about the long-lasting effects of early childhood trauma with authority and humanity.
Having the head on-side is very important, but it is also vital that the person who interacts most with your child on a day to day basis receives the same message. This may be the teacher, but don’t assume that. Do a bit of investigating and ensure you get the message through to the right people.
Also, don’t assume that the head will disseminate the information for you. I made that mistake. My son’s primary school head teacher was an extremely insightful and receptive woman and really appreciated many of the issues my son faced. And yet, on the first day of term in Year One, his new one-to-one marched over to us in the playground, took my son by the arm and announced brightly that she was his new “special helper”. The child who had been moved 13 times before his second birthday assumed that he was about to lose his latest mummy and understandably went nuclear. Her response was to try and pull him away from me, with the teacher coming over to “help” the situation by saying “Now come along M, let’s be a sensible boy.” It didn’t go well.
The head was horrified when I told her what had happened, but I badly wanted to screech at her “WHY didn’t you brief these women properly, then?” I refrained because even in those early days I knew my relationship with her needed to remain sweet if we were to survive the primary school years.
It seems self-evident and most schools pride themselves on their wonderful communication with parents, but very often the issues you want to discuss with teachers are not suitable for the grab-you- at-hometime-chat which is how I think most teacher parent communication actually takes place. In fact, that sort of communication should be actively discouraged for reasons of privacy and complexity. (Plus it is awful to be the parent who is ALWAYS being collared by a fed up teacher at hometime. Not great for the child either.)
For me, face to face meetings were the most beneficial way of communicating. Obviously not for minor day-to-day issues, but certainly for anything important. I don’t see any reason not to ask for as many meetings as you think are necessary. Keep them brief and to the point (make sure you know what that is) and take notes.If you can, get hold of the teacher’s email address. This a wonderful thing, but unsurprisingly teachers don’t seem overly keen to dish it out, perhaps because once they have, there really is no escaping determined mama or papa and their daily digest of bright ideas. I would’ve been a nightmare for my children’s teachers had I been able to send unrestricted amounts of information on training opportunities, reading suggestions and every other “helpful” titbit I came across. There’s not much point in bombarding teachers with information anyway as they will just tune you out. And you can hardly blame them. So, if you do get a teacher’s email address, use it judiciously.A good home/school contact book is very beneficial. To make these books work, you need to read and write in them every single day and you should insist on something back from the teacher or learning assistant every single day. It doesn’t have to be much, but it needs to become a habit. Then, all the relatively inconsequential issues can be raised and dealt with as they happen, and you have an effective channel of communication if something more serious kicks off. Also, sometimes your child will behave perfectly all day, so that is what will be written, which will be a welcome boost all round.It is especially good that everything is in writing and indisputable. A teacher once tore up my child’s work in a rage. I wrote in the contact book to query if this had in fact happened after my child reported it (I could scarcely believe it) and the teacher replied in writing that she had and would do it again. Her lack of understanding of acceptable methods of discipline could then be brought to the head’s attention without any room for misinterpretation or equivocation.
Do not think for one minute that once you have explained all the issues to the head and your child’s teacher and learning assistant have both been fully apprised of the situation and have spent a year developing successful strategies for working with your child, that even one bit of that information will be passed on to next year’s team. I blithely assumed that this would be the case, and although my children’s schools have, on the whole, co-operated really well with us and have worked very well with our children, I have found that every single year I have had to start from scratch with any member of the school team that doesn’t already know my child. Both my children are now nearly finished school and are in very small schools so this is not a big problem, but even so, come September, I shall make sure I get a chance to have a chat with my children’s teaching team so I can gauge how much they know and what gaps in their knowledge or understanding might need plugging.
Don’t be too disheartened by all this. There are many amazing people working in education who will do everything they can to help each child fulfill his or her potential. With your help, your child’s educators can become better informed and better able to support all adopted children. The effort is well worth it.
National Association of Therapeutic Parents http://www.naotp.org.uk/
Inner World Work http://www.innerworldwork.co.uk/?page_id=45
Child Welfare (USA) https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/adoption/adopt-parenting/school/
Note: All images are stock photos and are used for illustrative purposes.