Today’s handy tips post comes from Jennifer Jones who runs Inspired Foundations, a West Midlands based organisation that provides support services and training for parents and organisations, on a range of subjects related to children who are adopted, fostered or at-risk. Jennifer shares some strategies that could be implemented in schools to provide further support.
It is no secret that children who are, or have been in the care system often struggle within educational settings. In fact if we look closely at some of the statistics, it doesn’t make for pleasant reading, with this group of children being nine times more likely to be excluded from school. Later in life they are also 55% more likely to suffer from depression and also make up 23% of the prison population. But before you stop reading this article, let me explain why I am giving you this information.
I started working with children 13 years ago. Throughout this time I have worked mainly with children who have additional needs, completed a degree in special education and became trained in many types of therapy. However, eight years ago I became a mum – but not just any old mum – an adoptive mum! I adopted two children who were both described as ‘healthy’, ‘meeting their developmental milestones’ and ‘well attached to their foster carers’ – in other words they were perfect. None of this ‘attachment issues’ stuff or being behind in their learning, so it was full steam ahead with being their mummy.
It would probably take me to write a book to explain the years that followed, but in a nutshell it was a slow drip-drip process of learning, understanding and making changes. Most of my knowledge of child development and behaviour strategies had to be thrown out in favour of a therapeutic parenting style. The fact was that my children did have attachment issues and had experienced developmental trauma.
Along the way we met lots of professionals who just didn’t get it. We have had to fight for every ounce of support we have ever got. It is for this reason that I set up a company 3 years ago – pulling together both my personal and professional experiences with an aim to educate people about the issues faced by this group of children. I am pleased to say that things have taken off and we have been able to expand and increase our services to reach even more people and in many different ways.
Okay, so back to the subject area! The statistics are one way for me to gain people’s attention. It often makes teachers sit up and listen. Do they really want little Johnny to end up in prison? Do they know Chloe is more likely to be homeless or self harm than other children? Did they know Karen has a 20% chance of becoming a teenage mother? This gives me a good starting point for encouraging teachers to make changes in the way they work with children.
Before any strategies are put in place by teaching staff it is important that they understand why they are doing them. They need to understand that many children who have been in care will have experienced abuse and neglect, often along with many moves and lots of uncertainty. These events all lead to the child having a very different view of the world compared to other children of the same age.
For a child who has experienced trauma, school may mean;
Being separated from their carer
Having contact with a range of different people with varying roles (Lunchtime supervisors, Teaching Assistants, Teachers, caretaker etc..)
Being expected to know who these people are and how you should act around them
Always having to be on the look-out for danger
Trying to understand and manage friendships
- Constantly worrying about food (“will there be enough lunch left for me at dinner time”)
- Trying to do work which may be too difficult
Receiving praise and rewards when inside they feel worthless
Responses to these fears can provoke a range of behaviours which may include:
Appearing charming and superficial
Being indiscriminately affectionate with visitors
Being overly demanding or clingy to staff
Asking persistent nonsense questions
Poor cause/effect thinking
Struggling to make friends
Poor impulse control
Avoiding eye contact (except when lying)
Lying and/or stealing
Low self esteem
Increased shame levels
Difficulties with organisation
For teachers trying to deal with such behaviours in the classroom this can be draining and frustrating. It is important that the teacher, or any professional working with the child tries to understand why and how this behaviour would have developed. Without this any strategies lack the required foundations and will have a limited affect.
Below are some strategies which could be suggested as a way to support looked-after or adopted children with school.
Regular meeting and discussions are important so everyone involved has a clear idea of current issues or progress made. Make use of a home-school diary when possible.
Thinking out loud
Children often struggle with recognising their own feelings, so ‘commenting’ or ‘wondering’ out loud about the child’s behaviour can help e.g.: “I can see that you get very upset before we leave for school. I wonder if that is because you think I will forget about you when you are at school”. It should be remembered that these are comments, and not questions, so a response should not be expected from the child as that can add lots of pressure to their already anxious state.
Re-thinking rewards and sanctions
Ask the teacher to use low key praise and rewards. Also to avoid ‘time out’ consequences which compound their sense of wrongness and shame. The use of ‘time in’ (where a child is brought towards the adult) is a better option.
Difficulties with change
Ask that the school develop consistent routines to help build a strong sense of security and familiarity. Also request that whenever possible you are told of changes, such as a supply teacher or a change in lessons in advance so you can support your child in advance.
There are certain curriculum topics that you should ask teachers to be mindful of such as family trees, those that require baby photos, and subjects such as evacuation and rationing. There are often many ways to cover topics such as this without excluding the child so ask the teacher to seek further advice from you about this.
A highly recommended approach is the use of a key worker. The role of this person is to be an ‘attachment figure’ within school and someone whom the child may grow to trust in time. They may have tasks such as meeting and greeting the child in the morning, checking-in with the child after break times and lunch times, and generally being someone who the child feels able to go to if there is a problem.
Request that the school use a visual timetable and visual prompts for areas of difficulty with organisation skills (eg: packing school bag)
Try sending in an object from home which will remind your child of you (photograph, handkerchief etc..) which will ease the anxiety of being separated from you.
Training and advice
Strongly encourage school staff to attend training in the subject of attachment and trauma where they can gain a much deeper understanding of the child’s needs and learn strategies to support these. You could also recommend that they read some of the books/ leaflets listed below:
Supporting looked-after and adopted children in school http://www.hertsdirect.org/infobase/docs/pdfstore/csf0046.pdf
Inside i’m Hurting, by Louise Bomber (ISBN-13: 978-1903269114)
The boy who was raised as a dog, by Bruce Perry (ISBN-13: 978-0465056538)
It is also important to remember that the intentions of different professionals are often good. They will want children to learn, to explore and to develop. The difficulty arises because learning is not a priority for these children – staying safe and getting their needs met is. As parents or carers we learn this, or instinctively know this. Therefore it is often left to us to try to teach the teachers…