Social media is awash this week with ‘first day at new school’ photos; smart kids beaming proudly in their as yet unstained new uniforms. Buster starts a new school today, but I don’t feel happy or proud. Today he starts at an EBD school. Buster bravely boarded a ‘special’ bus into central London with a group of people he’d never met before. Of course we gave him a joyous ‘It’s going to be fantastic, you are fantastic’ send off , but as the bus rolled away I felt extremely sad. Gone are the days of walking up to school together with his big brother and the dog. Gone are friendships with local peers, the chatting at the gate, the impromptu playdates.
We tried EVERYTHING we could to keep Buster in mainstream education but two things prevented us. Firstly our own understanding of Buster’s needs, they were more complex than we initially realised and putting him in a three form entry school was not the wisest of moves. Perhaps a smaller school would have helped, perhaps a long spell of schooling at home would have helped. Maybe if CAMHS had been more interventionist in early therapies? We’ll never know…
The second cause was the school itself. Despite encouraging, lobbying and a good deal of external pressure the school simply did not attempt to become in any way attachment aware. Buster’s tantrums and explosive (sometimes violent outbursts) were always perceived as behavioural issues that could be corrected and dealt with through exclusions. Buster had a fully funded EHCP but no staff member working with him ever got trained in attachment and early trauma. I sent suggestions of free training courses to the head and inset ideas and this was met with disdain as senior management knew best… I found the head intractable and at times deliberately obtuse. He wanted Buster out.
By the middle of year one, the multiple exclusions meant Buster’s self-esteem hit rock bottom and our family stress levels hit an all-time high. The proverbial straw came when the deputy head rang us in the summer term to announce that future exclusions would be a week at a time. We were being forced to look elsewhere. We considered other (less severe than an EBD school) options for Buster, but as he had had so many exclusions, at such a young age, other schools would not take him.
So now he’s in a school for children with severe behavioural difficulties, many of whom come from extremely difficult and dysfunctional families, very much like the one Buster was removed from. I know the school will have many benefits; the staff seem brilliant, it is holistic, therapeutic and class sizes are small and manageable. There’s a good deal more play and bags more understanding of children’s complex social needs. But it is very different… and it does feel very sad that our tiny son, whose favourite programme is Peppa Pig, is thrown in amongst the toughest to teach kids in South London.
Attachment or not attachment that is the question…
We are on diagnosis number six for Buster. So far in the roll call we have: ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder), FASD (Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder) Neurodevelopmental delay, mild autism and separation anxiety (more commonly known as attachment disorder). These various diagnoses have come out of paediatric and CAMHS assessments. We are utterly confused as to the best way to parent and what this all means.
CAMHS initial treatment was to put us on a parenting course called “The Parent Child Game” which was in equal parts patronising and unhelpful. “Extreme ignore” is a session I never want to repeat as it ended in a full scale meltdown which had me and Buster in tears in front of a two way mirrored audience.
So the picture that emerges for us is; it’s complicated. Buster has a myriad of issues that require a myriad of strategies. There isn’t a silver bullet/gold standard parenting style that will help. We have read heaps of books and attempted dozens of strategies but none work in isolation. Bits seem to help. But the problem is, a child who becomes so easily dysregulated has poor impulse control and school especially aren’t able to cope with his outbursts. All we know is: he’s scared.
We still believe that attachment disorder underpins a lot of his behaviours because they are, without fail, much worse when we are not around. He spends a lot of time in a state of high anxiety and we are the best ones to soothe him when he gets overwhelmed. Some of the triggers that set him off we are aware of (busy spaces, loud noises and either one or both of us being away) but a lot of the time it’s educated guesswork.
Traditional parenting really doesn’t work. Lots of carrots and a couple of sticks does, sometimes. Taking things away simply reinforces his already low self -esteem. He is occasionally motivated by sticker charts but soon disinterested in them. I think the biggest shift for us is in recognising that when he does have meltdowns, it’s because he is petrified and we can learn from him what it is that scares him. We recently attended a Great Behaviour Breakdown course and I have never heard so much sense spoken about our children. Fact: early trauma and loss has a profound effect on our children and the more we understand trauma, the more we can help our kids and our struggling families.
Being told we were to receive a fully funded EHCP for Buster was the equivalent of finding a Wonka’s Golden Ticket. We were elated. A year of painful school meetings, social work meetings, paperwork, arguing, advocating, appointments with various doctors, CAMHS and support services, more paperwork and lots of stress had paid off. Full funding basically meant that Buster would get 1:1 classroom support and hopefully this would increase his chances of remaining in mainstream school.
If anyone had explained to me, at the beginning of our adoption journey, the amount of advocacy I would have to do on behalf of my adopted children I would never have believed it. Prior to adopting I had a rose tinted view of the world that our children would be cushioned by a net of societal support and understanding. This is no longer my view. If your adopted child has issues, be prepared to fight. We stood on the precipice of a massive sink hole with school and Buster almost got washed down it. It makes me effervesce with anger that support has to be so hard fought. I have a sound working knowledge of the education system after teaching for so many years, but what about families who don’t have that kind of knowledge?
Other than people within my immediate social circle I also gleaned a lot of advice and emotional support via twitter. Thank you tweeters, too many of you to mention but in terms of groups…massively helpful twitter accounts: @AdoptionSocial @TheOpenNest @ThePOTATOgroup @lgbtadoptfoster you guys rock.
Adopted children almost exclusively have difficult starts but many people working with children still believe adoption is some sort of panacea. Perhaps the biggest hurdle faced by most carers and adopters is the level of awareness schools have. Few teachers have a working understanding on attachment issues, neurological developmental difficulties and the effects of early loss and trauma on children’s social/emotional and educational success. There is also a lot of evidence to show that many adopted children have problems with executive function which impacts on all areas of learning.
You may be lucky enough to be in a school with a strong understanding of your children’s needs, but if you are not, then you may have to be the one enlightening the staff and pushing for entitlements.
In the previous weeks school meeting we had been told that our chances of getting an Educational Health Care Plan (EHCP) were extremely slim, it would also take a long time (hence the school’s push towards a PRU). Anecdotally I had heard the same over the years and knew it would be a battle. EHC plan’s replaced the old statementing system but basically amount to the same thing; your child gets funding for support in school that can be either devolved to the family directly or to the school. The support usually takes the form of the school finding a learning support assistant who works alongside your child, crucial if you have a child with extreme behavioural difficulties and problems self-regulating.
The school SENCO agreed we should try and go for it and so she set the ball rolling for EHCP application and an educational psychologist came in to asses Buster. Operation; we will get an EHCP, began. A note to the wise: if you have a looked after or adopted child keep absolutely EVERYTHING you can in terms of paperwork that would ever support a claim your child has difficulties; luckily we had. We had kept every doctor’s report, CAMHS assessment, Ed Psych, Speech and Language Report, pediatric assessments, nursery and school reports, exclusion letters, hospital letters… you get the idea. We had boxes and boxes full of letters and we sifted the most relevant and attached them to our application.
There are several organisations around that can help fill out the form (which has ridiculously tiny boxes for vast amounts of info, I attached 14 appendices ;0 ). The free agencies out there to help are : http://www.familylives.org.uk/ http://www.sossen.org.uk/ https://www.ipsea.org.uk/
We received stellar advice that helped us put together a very convincing case for our son to receive a fully funded EHCP. All we had to do after the hard slog of putting together our application was wait.
After the school meeting I went home and collapsed, not in a heap on the floor, I mean emotionally and mentally caved in. I walked upstairs, closed the bedroom door and wailed like a banshee for over two hours. I didn’t even recognise who I was and felt incapable of anything like rational thought.
I spent the following day in a miasma of worry and fear but over the weekend my thoughts cleared and something else took over; I began to feel angry. Really, really angry. I was furious at the schools intractability, lack of empathy and disregard for our vulnerable little boys’ well-being.
Sometimes anger is a good thing and in this instance it became a huge motivator for me. First things first…there was no way we were going to be pushed into any decision over whether or not our tiny son should be placed in a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU)/special school within the 48 hour time frame the school had given us. Secondly I made the decision that he would go into a PRU over my dead body.
After teaching for over twenty years I was well aware of what PRU’s were used for. I believe they are effective and in many cases help children with social and emotional issues re integrate back into mainstream school. However many of the children in PRU’s have a host of behavioural problems that I believed would influence Buster in a negative way.
Also…he was only FIVE YEARS OLD! With only one term in mainstream school and a history of neurological and emotional needs around attachment disorder and ODD why on earth would we consider putting him in an environment that would make him even more anxious?
I rang the school at 8.30 on the Monday morning and told them we wouldn’t be attending the proposed “decision meeting” for that day. In fact we said we would contact them with a new meeting time once we had prepared what steps we thought should be taken next.
Last school year was without doubt the WORST experience of being an adoptive parent thus far and the reason behind no blog, in fact no ‘anything creative’ at all. Buster started mainstream school. He moved up from the nursery (where after five terms he had just started to settle) into reception class.
The initial weeks weren’t so bad as a very staggered start meant only partial days and nipping back at lunch time. By week four the teacher reckoned all was fine and we breathed a sigh of relief. However things took a steady turn for the worse in late October, after the mid-term break. First there were red slips (for bashing other kids) then came the meetings with the class teacher (for lack of compliance and generalised odd behaviour) and finally, in November, he got his first exclusion.
By January things had deteriorated so badly (three more exclusions) that we were hauled in for a multi-disciplinary meeting and told rather bluntly that his mainstream education career was just about over. The options handed to us were either a sideways move into the local Pupil Referral Unit or a further afield special school, or to stay as we were with guaranteed further exclusions leading to, in the schools eyes, an inevitable permanent exclusion. Dazed and confused I sobbed my way through the meeting. He was only five years old and had only just one term of mainstream education under his belt. Surely, I argued, they were jumping the gun? No, they replied his behaviours were the worst they’d encountered in years. He had spat at adults, over turned tables, hit other kids, thrown things at teachers and other kids and it was clear, the parents of the other kids were far from happy.
We were shown colourful graphs of incidents and detailed breakdowns of all his minor and major offences. We were told they had done everything they could think of to support him with pastoral care from in-school emotional support service, some 1:1 ad hoc in class help and interventions from SENCO. Surely, I argued, we should attempt getting an EHC plan funded before going to the extreme lengths of placing him in a PRU or special school?
The meeting closed on the Friday afternoon with a weekend to make a decision; PRU/Special school or the rocky road to permanent exclusion.
As Buster’s language improved we decided we should give part time nursery a try. Buster’s first foray into education was a heart wrenching mix of him being petrified I’d abandoned him (they had to peel the poor love off the nursery door every morning after I left) and him struggling with new relationships.
It was only mornings and I was allowed to stay in with him for the first 2 weeks. This made a massive difference to his transition into nursery but he found the first term the most difficult and he didn’t make any friends largely because he did a lot of bashing. However he did enjoy the toys and games on offer and as the weather improved and he was able to go outside and get stuck into the big bikes, bricks and tractors, Continue reading