A note to teaching staff, from the parent of an adopted child.
*This blog is aimed at teaching/support staff who work with children who were adopted, are fostered (Looked After Children) or children who have experienced complex trauma. It may be suitable for neurodiverse children and possibly neurotypical children who may be experiencing significant life changes. I'll use the term 'adopted children' but this may encompass all different children. I'll add a trigger warning here for folk who may be adopted, have adopted themselves or have experienced childhood trauma.
Teaching staff are frantically doing the 294759 things that they have left to do before their new class enters the classroom this week. Families all around the country are currently preparing their child for starting or returning to school. Parents and Foster Carers are worried how their child is going to cope with the change and if their new teacher will be able to support their attachment needs.
Before I proceed, it's important to understand and accept from the get go that adoption IS trauma. All adopted children have experienced significant loss which can profoundly effect the way they function at home, at school, anywhere really. The loss of the birth mother is a deep wound which will stay with the child for the rest of their lives; indeed even if they were removed at birth. Along with the harrowing experiences that a lot of adopted children go through, (such as neglect, abuse and parental domestic violence, for example) the attachment style of the child and their internal working model is a severely impacted upon. You may think that attachment style is as simple as how secure we feel within our relationships but it is much more complex than this. Our attachment style accounts for how we function, how we view the world and the people in it and how we view ourselves. Anything but a secure attachment shapes negative beliefs about ourselves and the world.
It is also important to understand that every child is impacted by trauma in different ways, not all adopted children will appear like everything set out below but almost all adopted children are affected negatively by their traumatic experiences.
Some ways in which our children are affected by their experiences include:
An inability to understand and describe emotions (in which case, emotions come out as big behaviours instead).
A negative inner working model/self belief: I'm not worthy, I don't deserve..., I'm rubbish at everything, no one likes me.
Delays and differences in development, possibly lifelong.
Hypervigilance: the world is unsafe, danger happens all the time, I'm not safe so I need to keep alert and be ready for danger at ALL times. Note, this isn't a conscious thought; nope, the adopted child's brain will see to that automatically. No amount of telling the child they're safe will reassure them because it is the brain's default belief.
They may have a severe preoccupation with food. Please don't jump to thinking our children aren't fed if they turn up to school saying they're hungry and they've not eaten enough. The chances are, they have eaten plenty, only our children can not separate hunger from fear, worry and anxiety. Remember, most adopted children will not have been adequately fed before they came to us. They also spent their time before us in danger. Now you see how they easily confuse hunger from fear. If you have concerns, of course following your safeguarding procedure.
This is just a few short points; this list is not exhaustive.
You may be reading this thinking 'I have an adopted child in my class, but their parent says they had no trauma' (all adopted children have experienced significant trauma). Or 'I'm sure X was adopted, we don't see any behaviour'. Quite.......
You see, our children are hard wired (physically in the brain, not metaphorically) to survive. They have had to overcome more than most people in their lives at such a young age without any secure attachment (safe primary carer) as a safe base for support. They alone have had to adapt to loss, harm and danger. Reading this you may believe that a child feeling unsafe at school will look like big behaviour, aggressiveness, violence, failing educationally etc, and that may be the case, sadly for some adopted children. But more often than not, an adopted child will go to great lengths to conceal their feelings of unsafety because you are not a safe adult to them. They may appear smiling, eating well at lunch, achieving their academic targets etc. Masking, as you may have heard it coined.
So I'm here to break it down for you. How an adopted children may appear in the school setting. Most are behaviours which you likely wouldn't recognise in relation to trauma, but by being aware and proactively observing the child frequently throughout their day you can support the child in feeling more safe at school, subsequently helping the child to heal from their early life experiences.
A (non exhaustive) list of behaviours you may see:
Unable to settle and looking 'on edge'.
Needing a lot of 1:1 time and connection with an adult, often this gets in the way of teaching.
Becoming angry or emotional with a change in the day to day routine or plan.
Finding it hard to follow rules.
Sudden outbursts of anger or aggression.
Avoidance of building relationships with peers/staff.
Over reliance, avoids help/support.
Overly dependent, avoids doing anything alone.
Strong need to take care of others, adults included.
May need to be in control at all times for example, always needing to be the one to help the teacher to hand things out, needing children to play in a highly specific way.
Disruptive and loud to an excess.
Forgetful and distracted.
Superstar student with a strong need to overperform.
Not keeping up with peers academically, outside of the range of typical.
Fearful of touch from others/touching others.
Heavy handed with others.
It's tricky reading such negative comments about children but we need to remember that if the child in question is experiencing a few of these there is the chance that they aren't managing school life as well as you may believe and underneath could be a very fearful, scared child trying their best to survive another school day without their safe base (their parent). Another important thing to note is that attachment and trauma can present very similarly to Autism and ADHD.
So what triggers these behaviours?
Expectations to behave properly.
Change - a sub teacher, changing of the seating plan, changing of the timetable. Don't forget, just coming into each school from home each day is a change and change means danger to our children even if they're perfectly safe.
Shame - behaviour management charts. Names on the board for everyone to see whether they are on green, amber or red is a perfect breeding ground for toxic shame. Even a private version would be recipe for disaster.
'Saying sorry' - forced apologies are meaningless anyway, but for the adopted child, saying sorry is the most painful thing. Our children often function as a baseline on shame; ashamed of who they are, ashamed of their behaviour and ashamed of what people think of them. Forcing apologies deepens the sense of shame, triggers toxic stress and perpetuates the cycle of stress and feelings of lack of safety.
An overwhelming environment - loudness, bright lights, smells, textures, it's all too much for our children to manage.
Having to sit still - children need to move, especially neurodiverse and adopted children whose nervous systems are flooded with stress in a school environment. Movement helps reduce stress levels.
Consequences - they need to be natural or logical at most. Illogical and delayed consequences serve no purpose to adopted children. Not forgetting that our children feel unworthy of nice things, of kindness. By punitively punishing our children you are reinforcing those feelings.
How you can help the child to feel safe:
Actively notice the child. An extra smile, an extra check in through the day goes a long way.
Practice therapeutic approaches (recommendations below).
Stay close to the child and extend kindness when you're supporting their behaviours. This shows them that they're worthy of closeness and kindness.
Work with parents and foster carers to devise strategies to help the child.
Offer a buddy system for the child if they tend to spend a lot of time alone.
Actively create chances to show nurture to the child.
Show that you understand the difficulties that the child is experiencing using empathic statements such as "I see that you are struggling, I'm here to support you", whilst considering the child's individual triggers (I can't stress enough the importance of working with the child's parents).
Hold space, safely. If the child has gone to the sensory space, sit near by, even if the child asks for alone time tell them you are right outside (they are likely rejecting you due to fear of rejection themselves), the worst thing you can do is leave them.
Find reasons for them to achieve outside of academics.
Keep structure, routine and avoid surprises.
Recognise that the child is not naughty, but emotionally finding something difficult. They aren't attention seeking but attachment seeking.
Have support in place for transitions such as pictures of the new classroom, transitional objects.
Make reasonable adjustments for whatever the child needs, for example encourage fidget toys, avoid asking them to speak in front of a group, let them out of the lesson first to avoid the crowds etc.
Create 'down time' cards so that the child can leave the class (where appropriate) for a sensory/movement break.
Never withhold playtime as a means of 'catching up on work' or 'as a punishment for X'. Playtime is more important than any academic work for the adopted child. It's a chance to reset, build relationships and reduce stress.
Consider the adopted child when you are planning tricky topics such as evacuation, babyhood, family trees etc. Always speak with the parents first.
If you have an adopted child in your class/school and you believe they may be struggling, even a little bit, please speak with the family. In most cases, families feel as though teaching staff do not understand because you don't see the 'small stuff', which builds up over the day and leads to an almighty meltdown at home. With the right support in place, our children can feel more secure at school which promotes emotional wellbeing and academic success.
There is funding available - £2345.00 which you may know as Pupil Premium Plus which can be but is rarely ringfenced for the adopted child. It does not have to be allocated for academic purposes and can be used to enhance and support the child's mental health. Examples of how this can be spent could be: music lessons, art therapies, extra therapy such as speech and language, 1:1 support, extra resources or staff training. Again, please include the parents when you're deciding how to allocate the funding.
The other option is an ECHP. Lots of adopted children need an EHCP to remain safely and securely in school. This will also provide funding to help you to meet the child's needs.
If you would like to know more about therapeutic approaches to supporting behaviour and understanding adopted children, please check out work of Sarah Naish, Dr Heather Geddes and Louise Bomber. A perfect book for your school would be this The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting Professional Companion: Tools for Proactive Practice (Therapeutic Parenting Books) eBook : Naish, Sarah, Dillon, Sarah, Mitchell, Jane: Amazon.co.uk: Books (not affiliated).
For further general advice and guidance please email firstname.lastname@example.org.