I used to teach Secondary English and am now an adoptive mother.
18 months in, already I am fairly well versed in how difficult it is to get their needs met in the Early Years and Key Stage one and, frankly, I’m dreading Secondary. Why? Because I know how the workload, the behaviour management systems or lack thereof, the planning, the internal and OFSTED observations, the marking, the hours and the commitment to being the best I could be ‘professionally’ often bypassed the personal needs and issues of my students. I knew it at the time and felt bad, and now that I’ve adopted I look back and feel awful. I see my own kids acting up and wonder how detentions and dressings-down were ever thought to solve problems and break down barriers…
So I’m doubly relieved, as a guilt-ridden teacher and worried parent, that PAC-UK is doing great things to help teachers help adopted children. The latest in its roll out of publications, free INSETs, conferences, etc is ‘Becoming an Adoption Friendly School’ by Dr Emma Gore Langton and Katherine Boy (Jessica Kingsley Publishers) . The book is designed to help Primary and Secondary schools learn about meeting the needs of their most vulnerable and traumatised children. It is a proper resource to guide institutions toward becoming less hostile places for students who are not ‘mainstream’. A senior or experienced teacher given the time and resources to read and implement the advice in this book could make a massive, life-changing difference to the lives of our adopted kids. (Note bold proviso.)
Many adoptive parents, like me, will have experienced a teacher or whole school ethos that refused to view our children differently and wanted them to come into line with everyone else. My child was expected to ‘get on with it’ at playtimes, having arrived in Reception three weeks after placement, half way through the academic year, with few play skills. He was left with scissors, allowed to use the toilet unsupervised with friends, told he was a liar, encouraged to go to his teacher instead of me for comfort – the list goes on. It was a difficult time. I gave the teacher notes from my PAC training and even emailed a ‘wall of development’ to her about my child. She didn’t even acknowledge it. And what did I keep hearing when I made suggestions? ‘We can’t closely supervise 31 children. We can’t tell 31 sets of parents what their child has done each day. We can’t treat him differently…’
But PAC’s approach turns that on its head – what is good for a traumatised child is good for all. It makes sense. To learn and flourish, all children need to be known, to be held in mind, to be treated gently, to have the reasons for their ‘behaviour’ explored. When I taught, before parenthood, I often cringed at the lack of respect I saw for cowering kids who’d forgotten a pen or been cheeky in school, and cringed again when realising I was part of that and behaving like an army general myself, sometimes. Culture swallows us. So it’s culture that needs to change. An individual star teacher is a wonderful thing, but is not enough.
This guide starts by helping the reader (hopefully a senior teacher at your school) understand what the issues are for children of trauma and loss, and why. It’s fuss-free and inarguable. The authors go on to suggest a small, powerful team to get things moving, but to me it sounds like what’s really needed is a champion – a designated individual who takes this on rather than it being tacked on to the SENCo or Head’s heavy work load.
In the third chapter there’s a comprehensive list of the issues and obstacles that adopted children experience during ‘normal school life’, such as being unable to cope with unstructured playtimes, low self-esteem and lack of identity, feeling endangered, inability to organise self… this is the kind of information that prospective adopters could really benefit from – forewarned is fore-armed.
If you are lucky enough to be a WAF member or have adoptive friends, think about the common topics that come up in conversation about our kids in schools – I can remember chats about terrifying behaviour management systems, social skills, teacher-parent relationships, curriculum hotspots (family tree, anyone?), playground politics, story sharing, funding… it’s all in the book and usefully succinct.
To implement the changes in ethos and practice is a serious commitment and will need to be generously timetabled for senior staff, but this well-mapped out resource is a huge time saver and will head off wrong turns and bad practice. Let’s all hope that it helps teachers and adoptive families work together and make schools the educated, empathic and nurturing places they should be.