Thursday, 28 April 2016

Behaviour Management Review

The Department for Education are currently undertaking review of behaviour management within schools. Quite a scary thought with images of schools embracing draconian regimes of punishment or dissolving into unfettered liberal wishy washy group hugs.

It's made me think, actually it's made me think a lot, about what I want from a school, what I expect from a school and what I don't want from a school.

It comes in a week when I've taken Flossy to visit the school that she is due to move up to in Year 7.  An exciting experience for any child but for a child who lives daily with the long term impact of her negative early life a one that is fraught with unimaginable and, at times, overwhelming anxieties and stresses. Why wouldn't this impact on her behaviour?

Later this week I then stood in front of 60 teachers, assistant teachers and lunchtime staff helping them develop their knowledge of the impacts of loss separation and trauma on children. Together we considered the implications for these children in a classroom and school environment. As I described the behaviours and causes I watched teachers nod to each other and mouth the names of children that they teach, support and deal with every day. The feedback was that practice could be changed not to pander to poor behaviour but to divert potential disruptions and help children feel safe, cared for and able to learn.

I'm an adoptive parent and that's my starting position. However, I understand that adoptees do not have the monopoly on trauma, loss and separation. In fact, at the risk of offending, I would suggest that many adopted children have something that many other children do not. They have motivated and articulate parents to advocate for them and support them throughout their school lives. I can't help but think of the children who potentially do not. The children in the Foster Care system and those on the edge of the care system, children living with loss through bereavement and separation or divorce of parents, children with parents in prison, children who experience sexual abuse and those that witness domestic violence or live in homes where it is present. The numbers of these children is staggering and they are represented in every classroom in the land. They significantly outnumber adoptees but they share common challenges. For all of them their lived experience has a profound impact on their behaviour in a school environment and how they respond to discipline and boundaries.

I believe that the behaviour review is an opportunity that we should grasp.

It is an opportunity to highlight the good practice and for it to be broadcast to new audiences. We can highlight the excellent work that is often being done to support our children in their behaviour in school.  How to appropriately challenge inappropriate behaviour. The difference between excuses and reasons for children struggling and disrupting classrooms and how to tell the difference. The teachers that go the extra mile, why they do it and what they do. The development and training of staff from the highest to the lowest and the values and ethos that underpin all of this..

How do we influence this?

Well, Tom Bennett @tombennet71 is the Chair of the Department for Education's Behaviour Group and is heading the review. I'd encourage you all to follow him on twitter and share the good, be that articles, stories, excellent schools or practical advice. If you're not on Twitter then write a letter, send a pigeon or draw him a picture. Lets get a hashtag #behaviourreview16 and use it.
Lets be positive and share the positive, let's be kind. We could set the internet on fire with some of the crap that our children have endured in the name of discipline, order and education but that's for another day.

School life is a huge part of all children's lives and good and bad experiences often wash up at parent's doors. Families of vulnerable children live with the impact of good and bad models and methods of discipline on a day by day basis and at times it's overwhelming.  I've seen it in my own children's lives.

We have a voice that many don't and if we can influence this review for good then we can benefit not only our own children but also the children that don't share the advocates and champions our children do.

Note: The review is due to be published in October.

Monday, 25 April 2016

A Review: Billy Bramble and the great big cook off

A guest review

I managed to persuade my mum to buy ‘Billy Bramble and the great big cook off” for my youngest daughter Sophie’s birthday. If we’d bought it, she’d have no doubt turned her nose up. She’s ten. If we like something, that’s evidence enough that it’s rubbish and totally not cool.

I didn’t actually know she’d started reading it until we had a little bike-riding incident with her older sister a couple of weeks later. Katie is 11 and, like Billy Bramble, likes riding her bike with no hands. I, on the other hand, like her to ride her bike with both hands. We got home from the bike ride, after the incident. Youngest ran upstairs and came back down with the book. She showed me a picture of Billy doing exactly what Katie had been doing. Thankfully, Katie saw the funny side. A couple of nights later, I started reading it to both girls at bedtime.

First off, I’ll start by saying that we couldn’t put the book down; to the point that some nights I had to hide the book so nobody took a peek before the next bedtime. I’d say this story is great for boys and girls aged from about 6 right through to middle secondary school years although obviously some might need an adult to read along with them. Written by an adoptive parent, it’s no surprise that the book is well suited to children who’ve experienced developmental trauma and struggle with things like managing relationships, emotions and impulses. There’s no mention of adoption in the story, so the book is equally suited to non-adopted children with similar struggles.

Before I get on to talking about the characters and story, I just wanted to say that we loved the addition of jokes, lists and recipes slotted in between very short sections of story. It makes it an incredibly easy read for the reluctant reader. We’ve got plans to make our own custard creams when we have a free weekend.

The girls loved reading about a family like ours, a family we could identify with. The three of us saw ourselves, each other, and our lives mirrored in the pages of the book. For a family that often feels ‘different’, it was comforting, and the cause of much conversation and laughter.

My eldest, Katie, is just like Billy Bramble (even more now that she’s started calling herself Katie Bramble and eating custard creams three at a time). She loved reading about a character she could identify with. To say too much would ruin it for others, so I won’t. She’s asked for her own copy of the book for her birthday, even though we’ve read it. It made her feel good.

Billy’s sister Lucy isn’t mentioned much in the book but there was just enough for us to acknowledge very similar personality traits to my youngest, Sophie. In one way, it’s a shame there isn’t more about Lucy in the book. But in another, it was probably good for us that there wasn’t. Sophie just about managed to cope with the bits about Lucy without slipping into shame, and that was with a lot of careful handling.

I’d like to think I’m quite like the mum in the story. She’s not perfect. Mum tries to be therapeutic most of the time but just once in a while says and does the wrong thing and joins in the craziness. She also cries and shouts once in a while, which I was particularly grateful for. We were able to have some useful conversations about what the kind of mum I’m trying to be, and why I can’t always keep it up.

I could say a lot more but not without giving too much away. You’ll just have to buy the book. We’d give this 10 out of 10. We also think there’s scope for a Billy Bramble sequel. Pretty please.

The girls have written their own reviews:

'Dear Sally Donovan. This book (Billy Bramble) is amazing and inspiring in all sorts of ways as he is feeling rubbish and then he will feel good. And he doesn’t like talking about feelings so you have said there’s an angry dog so when he cries he said that Gobber had licked him. PLEASE WRITE MORE. Katie aged 11.'

'Dear Sally Donovan. I liked the book Billy Bramble. I liked Hungry Bungry, Gobber and Facebook the chicken. I liked when it said ‘I go down the road with no handlebars.’ That made me think of my sister. And when it said ‘top arguer’. Lucy made me think of me because sometimes I on purpose slow eat. Please write more. Sophie aged 10.'

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Sweet spot

The day Peanut moved in was the last day of my third year Social Work practice placement. It had been one of the worst experiences of my adult life. The stresses of writing a dissertation and essays, working in a LA Children's SW team,  our own approval and matching panels and student experiences had me on my knees. It had been a long cold dark winter with introductions to Peanut grabbed between essays and goodbye visits with children I'd been allocated.

Then it stopped.

The winter broke and the sun came out and stayed out. My work was submitted and I had nothing to do other than consider if I actually wanted to be a Social Worker while I waited for my results. Most days I would load Peanut up in the bike trailer and we'd cycle down to the beach and I'd drink coffee and she'd have juice while we shared a scone. Some days we'd ride 20 miles. The sun shone every day for almost three months, we cycled two or three times a week and it was like the summer would never end. New dad and new daughter we slowly got to know each others little ways. I read a book about hope and love and started to feel better. The summer passed and we got on with our busy lives.

Three years have passed and we've had another busy winter, two part time jobs that have turned into more than a full time job so something had to give and this week I've left one one of them behind to create more space to do more.
Then today the sun shone again. MrsC was on a mission, everyone was out and I was left alone with Peanut.

Peanut occupies the sweet spot in our family life. Universally loved by all and benefiting from all the lessons that we learned making epic parenting fails. We know when to worry and we know when to shrug and say 'it'll all be fine'. Peanut creeps into bed some mornings, something we'd never let the others do and I don't care anymore. I know that she'll be 22 years old in about two weeks time, or so it feels, I know that fun you can have with a four year old is a one time offer. They don't stand still and as you celebrate development and maturing you wave goodby to some unique joys and pleasures.

So we got out the 'Yellow'  bike and we went for a ride to seek out coffee. She sat in the front basket* and laughed like a drain as we bounced up the lane. We found a cafe and Peanut had her first Slurpy and she talked my head off. I listened and laughed when she made fun of my accent and I bought her a cake she didn't need but liked cos it had hearts on. Another day I'll remember for a long time.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

DfE - Adoption & Education Health and Care Plans

A brief report from the quarterly meeting of the Adopter's Voice meeting at the Department for Education. The focus had been partially on continuing to look at issues with school and adoptees, specifically looking at Education Health and Care Plans (EHCP).

As a family I've limited experience of EHCP and I dutifully asked people's experiences in the usual meeting spots on Twitter and on Facebook. I confess to being genuinely surprised by the responses, both in quantity and passion. The challenges, frustrations and experiences that people shared were heartfelt and clearly were having a profound affect on the lives of their children and families. I'd not had such a notification tsunami on my phone since I'd asked about CAHMS.
In essence the responses could be broadly grouped thus:-

  • Limited knowledge and understanding of the issues that adopted children faced in relation to trauma, loss, separation and developmental delay by School staff, Educational Psychologists and Local authorities.  Often children's behaviour just perceived as bad or naughty therefore not reaching the threshold for EHCP.
  • Challenges of gathering evidence due to waiting times for assessment or, again, lack of knowledge by professionals. 
  • Children falling below the threshold for a EHCP but above what school is willing, prepared and  and able to support/tolerate. Parents caught between a rock and a hard place with some parents feeling forcing to home school or find and pay for alternative provision.
  • Time delays, with families waiting months that lead to years caught in the machinery of the process. 
  • Adoptive parents feeling the need to 'chase' tangible and commonly understood diagnosis to reach EHCP thresholds (i.e. ADHD, autism etc).
  • Children that got a EHCP but then not having access to the support or services that were identified in the plan. 
  • Challenges in the appeals process and the time, effort and stress that it brought to many families that were already struggling. 

It was a long meeting that also incorporated the Education Sub Committee of the Adoption Support Group. We met with a representative of the DfE with advisory responsibilities for Special Educational Needs & Disabilities (SEND)  and it was interesting to hear his perspective on some of the challenges that he was aware of. He noted that the vast majority of EHCP assessments are accepted but acknowledged that there could be less weighting given to Social, Emotional and Mental ill health, often the issues that adopted children are at higher risk of experiencing. 

There was a lot discuss and in part the role of Adopter Voice is to share with a view to influence those in the position to change systems and policy not for AV to do the changing. As always the people that we have direct contact with at the DfE  appreciate the challenges but they understand how to influence decision makers and groups of professionals. The shift in role of the Virtual Heads to encompass adopted children is a good example of how the views and experiences of individuals and groups influences key people and groups. They then go on to create change in a way that is beyond the control and experiences of the likes of me. So today there was some of that.

There were discussions around the Regionalisation agenda, inspection regimes, workforce development and the role of Adoption Panels was fed back and absorbed. As usual too much to say and some that can't be said. 
There is a methodical and well intentioned process of improvement at play and again I thank you for all your patience and input.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Sick bed

With a gentleness of tone she explained to me:

'It's just that I hate every single thing about you'.

There was no aggression just a sincerity and almost compassion as she tried to get me to understand something that I clearly could quite grasp. I'd asked her, out of curiosity, why she'd spent the previous twenty four hours calling me names that she new would hurt. This had been her reply.

Writing here now I can't even remember what started it, a thing happened, the usual sort of thing, and I said something then it all unraveled. The silence, interspersed with looks of distain and words of harm had trickled on. In the car, at the meal table, bed time, breakfast lunch all simmering. All focused on me, just me.

So, I asked and she helpfully explained that she hated me.

A day later, it was still simmering and I asked if she could remember why she was still cross with me, just me. She couldn't remember was more than happy to confirm that she was still cross with me in no uncertain terms.

I held fast, I knew that she'd come back with the sincere and heartfelt sorry. I daydreamed about playing it cool or throwing it back in her face or some such grand gesture so profound that it would change her, make her think and alter her behaviour for ever.

A day later the good MrsC texted me from home saying the school had called and she was ill and back at home now. She was proper poorly with the flue that been working its way through the massive.

When I got home she was poorly, still cross. I have to admire her tenacity, if this could be harnessed for good she'd be unstoppable.

She was ill. Sleeping not eating or moving. Wanderings through the night, medicine, the usual business.

So, the last day. I sat next to her on her sick bed, she did not recoil. I took a chance and stroked her face.

She let me and her hate had passed.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Adoption Preparation Group

'So.....this is Al, he's an adoptive parent. If you could just tell us a little about your story and some of your experiences'

In the few seconds between the introduction and me starting to talk dozens of different statements dance across my mind. Years ago I the good MrsC and I were asked to speak at a prep course. It seemed so simple then, we'd only walked a little down this road and we spoke in warm glowing terms that would have convinced the hardest cynic. Times have changed and our journey has taken a few twists and turns.

So, what do I say to this group of prospective adopters?

I could tell of the unimaginable love and pride that I feel for my children. I'd paint a picture so sweet that it would make Annie seem like a gritty expose of adoption horror. Of course I could tell of the shadow of trauma, of vicarious trauma, police and social care visits and post adoption support services. A story so grim they'd run from the building weeping.

Since being asked I've thought of so many things that I should say, could say, wouldn't say. All of them right, all of them wrong but all of them reflecting the complexities and contradictions that are apparent in my life as an adoptive parent, a parent.

I believe that at my preparation group I only heard what I was able to hear. Speaking to many adopters this seems to be a universal truth. Our capacity to hear is limited for a myriad of reasons.

The Jesuit Priest Tony de Mello said ' The shortest distance between a human being and the truth is a story'.

So, I'll just tell my story and these families will hear what they can.

'Hello, my name is Al Coates and I'm a parent, my children came to me in a rather unusual manner'