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.

Tuesday 26 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.

Friday 15 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'

The rise of the Adopters

I've had this feeling that's been brewing and festering that then turned into a title for a blog 'The Rise of the Adopters'. It's been a struggle to turn my feelings into words that make sense and accurately express how what's going on in my head. So, I've been reading, thinking, talking and pondering.

Adoption is not a human right, for adopters, it's a choice and a privilege. Adopters come to adoption for a myriad of reasons through different routes, often painful routes, with different expectations, hopes and dreams. These factors all impact on what we actually want and expect. I sometimes meet prospective adopters and I'm nervous for them as we talk and their expectations are shared with me. The views of adopters, and prospective adopters, are valuable and useful but should they be used to inform policy? Of course they should but the weight that they are given is where my thoughts linger. Adopters punch way above their weight in many regards, emotionally, culturally and politically. We rarely see anything other than agreement over adoption announcements in the press? The nation is outraged when we read the headlines:

'Too fat to adopt, too thin to adopt, too old, too whatever'

But as I said adoption is not a human right. However, for whatever reason the dynamic is that adopters are placed on a pedestal as saints and children are labeled lucky to have been adopted by them. Laws are massaged to suit adopters with approval times reduced and the requirement to consider the culture and ethnicity of children when matching removed. Pragmatic realism or pandering to popularist views, we could, and should, argue the toss. But the balance of power remains with adopters. Adopters have a voice. 

Children are given no, or very little choice in relation to their adoption. This is the history of adoption favours the adopter. Children are the victims of circumstance, policy and culture. My children had no choice.

Where are the voices of adopted children?

Though few and far between adult adoptees do have a voice but we rarely hear the voices of children. Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is clear that children have the right to say what they think should happen in decisions that affect them and to have their views taken into account. I'm not sure that's what it looks like on the ground.

Of course gathering anybody's views is hard let alone children especially those perhaps more vulnerable than their peers.  All parents know the challenge of weighing what we think is in the best interests of our children with what they want, a challenge that we as a family face on what seems like a weekly basis.

So, what am I saying?

I'm an advocate for adoption but I see that it's a system and model with flaws and for some children and adults it falls short of the ideal. I believe that for many the security, love and safety of adoption is the best option. I also believe that it can and should be better and that it could be different.

To be honest I'm thinking aloud. Adoptive parents fight like lions for their children on a daily basis and we promote the best interests to a myriad of friends, family and professionals. The DfE is investing in the views of adopters through the Adopter's Voice initiative to influence policy and practice. I would suggest that those who can use this opportunity to not only share our experiences but to share not only the experiences of our children but where possible the views and wishes of our children.

Lets be a voice for the voiceless. Let's shout louder.

I've not mentioned first families but as you can imagine I have thoughts. 
This blog was a lot longer but in the interests of sanity I cut it to nothing.

Updating dysregulating memories, an experiment part 1 - A guest blog

Updating dysregulating memories, an experiment part 1.
By an Anonymous Friend
My therapist and I have been working on updating some of my memories. The concept is simple by discussing certain memories as an adult I can re-label them with an updated adult perspective, discharging some of the emotional impact they have. This should hopefully mean that I am then able to process some of my triggers more calmly.

Triggers that currently when sparked off can whirl me back to the past and to the age / feeling of a situation, often accompanied by some 'interesting’ unwanted  present day behaviours. The process is also helping those parts of me (stuck at that age) to have, for the first time, their own voice. It also gives a first chance for them to speak and be heard in a safe place.

Before I write any examples down there is just one thing that must be made clear. I am only giving you my bias of the situations and no one in my family has ever purposefully been vindictive or malicious. Each member of my family has their own tail to tell; this is me giving mine. I understand that my actions and behaviours gave those around me a real problem, but I think now the reasons for the behaviour would be better understood.

In fact my family were, at the times I am writing about, very giving and were trying to love all those around them. They were brethren missionaries. It must also be acknowledged  that some of  these same strict / rigid  beliefs were also the ones that made me and my family  fall short. I often looked embarrassingly spoilt and ungrateful in the face of the hunger and need surrounding us. It made my need look ridiculous and arrogant.


We were once in someone's garden and I had been in the pool (we were living in Africa at the time). Suddenly I saw a small spider land on my mum's flowery dress. I knew spiders were dangerous where we lived. I rushed over all sopping wet and slapped the offending creature off my mum's sleeve. Dads response to this was to grab my arm in front of everyone (about 15 elders and their wives) and wallop my behind. As a young child this humiliated me incredibly and I then had to live with the story:

"Do you remember that time she just rushed out the pool and hit her mother!"
 "If that were my child I would show her some real discipline” 
“they let her get away with far to much ".


My mum used to love cooking everything in a pressure cooker. (Our chickens were tough as old boots). Unfortunately this meant that as I saw the pot go on the stove I would panic, dreading the intense hissing sound that the weight would make as the pot came up to pressure. I would then brace myself for the even louder chronically high pitched screeching that the pot made as it was placed  in the sink and the weight took off. This evil pot was part of my life from about 3-10yrs old and got me into a lot of bother.

 "that child's disappearing  again"
"stop overreacting!"
 "why do you always runaway when it's time to eat come and sit here in the kitchen with me now!".
“You need to learn to just get over it”


As I mentioned before part of my young child hood (5-11) was spent in Africa, Zimbabwe.  Every year or so we would take a trip to South Africa so we could renew our visas. These trips were always surrounded by fear. I knew this because I heard a lot of prayers about what could or had happened to others. The trip its self took over eight to ten hours and we had to pass through many army controlled road blocks on the way. Checks and bribes had to be met whilst soldiers would surround the car with a lot of long large guns. 

There was the real threat of kidnap and being held for ransom and the car being stolen by opposing political parties or rebels. During the last few hours on the road before no mans land and the boarder of South Africa hostility was notorious. So much so that my dad would speed as fast as he could on the bumpy pot holed tarmac. The atmosphere in the vehicle would grow intensity this last hour or so. It did not matter what was in the road; a dead animal, a crashed car or a person. There was only one rule the car must have - NOT STOP!!

Next came a boiling hot wait in the car. It's windows up and doors locked shut and we would join  a queue of vehicles creeping closer and closer to yet more soldiers and guns at the exit gate. 

My behaviour before after and during these trips was apparently:

 “extremely unhelpful, rude and ungrateful”.
"why can't you just sit still like yours sisters"
 "stop starting fights or I'll stop the car and leave you in the road”
" not one more word out of you young lady or your father will smack you when we stop!!" 
"sit there and don't move!"
 "If you don't stop crying I'll give you some thing to cry about".

Try as I might I couldn't contain myself or calm down. (I was different to my sisters but that's not what this blog is about). By the time I was 8 I had at least  managed to stop wetting myself on a daily basis but my mum had had enough; nothing she nor my dad did could control me.

 "troubles your middle name!!".

Daily life For me was a battleground:

 "don't give it to her she has butterfingers"
 "when is that girl going to learn to run in a straight line?"
" why can't she just sit still!"
"I just washed that, I should make you wear a bib!".
 "Your spoon goes in your mouth not down your front!".

Gradually my belief that I was a different, horrid and ungrateful  person grew.  As my sisters became more delicate and girly, I became ever feral, restless, angry and withdrawn from people. Mum kept taking me for hearing tests as she was convinced I was deaf. I had to wear an eye patch for my double vision (which being in Africa my mum made out of some old curtain material and elastic) and it was yuck yuck yuck way to itchy.  My left ear developed banging internally and without rhythm. It would drive me mad and the world could never be silent. The plugging of my ears with oil and cotton wool over and over again did not help and only further irritated me as it kept running down my neck. In the end I was told I would have to:  “learn to live with it”.

My behaviour became more exaggerated and  I would throw myself at anything that challenged me in a fit of blind uncoordinated energy:
  • An un-climbable tree.
  • The python that lived in the ant hill next to our house.
  • I would jump off the kitchen roof over the storm drain (seeing  if I could land close enough to the cactus but not in it).
  • Steal the local's guinea pigs and rabbits from their overcrowded hutches to give them a better life in a cage I had behind our house. The locals would be angry that a thief was stealing there food. 
  • I blocked up our drinking reservoir with fish I had stolen in crisp packets from the fishermen at the dam (I couldn't stand seeing them gulping and suffocating).
  • Didn't mind the bruises and cuts I gathered and started a daily ritual of counting and picking at them.
  • Dropping an extremely heavy garden roller handle across all my toes at once.
  • Climbing through a wasps nest in the avocado tree.
  • Secretly starting fires all around the garden,
  • Making my own toilet behind various lumps of rock
  • Returning home from yet another day long bike ride / adventure in the bush with a tractor thorn clean through my foot (it had to be removed with pliers from the workshop).
After these ( and various other events ) my very unhuggable, feral and angry self ended up being put in a boarding school.  My 6th school and third country, now aged 9...