Friday 27 May 2016

Smile for the camera

Back in 2007 there were a few weeks were I was quite undecided about whether we could or should put ourselves forward to be Flossy and Lotty's adoptive mam and dad.
It was murky time with emotions running high amidst two hours feeds for Lotty, 5am wake ups from Flossy, 7 to 4:30 work hours and daily contacts. There was a consensus from the big three, Queenie and the Good MrsC that we should adopt but I was nervous for a myriad of reasons.

With no certain decision for them the plan for the girls marched on and photo's were needed for Be My Parent that well known but now gone adoption publication. MrsC volunteered my photographic services and I was instructed to take some appropriate pictures to send to the publishers. So, on a sunny evening I tried to catch all that I knew and had grown to love in a photograph. I'm a fiercely average photographer but what a task trying get a worthy picture of this manic 7 month old and a feisty 19 month old.

I felt sick, their lives boiled down to whether I could take a good photograph. Bribery, persuasion, trickery, distraction and all manner of subterfuge failed dismally. After 30 minutes and without anything that I felt was worthy of them I gave up. I couldn't bear the thought of their faces on some publication like shoes in a catalogue. We called the Local Authority and told them we'd adopt them.
That decided that and the rest is history.

Occasionally I see photo's linked to children in various places, Placement Link, Children Who Wait, the usual places. There was all that who ha last adoption week about the child in the newspaper. Can it be justified? do the means justify the ends. I'm a pragmatic by nature and training but I remain on the fence. However, I do wonder about the fall out of your status and identity being displayed for thousands to see. With complex issues of identity and self frequently present are we adding another trauma or layer of complexity to adoptees and foster children? But should adopters make decisions wholly based on written information alone or is the essential spark of love required that a photo can ignite needed? Or can a photo blind the mind to the hard facts as laid out in profiles? a honey trap? Is it better to remain in foster care and protect your image than to advertise and be adopted.

Photo's often tell more than words can ever say. Today I came across such a photo with the headline underneath 'Could you be Sonny's forever parent?'. That's why I'm writing today because it made me feel sick, like it does most times I see them. 
That's me, my sickness is about Flossy and Lotty on that sunny evening. 
I still have the photo's I took and come across them from time to time I still feel sick. I see in those photo's the difficulties that we all faced at that time and recall the choices we made. 

Wednesday 25 May 2016

The Adoption Support Expert Advisory Group: Update

The Adoption Support Expert Advisory Group held its quarterly meeting yesterday so I’ve put together a brief report on the interesting points as I saw them.
The agenda was included feedback from the previously held Adoption User Group meeting , focusing on education and EHC plans, as well as an update to the first year of the Adoption Voice initiative. All good and encouraging to see that Adoptive parent’s views are being listened to by movers, shakers and policy makers (so to their website and join in!).

There was a major discussion of the implications of the Children and Social Work Bill, with much focus on the duties placed on the Virtual School Heads in relation to adopted children in education. How will Virtual School Heads (VSHs) respond to this new requirement is uncertain though initial response is positive. Of course there are questions and with some adoptive families not needing the advocacy and support of the VSHs, some desperately needing it and lots inbetween. The knowledge and expertise that the VSHs should have can be shared with schools and parents can gain essential insight into specific school's strengths in caring for vulnerable children. It was noted that there are other children that are equally as in need of this support, such as those fostered by family and friends and those living in a special guardianship arrangements. The need for equal levels of support for these children is hard to argue against. An interesting comparison being the Adoption Support Fund which was initially targeted at children adopted from care but has now widened to incorporate other children with similar needs cared for in different models of permanency. Perhaps this will be something that will be successfully lobbied for in the future? As it was described by one of the group 'this is a journey'. So perhaps hope for those who feel that they’ve been left behind.

We also discussed the Adoption Support Fund’s progress and the ongoing impact. After the initial phase, with many families and children having received support, thoughts around how to ensure that effective commissioning of therapy continues. Should less well known such as Equine Therapy be included within the ASF scope and on what evidence base should that be? The Fund is here to stay but it must evolve to better meet the needs of children and  families. 

I've pondered the changes that I've seen in the understanding of the support needs of adopted children and families. The landscape is unrecognisable by comparison to five years ago or 17 years ago when the big three joined us. Is their further to go? of course. But, as I often bleat on, some of the needs of adopted children are no different to many other children who don't carry that status. Hugh Thornbery noted that in raising the profile of adoptees needs and challenges other children will benefit from lessons learnt and changes to systems pushed through for adoptees. 

A positive meeting and we are on a journey.

Monday 23 May 2016

Guest Blog: Snakes and Ladders

By Jane Pickthall, Head of A Virtual School,  Vice Chair of The National Association of Virtual School Heads.

A ladder is meant to provide a step up in the world, an opportunity to rise above and see what’s out there. How many times is a ladder used as a metaphor for reaching ambitions or making recovery? A ladder should be a positive, like in a game of snakes and ladders but in schools this is often not the case.

Most schools these days seem to favour behaviour management systems that are based on a ladder of consequences. You make a small mistake and you find yourself at the bottom of the ladder, a slightly worse misdemeanour and up you go again and if things get totally out of hand there you are at the top of the ladder and facing exclusion. Most children get this and avoid reaching the top but for some children such as those in care and adopted, this approach can actually make behaviour worse.

Many children who have experienced trauma and abuse carry around with them a huge, all-pervading sense of shame. They believe that it was their fault that they were treated the way they were, which of course is not true but it’s how many feel. Now picture this child in school, desperately trying to succeed but struggling to concentrate because of the need to be hyper-vigilant, feeling the pressure to please their peers in order to fit in or forgetting to bring in the right equipment as this requires a level of organisation they’re yet to master.
For most of these situations, a consequence is likely to be doled out. A warning from the teacher or a name on the board might be all that’s needed for most pupils but all too often this simple act can trigger a reaction in a vulnerable child, leading to an escalation in behaviour. Overwhelmed by the shame they’re made to feel, their brains become flooded with cortisol and they enter a flight, flight or freeze mode. This might result in the pupil leaving the classroom or shouting at the teacher and up the ladder of consequences they go…

Schools seem unable to move away from consequences. What they often fail to see, however, is that the behaviour the child is exhibiting is also a consequence – of their early life experience. It’s vital that we get this message over to schools and spread the word about understanding attachment.

Perhaps the worse step of the ladder of consequences for looked after and adopted children is what is known as ‘isolation’ – the school equivalent of the naughty step. A place to go and think about your wrong doing, to feel remorse and learn from your mistakes. It doesn’t work like this for many vulnerable pupils though. To them it is a frightening place that might remind them of the time they were locked in a room alone, where the teacher is unfamiliar and unsafe, where the silence is deafening as it allows the anxious thoughts to take over. I’ve known many children refuse to attend school if the day ahead is set to be in ‘isolation’.

It’s time to find a different ladder for our children that supports them to succeed and learn to regulate. One that includes private words instead of public humiliation, restoration instead of consequences, a safe space with a trusted adult instead of an ‘isolation’ room with strangers and being kept close and included instead of excluding and pushing away. There have been enough snakes in the lives of these children already, so they really need ladders that help them get ahead.

Friday 20 May 2016

Walking the dog

I'm sitting with the my laptop on my knee, can of pop in hand and music on.

MrsC is out socialising with Sarah, Gingers out painting the town red and Gracie, who know's where she is. Peanut's asleep and Flossy took herself to bed about 20 minutes ago.

Lotty's sat reading a book and I'm watching her. She should go to bed, I should send her. Lotty's tuning into a proper little pal.

Lotty and I walked the dog this week and she told me about a girl in her class who called a black boy the worst name you can call a black boy.

'Was he ok?' I asked, 'oh yeah, it used to happen in his old school' she said as a matter of fact. Until the boy arrived last year Lotty had been the only black child in the school.

We talked some more, about this and that, about what it means and why its not nice. I explained stereotypes and prejudice.  She got it and we she talked about when she was in reception the boy who was frightened to sit next to her in case he accidentally touched her skin and it rubbed off. We talked some more and for the first time I told her of my worries that I can't help her with some of this stuff.  It was head knowledge for me not lived experience and that she may experience prejudice from all kinds of places.  Lotty wasn't too phased by all of this, Lotty is convinced that she is loved.
As we walked the sun dropped and the shadows grew long. I told her about my fears and worries when I was asked to adopt her, how I hoped to be the best I could be and would help her however I could. We talked about this and that and the price of chips.

We return to the same topics again and again as our children grow, thorny prickly issues and we peal back the layers a little further each time as understanding develops.

I think we'll be fine.

Tuesday 17 May 2016

Guest Blog - Supporting adopted children in school: What works for us

By @sgsuzanneh

I’ve been teaching for 10 years and through that time I’ve supported lots of children who’ve suffered trauma who have either still been with their birth family, in care or adopted. I currently co-ordinate a life skills course for Sixth formers with SEND (Special Educational Need and Disability), all of who have additional needs and some of who are adopted or CLA. I’m also an adoptive parent of a now 18 year old. He went through the school that I teach in and held it together mostly to come out the other side with a good selection of GCSEs at level 1.
The big thing that works for all children is structure, routine, consistency and care. For children who’ve suffered trauma this is more important than ever to keep them feeling as safe as you possibly can in a school environment. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need shows that safety and meeting physical needs comes before the ability to learn. Hypervigilance is exhausting and leaves little brain activity for anything else.
Structure and routine are provided to young people so they know what is happening next. Surprises, even nice ones, are the worst thing ever for many of these children. It feels unsafe because they don’t know what will happen next, this is scary. How do they know if it will be something nice or something scary based on their previous experiences? Previous experiences are the only thing they have to go off when it comes to new experiences and what to expect.

Consistency and care are important to show young people that they are important. Dan Hughes talks about in a room of 50 people, the child whose suffered trauma will pick out the one face not smiling. They seem predisposed to only recognise negative experiences because of their early life experience, this knowledge can keep you safer than knowing who’s nice. You look out for danger!
  • We have the same adults all the time (TA and teachers) so that young people know the expectations and don’t have to worry about different expectations for different staff, it’s consistent within 7 adults as much as it can be.
  • Social time supported by the same two staff every day. We pick up on issues quickly as we’re ‘clued in’ to young people’s behaviour and emotional well-being.
  • No cover staff if teacher absent. The teacher will set the work and TAs supervise it being carried out.
  • Routine of timetable which is gone through every morning in registration so young people know what is happening for the day
  • Pre-warn of change (ie new people coming in, especially visitors)
  • I am key adult in the class room for the young people who are most vulnerable. I will work with them if we have visitors come in to work with the group.
  • TA’s have naturally picked up PLACE, tag teaming strategies
  • Families are important to consult and empower and I speak to families regularly with positives as well as concerns. This is done by text, email and through coffee mornings every six weeks. This means families keep us informed if things are tricky at home and we try to support in school but not take over. We also keep an extra eye on students at this time.
We’ve found that with putting in structure, routine, consistency and care most of the behaviour issues have been avoided but any that continue are dealt with using natural consequences. These include finishing work at lunchtime in a safe environment of the classroom, ‘time in’ with a safe adult for issues with other students so keeping them close rather than pushing them away and me being the only one to deal with them so they know what to expect and I can manage their anxiety through my knowledge of them and how they will react rather than a member of SLT (School Leadership Team) who don’t know them and who they don’t know.  In a worst case scenario with exclusions I go out to visit at home to do the reintegration meeting the night before. This means that young people don’t have to come back into a ‘hostile’ environment to be told the expectations again. They know they will get a positive reaction from us all when they return ‘hi glad you’re back, this is what we’re doing today’ kind of thing.
It doesn’t work for all but on the whole I’m proud of what we do and the difference that can make to young people’s lives.