Recently Enquire met Fiona Aitken, Development Director with Adoption UK in Scotland. Fiona kindly shared some great tips for school staff who are supporting children who are adopted.
As with every child, it’s crucial their classroom environment is safe and productive; however adopted and looked after children are more likely to experience school exclusions and leave school with lower than average educational attainment. Adopted children can have more positive outcomes, given the right support at home and in school. The following tips (which have been put together by David Woodier, a support teacher, adoptive parent and member of our Advisory Group, with input from another of our adoptive parent members who is a primary school teacher) provides some useful suggestions for school staff working with children who are adopted:
- Generalisations don’t help. Be careful about assumptions regarding why a child acts a certain way. Adopted children have experienced trauma early in their lives, and the effects can be varied and difficult to understand. Adoptive families give children the best chance at recovery, but the effects of neglect or abuse don’t simply disappear. While some children may appear independent and standoffish, others may act younger and depend on you to help work out problems, manage their emotions, and provide supervision during unstructured times.
- Relationships support learning. Think of your relationship with the child as the scaffolding that gives him or her the confidence to learn. As with any relationship, learn to ‘read’ the child’s behaviours. Becoming fidgety, louder, or non-communicative may be telltale signs that a child is not coping.
- Protect the home. It is easy to put too much strain on the relationship between parents and child by frequent reporting of negative behaviours at school. One of the things that helps a child settle in class is when home life is happy and stable. Teachers’ comments about a child may make the parent feel that they have a responsibility to ‘fix’ the child’s behaviour at school. That burden may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
- Listen to the parents. If parents tell you they are concerned about their child’s over-familiarity with adults, for example, or that their child’s behaviour deteriorates after school, take them seriously. Speak with parents about strategies that are suitable to use in school. They are likely to have had input from social workers and therapists.
- Getting praise right. Be measured in how you use praise. Some adopted children struggle with a deep sense of shame. If your praise is too exaggerated, you risk not being believed. Be on the lookout for something the child does well, perhaps creativity in solving a problem or perseverance at a difficult task. You may need to help them experience success by providing opportunities in less academic activities.
- Shame-less. Avoid being punitive in your approach to discipline. This will often lead to an adopted child feeling a sense of worthlessness. Think of discipline more as a way to help the child learn to trust that adults are competent. Some behaviour may make you feel de-skilled and draw you into personal conflict. The child will probably need your help to repair the relationship.
- Management that works. Adopted children often have difficulty regulating emotions. It is not simply a case of the child not following rules; sometimes it is just that they can’t – yet. Like younger children they still need the adult to help regulate emotions. Ditch the traditional behaviour charts especially where there is an element of public shame. Become an expert in how you manage the classroom. For example, think about how to get everyone else settled and working, so that you can give extra attention to the child who walks into your classroom and isn’t ready to learn.
- Tricky transitions. Schools are full of transitions, for example, within lessons, class to playground, and in the dining room. These are particularly difficult for some adopted children and can trigger anxiety leading to difficult behaviours. You may need to find an alternative place for the child away from the crowd. This is also the time when the child needs more supervision.
- Emotional bodyguard. Some subject matter can make an adopted child feel vulnerable. Themes such as family and loss can stir up strong feelings. It may be difficult to completely avoid these triggers; this makes it even more important that you learn to ‘read’ the child so you can adapt material and intervene early.
- Danger may lurk around every corner. Adopted children may be anxious when dealing with new experiences or people. Whenever possible, plan ahead to minimise surprises. Inform parents of changes to routine in advance so they can help prepare the child. An adopted child may have a heightened sense of danger. An adult visiting class, or unexpected movement or noise could be a source of danger to them. They are unlikely to give 100% attention to the lesson, because part of their brain is busy trying to keep them safe. Consider hypervigilance when he or she is off task.
- Attention seeking. Adopted children may present attention-seeking behaviours, such as constantly trying to engage adults in conversation. Perhaps they may think if they don’t speak to you, you will forget they exist. One suggestion is to create a regular slot each day for them to tell you one thing. In addition, help them learn to work more independently by giving them strategies to use when they feel stuck without letting them feel that you have abandoned them.
A parent’s view
Enquire spoke to a mum of two adopted children who highlighted that sometimes the simplest strategies can make the biggest difference:
There are 3 adopted children in my son’s class (that we are aware of) and they all present in very different ways. Key is understanding that ‘no one size fits all’. Simple things are often the most helpful, for example: kids being able to have transitional objects such as precious belongings – photos, toys or blankets – in school or letting parents in the classroom for a bit if that’s going to help. One really simple thing our son’s teacher did was to create a visual calendar and reinforce it before all transitions. It’s been really helpful for him and all the other pupils with additional support needs in his class. For my daughter a bumpy chair she can wriggle around on has helped her to sit down better.
Adoption UK are currently campaigning for better support for adoptive families in Scotland. You can find out more or join the campaign here.
Adoption UK is an independent voluntary organisation that supports adoptive families in Scotland. Along with training workshops, peer support groups and family events we provide information services through our helpline, website and factsheets around issues affecting children who have previously been looked after and are now living with their permanent adoptive families.
For more information you can visit their website or call their helpline on 0131 341 4621 with any questions or to request a factsheet.
© 2016 David Woodier, Support Teacher, Inclusion Base, North Lanarkshire. Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact.
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