An adoptive parent has praised her children’s primary school for “stepping up” when faced with the challenge of managing her youngest son who has issues related to attachment.

Charlie*, aged five, is physically and verbally abusive, not only to his parents, but also to pupils and staff at his school.

Josie, Charlie’s adoptive mother, said: “Our children, a sibling group of three, were placed with us just over two years ago. All have levels of attachment difficulty and heightened anxiety.

‘fight-or-flight’

Our youngest child, Charlie, physically and verbally abuses both children and adults on a daily-basis, including the head-teacher and us, to the extent that he’s a risk to others. He has developmental levels which are far below his chronological age, especially for social/emotional development, and needs additional support in school to manage the basics of going to the toilet and eating.

Charlie finds other children very threatening so there have been instances in the playground where he’s approached a small child and hit them in the face. He’s automatically ‘fight-or-flight’. We have to make sure we keep him close if we know he’s agitated, or going somewhere that other children will be - although this doesn’t stop him from swearing and being verbally abusive.

Parents who understand our situation accept our apology better than those who don’t. You get used to it but you do think ‘I hope I don’t see those people again’. Attachment is not a visible disability so it’s not easy for other people to understand. We’ve had to warn other children to give Charlie a bit of extra space as he finds it difficult when people get too close to him.

My partner and I get most of the abuse from Charlie

When Charlie lashes out at us we try to empathise with him. His body is going into panic and it’s something he doesn’t have control over so he’s trying to assert control to feel safe and at the moment he’s got a very negative way of doing that, using violence and abuse. He has learned a sense of empathy though, so we don’t make a big deal of the hitting, in terms of telling him off, as he comes to us 10 minutes later and says ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you’.

My partner and I get most of the abuse from Charlie. It hurts when he hits as he’s getting good at getting you in the eye. He’s also kicked the head-teacher in the shins and split a dinner lady’s lip.

Despite this, the school like Charlie as he’s likable and can be charming and funny so he’s not just labelled a ‘naughty boy’ which helps him get the acceptance that he needs.

Negative nursery experience

The head-teacher, in particular, has an excellent understanding of attachment and has inspired her senior team in the same direction. She is one of the governors of our local Virtual School and has organised additional whole school attachment training this year. Teachers made time to attend Looked After Children meetings, completed additional paperwork and kept up an open and honest dialogue with us about our children’s daily challenges and triumphs. We were also lucky enough to access Theraplay via a school referral.

The head is very present in school for our children and has gone out of her way to build their trust. They check in with her daily – when things are going well or badly – and they use her office as a secure base when all else fails.

We had an extremely negative experience with Charlie at nursery because they didn’t have staff with the experience or understanding to work him. We were very worried about how he might cope in a busy school classroom and how school staff might cope with his challenging behaviours.

We looked around at a number of different options but once we had our first meeting with the head at Charlie’s infant school, just before the children were placed with us, we knew we wanted our children to be at this warm and nurturing school. During that first meeting the head told us: ‘you’re about to start on an amazing journey and we would love to be on it with you’ - and they’ve been true to their word ever since.

His LSA is amazingly patient and understanding and uses humour and silliness brilliantly to reduce his anxiety

We highlighted Charlie’s key challenges, explained what had not worked at nursery, and began to discuss additional support (he doesn’t yet have an EHCP). School has used a ‘key person’ approach (informed by the work of Louise Bomber) and we were lucky that the head allocated the senior learning support assistant (LSA) to support Charlie.

His LSA is amazingly patient and understanding and uses humour and silliness brilliantly to reduce his anxiety and provide distractions when situations get too difficult for him. She sees beyond his challenging behaviour, works to his strengths and celebrates his achievements. In her expert care he is becoming settled in school and is slowly starting to make progress. All of the school staff, including midday assistants and the caretaker, know our son by name and don’t bat an eyelid when they see him making his daily tour of the school in his policeman dressing-up outfit, checking that school is ‘safe’!

We have friends who have adopted similar aged children to Charlie and they’re amazed at how our school accepts our children. Some of them have even been called into the school to clean up after their children who’ve had difficulties using the toilet.

Although the school has always been good at working with us and our elder two children, they completely stepped up when faced with the challenge of managing our youngest.

Always be open with senior school staff about our children’s early life experiences

My advice to parents who have children with attachment issues, who are about to start school, is:

  • To do all the reading you can do and access any relevant training. Find out what reading materialyour child’s school has on attachment. If they don’t have any, insist they purchase some Louise Bomber books for staff to read.
  • You can feel disempowered as a parent if you don’t understand various aspects of how a school works, such as what school governors do, so knowing your rights is important. They are legally bound and so have to have certain policies and procedures in place.
  • Accessing peer support through Adoption UK is also important as well as your Adoption UK local support group.
  • And get a feel for your child’s school rather than basing your decision purely upon its academic success. What our children need is the pastoral care their school provides them with, rather than being pushed academically.
  • Always be open with senior school staff about our children’s early life experiences. We believe the more information they have, the easier it will be for them to understand our children’s worries, weaknesses and triggers - and this approach is paying off.

*Charlie is a pseudonym

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To read more about Adoption UK’s Schools Campaign, to make every school attachment aware, please click here.

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