Wow! What a huge ask of our children. It’s a little bit like revisiting the first few months after they come home. You’ve done all the reading and think you are prepared for what’s coming – and then it hits you! – and it’s even harder than you’d imagined.

My daughter moved from a small nurturing primary to a relatively small secondary of 800 pupils. We could not have asked for a better transition! It was fantastic. It included a visit to high school in February when schools were closed to all but the most vulnerable pupils and 3 full days of activities during the summer holidays where she met 10 other pupils and key adults from her new high school. The activities were all designed to instil confidence and build relationships, mostly in outdoor settings. We also had a child planning meeting for primary and secondary staff to share additional needs and identify strategies. At home, we encouraged a friendship with a girl from her primary school who would be in her high school class, and we incorporated all our usual transition supports.

I’m not sure what else we could have done to prepare.

But still she struggled.

First off, it was the newness. All 16+ adults she encountered each week who knew of her needs but who didn’t really know her. To her, they were strangers. Even though she’d met some of them and watched videos of others, she hadn’t forged a relationship with them. Just like when she first came home to me, it would take time to build the relationships and establish trust.

Secondly, it was the environmental factors. The dinner hall noise, PE halls, corridors, movement between classes and not being sure of how and where to go. It was overwhelming. Again, school have been brilliant! There are places for her to retreat to where it is less busy and staff on hand to welcome her. She has ear defenders, noise cancellation earplugs, an early exit pass and an exit pass for nurture – all of which she uses. But the reality is she still finds these things hard to cope with. She doesn’t always eat during the school day. I wonder if she is so heightened that she loses the ability to tune into her hunger. We talk a lot about the energy needed for thinking and share information with pupil support staff. I am hopeful that in time she will feel safer, and her tolerance will grow, allowing her to retune to her body.

One of the biggest challenges at high school has been the actual curriculum and how it is often interpretated without the lens of being trauma informed. One example was being asked to write about her life in RME within the first couple of weeks of starting school. This task raised lots of issues of life story, trauma triggers, identity, conflict and being different. Another example was learning family vocabulary in French which she says put birth family in the centre of her mind.

All of this pales in comparison to the choices of texts in English – Hunger Games, Divergence and Frankenstein! Not only is there is a huge gap between age and stage appropriateness here, but on top of that she is being asked to confront the deepest most painful aspects of adoption when she does not yet have the emotional capacity, reflective ability, or language skills to make sense of these overwhelming feelings. It is no surprise that sometimes it is too much to bear, and she will leave the lesson!

Surprisingly, despite the awful text choices and the fact that she faces daily struggles with dyslexia, the biggest surprise for me is that English is one of her favourite subjects! I am incredibly grateful to the English teacher who took the time to connect with my daughter and establish the relationship she needs so she can engage in learning. What a phenomenal difference this has made!  My daughter is willing to engage in learning, even when the texts are so challenging, just because of this teacher, safe in the knowledge that when the content does become overwhelming she can simply use one of her exit passes and seek refuge in Nurture.

We are fortunate that school staff listen to us and respond positively to our concerns. The little adjustments they have made make a huge difference to my daughter’s ability to cope - from providing the learning intention so she doesn’t have to copy it to being buddied up with an older pupil. At our last meeting it was suggested my daughter could join a care-experienced group for a monthly lunch. What a brilliant idea!

All-in-all the start to high school has been very similar to those first few months of becoming a family. The great transition gave a good base to start from and the responsiveness of high school staff really helped but time is something we can’t control. As time passes, the relationships become stronger and there are many reasons to be hopeful that we will be able to navigate high school safely.

Author: Paula Gilhooly, AUK Helpline and Education Advisor