Adoptive parent felt 'undermined' by son's head-teacher

An adoptive parent has told how she felt so undermined by her son’s former head-teacher that she began questioning her ability to look after him and even worried that his adoption may disrupt.

Lisa recalls being at breaking-point after being called into school every-other-day - because of the behaviour of her son, Oliver*, who is now aged nine.

It was only after Lisa took the drastic decision to send Oliver to a different primary school that their lives all changed dramatically, for the better.

Lisa said: “This time last year we were desperate. It really seemed like there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Oliver’s behaviour at school was causing friction everywhere. Every minute of my day seemed to be eaten up by dealing with the school while also trying to therapeutically parent Oliver as best we could. They didn’t understand Oliver’s issues and he seemed to spend a lot of time standing in a corridor after being thrown out of the classroom.

We started to ask ourselves ‘can we do this?’

It got to the point where we were not sure if what we were doing was making things worse for Oliver. The reports we were getting back from staff was that Oliver was ruling the school but it was only because they were letting him. I felt I was putting him in a situation each day. I felt sick. I was on tenterhooks as I was always waiting for the phone to ring. I was constantly having to leave work to go to the school.  

It was a very frightening place for Oliver to be. I was frightened myself. One time they left him in a room, on his own for 45 minutes, which was very distressing for him. I just couldn’t see a light at end of tunnel. All hopes I had for him were disappearing. It felt as though as a parent I was being undermined and not listened to. The teachers were doing the best they could in a very difficult situation. But the head saw Oliver as a problem.

At home Oliver was being violent towards me - lashing out, kicking, screaming. His siblings, our birth children, who are aged 16 and 14, coped remarkably well but were virtually having to keep to themselves as we were permanently having to deal with Oliver’s behaviour. 

At the time we were worried the adoption might disrupt. It was at the back of my mind. Part of me was thinking the stress I was under was unsustainable because as a family we were tearing ourselves apart. We started to ask ourselves ‘can we do this?’, which is ridiculous as we’re both more than capable. I’d look at the adopter forum on the Adoption UK website and see other adoptive parents in a similar situation to us and I’d think ‘thank goodness I’m not on my own’.

'Predictably Oliver went in and kicked off'

We’d adopted Oliver through a voluntary agency and as a result he came from a different local authority which meant there was no support. We tried to access the Adoption Support Fund but we couldn’t as we had no social worker. We felt we were on our own.

But we spoke to a clinical psychologist and an educational psychologist, both from CAMHS, and they along with the Virtual School head, all said Oliver needed to change school. They recommended a special school as they have children with attachment difficulties and challenging behaviour but we weren’t sure about the effect the upheaval of changing schools would have on Oliver.

Oliver then received a four-day exclusion, which was then rolled over after he was due to return after half-term, at which point I said ‘that’s enough’ and decided to remove him from this school. It was horrible but the outcome was better than we could ever have imagined. We were worried about Oliver losing his friends but we had to think what was best for him. School is a big chunk of a child’s life, especially if they’re unhappy.

We had an interview with the head of the new school which was very difficult as I had to explain that Oliver swears every time he doesn’t get his own way – but they were lovely. They admitted it wouldn’t be an easy road but they had a  place for Oliver and so he started in November of last year.

Predictably Oliver went in and kicked off but every time he kicked off they said ‘these are the boundaries and these are the circumstances’. They then placed Oliver onto the THRIVE programme which works with children along their emotional capacity, as opposed to working with their chronological age, so it’s a pastoral approach to teaching which ties in with attachment.

He’s gone from being emotionally aged two, to nine, in just six months, which is amazing

The head-teacher at Oliver's new school is passionate that these children need help to reach their full potential – and she wants them to achieve this, no matter what their background. The scenario at school, if something went wrong, had gone from it being all my son’s fault at his old school, to looking at why this happened, why he reacted in this way, if they can change the situation and if not, how can they make it better for him?

It’s not all been plain-sailing. Oliver’s had a couple of internal exclusions. He attacked a child out of sheer frustration. He also had a wobble where he refused to work and the school said they were going to send the work home if he didn’t do it but it turned out he wasn’t very well.  We only had one phone call from the school between them going back after Easter and breaking up for the summer holidays. At his previous school I would be called in at least every-other-day. But it wasn’t just a case of changing school – it had to be the right place. He had become so damaged that if we got it wrong he would not have stayed in a mainstream school.

Oliver is hardly ever violent at home now. It does occur occasionally but it’s very rare. When it does happen it can shock us.

He’s gone from being emotionally aged two, to nine, in just six months, which is amazing. It’s been very hard work but we’re now watching him growing in confidence. His words to me recently were: ‘They understand me mum’. He feels confident and he says he feels ‘safe’ at school. Being understood and feeling safe is all that we all want really.

It is the happiest and laid-back school I’ve ever been in. There are lots of children with difficulties but you can’t tell which are which – it just seems like any other mainstream primary although but it’s such a happy school with a happy vibe.

'Don’t be afraid to ask the school the right questions'

The new school works with us. I can say tell staff there’s been a wobble on the way into school – and they’ll take that onboard and have a chat with him and tell him what’s going to happen. If he can’t cope he can leave the classroom as the door’s not shut and it’s not the end of the world if he has a wobble – because there’s always a way back.

There are consequences which are not very nice, like missing a bit of break, but they’re tailored to him. He’s allowed to have a fiddle toy in class and they never make us feel like anything we are doing is wrong.

Oliver attending secondary school is still a concern to us but his new school will work with parents to help transition children with issues into secondary school. We’re not on our own thanks to support from the school. Leaving school can be a big upheaval but we now know he can change school and make new friends. I’d be lying if I didn’t say the idea of Oliver attending senior school terrified me but I’m more confident about secondary school than I ever was and that’s a good start.

My advice to other adoptive parents whose children are struggling at school is to get the professionals onboard. If you can,access the ASF to get therapies like DDP and access an Educational Psychiatrist, CAMHS and a Virtual School.

Don’t be afraid to ask the school the right questions: What’s your policy on exclusions? (one head-teacher told me that if Oliver hit anyone he would be permanently excluded so I knew straight away this wasn’t the right school for him). What programmes do you run for children with attachment? What training do you provide staff on attachment? What do you know about Louise Bomber? What do you know about therapeutic parenting?  (most don’t know what this is!).

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