A special needs consultant is urging adoptive parents to inform their children’s schools about attachment issues - in a bid to prevent placements breaking down.

As an adoptive parent herself, Louise has an in-depth knowledge and understanding from her own parenting experience to provide schools with attachment support and advice.

Louise is currently developing adoption awareness training and resources for early years providers, schools, colleges and a number of initial teacher training providers across the South East.

Louise said: “It is always difficult when school placements breakdown - for the parents, for the school and particularly for the child; and for adopted children, who have already experienced disruption in their lives, a breakdown of placement will add to that. Children are also sensitive to the tensions that there will often be between school and parents.

the key is finding out the meaning behind the behaviour 

When a placement breaks down, it can be because the school is not equipped to deal with, or understand, the child’s needs. Schools can also face a number of pressures, including sometimes from parents of other pupils if an adopted child is hurting their children. Schools also have external pressures around attainment and achievement which can make including a child with additional needs difficult, particularly if they don’t have an EHCP (Education, Health & Care Plan).

When I’m working with schools I encourage them to look for the function of the child’s behaviour and what they are trying to communicate through their behaviour. For example, a child might be experiencing difficulties at playtimes and the reason could be as simple as they are missing someone they used to play with at their previous school - or it could be that they are finding it difficult to regulate their feelings and responses to triggers in the playground and need support with developing appropriate play skills with their peers.  It could be very simple, or complex – the key is finding out the meaning behind the behaviour. This can be done through therapeutic play, therapy, by just talking to the child, or observing them and noting the little triggers.

I recently saw a thread on the Adoption UK forum about the relationship between an adoptive parent and a head-teacher which had broken down. This is the sort of thing I regularly have to deal with in my role as a special needs consultant.

I find it really difficult when I hear parents are having these kinds of experiences – but on the other side there will be a school struggling, as no school wants to keep calling a parent into school.

 Third party

The class teacher, SENCO and head-teacher are the key people for parents to liaise with. Sometimes they are reasons that can be quite easily resolved, such as where the child in question is being seated, or it might be because of lots of gaps in their learning that have led to task avoidance behaviours in the classroom.

However, sometimes there needs to be a third party involved to resolve issues and the school’s allocated educational psychologist is the ideal person to resolve issues and work out what’s causing the behaviours that are leading to the child’s difficulties at school. In addition, some local authorities have educational psychologists linked to social services in order to support adopted children, but schools might not be aware of the services that can be accessed through social services for adopted children at their school.

I’ve worked as part of multi-disciplinary teams with children who were unable to have their needs met in mainstream schools because of associated difficulties around trauma. But now, as an adoptive parent myself, I have a more in-depth understanding and knowledge from my parenting experience to be able to provide schools with attachment support and advice. 

I’ve set up programmes individually tailored to the needs of adopted children after their placement has broken down in a mainstream school. For example, one child was with us almost two years before they successfully integrated back into their mainstream school. They underwent intensive therapy which we were able to provide, including play therapy, and there was input from both an educational psychologist and an occupational therapist.

Instances where the school and the parents work together always have the best outcomes

As a consultant I’ve supported adopted children who have had very traumatic and disruptive early starts in life. In one case the school was struggling with the child’s needs and his adoptive parents were finding things challenging at home. We introduced strategies for that child and the child is now a lot more settled.

However, sometimes it can get to the point where a fresh start is the best option for everyone. Some children need a different mainstream school or a special school placement. It’s always very sad when a placement breaks down but sometimes it’s the best outcome. You’d hope the approach a school would take with a child who has suffered a lot of disruption, would be to let them know ‘this it is a safe place for you, where you belong, whatever happens’, but unfortunately this doesn’t always happen for various reasons.

Instances where the school and the parents work together always have the best outcomes. Adopted children have a past that the school is not always fully aware of, so it can be useful to acknowledge what has happened previously for the child in order to understand current behaviours and to try to find a way of preventing this happening in future.

When I speak to some of my adoptive parent friends some are unsure where to go to for help and some of the schools often don’t know where to go either.

Generally I don’t think schools are very attachment aware

My advice to adoptive parents is that they should be approaching the school to have a meeting with the class teacher, SENCO and/or head-teacher when the child first starts at the school in order to discuss their child’s individual needs and also to discuss attachment issues. Generally I don’t think schools are very attachment aware, however some schools who have had adopted children have developed a lot of understanding and expertise. For example, even though I have been teaching for 15 years and have been a SENCO and a head-teacher, I didn’t have any professional training on attachment – everything I learnt about attachment was through becoming an adoptive parent. Typically children don’t tend to get a diagnosis of an attachment disorder but rather it is labelled in another way so usually there is more training and information in schools about other difficulties.

Adoptive parents are the experts about their own child and quite rightly they don’t always want to share everything about their child’s background with the school as it’s personal to the child. What’s difficult is to know how much to share with the school regarding what may be an issue for the child at school. Some people want to keep everything private which is their decision as an adoptive parent, but if parents don’t share how can they expect the school to understand if things start to break down?

Samuel, my adopted son, is two-and-a-half and is just about to start nursery. I’ve spoken to his nursery about his attachment issues. I’m also thinking a lot around his life-story work and preparing something for when he attends school. I found Joy Rees’ book The Joy of Life Work really useful and would recommend it to other adoptive parents. I’m currently adapting our son’s life story book to one that’s appropriate to share with his nursery.

Every individual case is obviously different but I’d like to think that if Samuel does experience problems at school, relating to attachment issues, then I’d be able to work with the school to resolve any problems.”

* Samuel is a pseudonym

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

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