Monthly Archives: January 2012

A Letter to Ofsted in Praise of Our School

This is a letter which I recently wrote to Ofsted, during their inspection of the primary school which my daughter attends.  All names have been changed.

For the attention of:       Ofsted Inspector

Subject:                         Ofsted Inspection of our Primary School

We moved our adopted children to the school in 2007.  They had previously attended our local school.  Before being placed for adoption they had both been in the care of our Local Authority after having experienced significant and long term abuse and neglect in their birth home.  These early months and years have had a significant detrimental impact, particularly upon our son who presents with attachment difficulties, anxiety and low self-esteem and who finds school a challenging environment to be in.

This school was strongly recommended to us by adopters whose children went there.

The staff have made such a vast difference to our children, to their outcomes and to our family life that we felt we had to write and express this to you in response to your request for feedback from parents.  The Head Teacher has led an approach which has accepted our children for the difficulties they have, he has put in place many measures to support them, has supported many reviews with Social Services and CAMHS and has taken the extra steps that have made all the difference.  Jamie’s class teacher took the time to build up a strong relationship with him, has been endlessly patient with behaviours that we know must be very difficult to manage at school, has taken on board our suggestions and has even supported Jamie as he gradually shared some painful memories and information with her.  She also set high expectations for him academically and he left Year 6 having achieved a Level 4, something which a few years ago we would not have dreamed would be possible.  The school also put into place a personalised transition programme to help his move to secondary school.   Rose’s teacher has attended a training session with us at CAMHS, has fully put into the practise the information that was presented and has shown sensitivity and empathy in working with Rose and indeed us.

We know from contact with many other adoptive parents that schools often fail to recognise the needs of children who have suffered neglect and abuse who are no longer in Local Authority Care. (In a recent meeting of adoptive parents in our county, we were the only family amongst a large roomful who reported a positive experience of school).  The staff have never made us feel as though our children deserve anything other than great support and we have not had to battle for help as so many others like us have.  As a mark of my support and high regard for the school I am a Parent Governor.

Sally Donovan

Mad Cow Mothers – Enduring Stereotypes

When a tired, tearful woman questions a powerful wisdom, only two conclusions can be drawn:

1)  The tired and tearful woman is right to question the received wisdom and the powerful ones must admit they were wrong and adjust their view.

2)  The powerful ones were right all along, equilibrium is preserved and she is revealed for what she is, a crazed and hysterical drama queen (medicate her at once).

Sometimes the line between being judged either sane and capable or barmy and unhinged is a fine one.  I found myself walking this particular tightrope four years ago.  I was an adoptive mother, four years in and managing what is euphemistically referred to as ’challenging behaviours’ at home and fending off the fallout from similar behaviours at school.  I was certain that these behaviours were typical in a child who had endured neglect and abuse within his birth family;  the books told me so, social workers told me so and other adoptive parents recounted strikingly similar experiences to my own.  So I felt no pressing need to wear my sanity on my sleeve.  That was until, in search of help, I had appointments with a pediatrician, a GP and a health visitor, all within a few weeks.

I was tired, frazzled and tearful.  They were polished, professional and on their home turf.  They each listened with varying degrees of concern and then each delivered a variation of the following, 

‘He’s been with you for four years you say.  He should be alright by now.’

For a statement not based in modern science in any way, it has a remarkable potency and many who parent children like mine will have heard the same.  It sounds innocuous enough but delivers a number of blows; it is your fault, you are parenting badly, you lack perspective, your mental health is under question.  It also undermines the child’s experience, the sympathy for them is time-limited and once the bell has rung they are no longer seen as a damaged victim of abuse but as a naughty, disruptive child.

My GP handed me a box of tissues and opened his prescription pad, the pediatrician was even quicker with his prescription pad and tetchily questioned my motives when I refused his offer of Ritalin for my son.  The Health Visitor was careful with her words,

‘So things are not working out quite how you had imagined they would,’ she belittled as though it was all just a matter of perspective.

I was lucky that I managed to summon up the fortitude to shake off the growing assumption that I was mentally ill and/or deluded and have since found the right kind of help for Jamie and our family.  But I felt like I came close to something paternalistic, controlling and kind of Victorian (mad mother in the attic).  I sense that attitudes are changing, but then I might talk to a another parent or read a frightening account on the Adoption UK message board and see that progress is very slow indeed.  

Us tousle-haired, tearful, frazzled women might conform neatly to the outdated stereotype of the mad woman witch.  But we do a difficult job which benefits the whole of society and the last thing we need is to be drowned when we are asking for help.


The Parents’ Evening Blues

In the parenting of my adopted children I have faced many situations when I could have done with a bit more front and confidence than I had on tap at the time. Parents’ evening yesterday was one of those situations.

Regular readers will know that my son Jamie has just started seconday school.  It has been a tricky time and that is an understatement.  Parents’ evening at the new school, I now know, is a sort of survival of the fittest experience.  Children are given a list of time slots on a sheet and then three days to collect appointments.  After much badgering (from me), much sulking (from both of us) and some help from his tutor he arrived home last night with three five minute appointments.  They were spread over an hour and a half.  They were for woodwork (the only appointment he made of his own free will), maths and english.   The first was half an hour before my husband was due to get home to take care of our daughter. It was clear that Jamie didn’t want me to go. 

To cut a long story (lots of phone calls, precarious child care arrangements) short, I made it. I was frazzled, but I was there.

There was talk of too much talk, a lack of focus, immaturity, too much clowning around, some sighing, a little bit of hopelessness.  Some positive things too.  I found myself  trotting out a question which I have found useful in the past: you do know about his background don’t you?  I find it polite, asked in the right way and yet it gets straight to the heart of things.  I am then guerilla-style, able to smuggle in some facts about attachment disorder and some hopefully useful pointers.  This was of course the main reason why I went to parents evening. 

To my surprise most of the other parents were there with their children  and were clutching full appointment sheets.  It was becoming clear to me how very much my son hadn’t wanted me to be there.  For a short time I fought back a creeping crisis of confidence.  I was the only parent there on my own.  I began to feel a bit battered by hearing what I know spoken by people in authority and with the accompanying body language.  And as I had resolved to try and see as many staff as I could, I had to hijack some of them when they were not seeing other parents.  This wasn’t easy as Jamie claims not to know the names of any of his teachers, so there was a fair bit of guess work and deduction involved.

On the drive home I caught in myself a fleeting feeling of shame and I am not proud to admit that.  I saw confident children and relaxed parents and I felt jealousy too.  I also fought back feelings of grief for what might have been.  Horrible as these feelings are, they did connect me more closely with how Jamie must be feeling.  He used all the tactics he could to keep me away from school because of the toxic levels of shame he experiences.

When I got home he didn’t ask me how it had gone and avoided eye contact with me.  I told him it had gone well and passed on all the positive feedback I’d received.  I quickly mentioned that a few teachers suggested he try and chat a bit less and then quickly glossed over it all. 

Instead of reading we watched ‘The Great British Bake Off’ in bed together.  He snuggled closely into me and needed repeated reassurances that he is loved.  He also noticed that Saira Khan kept opening her oven,

‘She needs to be more patient with her banana cake or it won’t rise, will it mummy?’

And I felt proud that he knew this particular cooking fact and reminded myself that I need to remain patient too.  Raising the child victims of neglect and abuse is a long and difficult road, but I am hopeful of a good outcome, with a great rise.      


Under a Black Cloud – shame-based behaviour systems in schools

My son spent much of his first three years at school under a black cloud.  I’m talking of course about a ’school behaviour system’, in other words, teachers trying to get children to do what they want them to do.

Jamie would often not do what his teachers wanted him to do.  He started school at four, a few months after he was placed with us for adoption. 

His name, along with the names of the other children in his class, was printed on to card and laminated and a piece of velcro was attached to the back.  Three pictures were similarly printed; a sunshine, a sunshine poking out from behind a cloud and a black cloud.  On the first day of the year, all the names were stuck on a felt covered board under the sunshine, because all children are good and the sunshine is a good place to be.  If a child stepped out of line then their name would be moved underneath the sun and cloud.  If they offended again, their name would then be moved under the black cloud.  The black cloud is a bad place to be, it is cold and dark there.  The child would then have to display some consistently good behaviour in order to be moved back towards the sunshine.

The board displaying this weather system of compliance was on a wall of the reception classroom for all to see.  I first noticed it during a parent’s evening.  There were two names under the black cloud, my son’s and another little boys.  Everyone else’s names were basking in the sunshine.  After that I checked the board most days.  The state of affairs mainly remained the same.  Jamie came to school in the morning, four years old, full of joy and his name would be under the cloud, from the day before.  At the end of the day it would normally not have made any progress towards better weather.

Before long Jamie was known as ‘one of the naughty ones’.  You may know children like this.  You may parent one yourself.  It is not long after this that teachers and other parents start to use the word ‘plumber’.

The crux of such behaviour systems and there are many variations on the theme is public shame and humiliation.  Most children have some ability to recover from public shame and humiliation because they know deep inside that they are good people and they want to please and be adored by adults. 

May I be so direct as to say that these systems DO NOT WORK for my son and many like him who have spent their early years becoming acquainted with neglect and abuse.  These children know deep inside themselves that they are bad and that they deserved everything they got.  And we know, don’t we, that victims, even adult victims, blame themselves for that which happened to them? So when a child, who knows they are bad and feels deep shame, is shamed in a classroom, in front of their peers, it only goes to prove to them, that the adults around them see their badness as well.  It confirms that what they know about themselves is right.  And knowing they are bad, they do not have the capacity to prove to others that they are good.

After failing to convince this particular school about the weak points of a shame-based system of behaviour for my son and seeing a similar system in practise in the next school he would attend, we moved Jamie to a different school in a different area.  He was taught by a very empathetic teacher who understood shame, blame and their relationship to abuse and neglect.  She accepted him and nurtured him and understood that in order to make progress he had to be approached differently to many of the other children.  He made great progress and the word ‘plumber’ has not been heard around these parts for a while.

It is time for educators to think more smartly about helping children grow up to make the right choices, or in other words ‘to behave properly’.  These ‘systems’ are crass and can be cruel and they don’t work, particularly for those children most in need. 

As always, comments are welcome.