How social worker and teacher combined to turn around my adopted son’s education

Raising children who have experienced trauma can be difficult, says Sally Donovan, but schools that eschew a 'zero tolerance' approach can help

school pupil classroom
Photo: WestEnd61/REX/Shutterstock (picture posed by model)

By Sally Donovan

One hot and sticky afternoon, almost exactly four years ago, Mr D and I and our social worker, our adopted son Jamie’s teaching assistant and several members of his secondary school’s leadership team settled awkwardly around a big table in a small meeting room. It wasn’t called a crisis meeting but, looking back, that’s what it was.

My heart was going like the clappers because I knew there was so much at stake. We were on the verge of dreadfulness. This was the end of the first year in secondary school and things were unravelling, at school and at home. A child who had coped well at primary school was hyper-vigilant, unable to focus and behaving inappropriately. Our family was barely hanging on and school were wobbling over whether this was the right place for Jamie. It could all have gone disastrously.

It didn’t go disastrously. Four years on and our son is at the same school, is about to sit GCSEs and has his prom suit hanging in his wardrobe. Our family has weathered some extraordinary times and is doing well. So what changed?

Social work involvement critical

Looking back, there were two critical people at that meeting, without whom things could have turned out very differently.

Having a knowledgeable and skilled social worker alongside us shifted things considerably. He spoke with experience and knowledge about trauma, why it is present in some children, how it’s not a choice and why trying to threaten, train or exclude it away can make things worse.

He was able to suggest workable and flexible strategies that could be managed within the existing organisation, such as Jamie being able to leave the classroom, with no sanction, and seek safety in the student support centre.

Having a social worker say those things is far more powerful than a parent saying them. It sounds more like common sense and less like excuses.

Sat quietly at that table was the newly appointed head of year. She listened carefully and borrowed a book I had brought along (Inside I’m Hurting, by Louise Bomber). The following term she rang me from a course she was attending on supporting looked-after and adopted children in school, run by Louise, to tell me how much sense it was all making and the ideas she had for supporting not just our adopted son, but many other children in school.

Building relationships

The stream of detentions and letters home dried up, further training was carried out, triggers were identified, regular meetings took place, nerves were held and relationships were built.

Relationships were built and that really is the heart of it.

Relationships have been built between Jamie and the staff supporting him and looking out for him and they’ve been built between school and home.

These relationships are grounded in mutual respect, kind honesty and continual adjustment and learning, and they have given us all the resilience to get through some difficult times.

Over these four years the strategies and approaches put into place have improved feelings of safety and belonging. There hasn’t been too much emphasis on academic learning, but rather on growing social and emotional skills while maintaining carefully chosen boundaries. Developing reflective skills has been particularly helpful, as has generally being made to feel welcome and valued at school. The learning is coming now, in great leaps, just ahead of the school finish line.

Zero tolerance narrative unhelpful

Raising children who see the world through the prism of trauma and shattered attachments can be a lonely and isolating business, particularly when the overwhelming narrative around schools can tend towards strong discipline, zero tolerance and no excuses. Our family have been lucky to have had the opportunity to build a relationship with a school prepared to work flexibly and with heart. This has enabled a young person who was dealt a tough hand to flourish.

There have been times along the way when success has been in the balance and that meeting four years ago was one of those times. What tipped the scales in the right direction was a skilled social worker and a school leadership willing to engage and to lead from the top.

Sally Donovan is an adoptive parent, and an award-winning writer and author.

2 Responses to How social worker and teacher combined to turn around my adopted son’s education

  1. Alison Jarman May 19, 2016 at 7:42 am #

    This says it all so well. Two years after my adopted son was on the brink of exclusion in Primary school, after big financial juggling and pressures as my son has had no school or little school and certainly not the mainstream schooling that exists locally, he is beginning to get happier in a local Nurture group and where both the attached school and Nurture group work on a ‘Thrive’ based curriculum – where social and emotional needs come first.

    We had an incredible social worker 2 yr ago but she had to move on and social services seem so stretched – it’s such a struggle to do this with mainly only the support of a few other parents who are involved with the same struggles for their adopted children.

  2. Sammi Morgans May 19, 2016 at 4:01 pm #

    Thank you Sally for offering such insight and feeling to what you as a family have endured and how working together with such important adults within our childrens lives can make such a difference at school.

    It is a painfully slow process but with the help of our son’s post adoption psychologist and with him talking with the head SENCo recently we may be on the road to the same happy ending. However, I struggle to see it having a knock on effect to other adults within his school due to ‘stuck in their ways’ attitude but only time will tell. I do hope this transfers to other looked after children within the school though as we all know many pass through the SENs doors due to their traumatic past.

    Your heartfelt article did spring a tear to my eyes purely as I know how you and your child felt all those years ago and I yearn for the same conclusion. I will print this off and send into the school for them to read and hope it will have some impact.

    A new head of year will be taking over this September and I will be making myself known and armed with this and a condensed version of all the other knowledge and info I have gained over the years (especially as my son begins his options then) hopefully will help make a new beginning a good one for us all.