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.
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.