Alison Rennie Parkinson
 Alison Rennie Parkinson

Children adopted from care sometimes need more support through school than their peers. We have published several books on education and we have now launched another, this time with the focus on the system in Scotland.

We interviewed the author of our new title, The adopter’s handbook on education (Scotland), to give an insight into this new book, and discuss why it is a vital resource for adopters.


Thanks for the interview Alison. Could you tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your work for Adoption UK?

I suppose I should come out and say I’m not Scottish. I have lived in Scotland since 1989 but have yet to acquire a Scottish accent! I’m an adoptive parent. My husband and I adopted 5 year old twins in 2004. At that time I was working as a lecturer in a College of Further Education (teaching adults). I did that for 17 years before taking voluntary redundancy so I could be at home more for the twins, who were then teenagers. I started working for AUK after they left home, initially as a helpline adviser and then last year as the Training Lead for Scotland.

Your book 'The Adopter's Handbook on Education (Scotland)' has just been published. Who is it written for and why do you think that a book like this is important?

The handbook is primarily aimed at adoptive parents at any stage of their children’s education, although I hope education professionals will find it helpful too.

As an adoptive family, our journey through school education was very difficult – and this was not what we had expected. We struggled to understand why our children found school so difficult but with the support of our adoption agency and Adoption UK, rapidly educated ourselves on how our children’s early experiences were still impacting them, even though they were now living in a loving family. We often found ourselves at odds with our children’s schools and it was very stressful for everybody. Our ignorance made our children’s lives more difficult.

I hope that reading this book will help adoptive parents (and their children’s schools) to have more understanding of why school can be difficult for our children and to be better prepared to help them to settle into school and to be able to learn. There is still a pervasive myth that once children are adopted, they are fine – as I try to explain when I am delivering training, there is no factory reset for our children, they don’t just bring their early experiences with them, they are their early experiences.

I also hope the handbook will empower parents to advocate for their children, where necessary, and provide an effective map of how the education system in Scotland should work.

What are the key challenges for an adoptive parent as they guide and support their child through school?

I suppose the first challenges are around expectations. We see school as a safe place where the objective is to learn exciting new things – our children may well view school as an unsafe place where the objective is just to survive. We need to understand that our children’s behaviour, whether they act out or act in, is their communication about what is going on for them and that they will probably find it very difficult to communicate this verbally.

Personally, I found dealing with the adults harder than the children!

How important is it for a parent to try and work in partnership with a child's school / teachers?

It is really important, because being in constant dispute is immensely stressful and exhausting for everybody, as well as unproductive. Doing a lot of research before your child starts school (if your circumstances allow), is really worthwhile, as you can assess the school’s experience with adopted children and whether they seem to be inclined to listen to your concerns – or just keen to assure you that everything will be fine! Being in partnership does not mean that a parent’s role is passive, it’s likely to be anything but that! However, the adults have to behave like grown ups because the children can’t.

In the book you explore how early experiences can impact a child's behaviour in the classroom? What are the potential consequences of this?

That is such a huge question! What has happened to our children from the time of their conception has affected the way their bodies, brains, sensory processing systems, emotions – everything that has developed. So, they may interpret the world around them differently to other children, they may react differently, they may not be able to do some things and but be way ahead in others. They have a skill set that has kept them alive. Unfortunately, these skills might not work so well in the school setting. For example, a child who experienced in his birth family that adults were likely to forget to feed him, learned to get attention by constantly talking and asking questions, being in their face and not doing what he was told. This worked really well in his birth family – he got fed. A younger, more compliant and passive sibling nearly died of starvation. But at school, these behaviours quickly led to exclusion while his sibling thrived. These survival strategies are wired into our children’s development. Parents and schools have to understand how to work with these foundations because we can’t demolish them and rebuild from the ground up.

What do adopted children's experiences of school tell us about what works for them and what doesn't?

Listening to our young people is humbling and I think the consistent message is that relationships work for them. Adults taking the time to get to know and understand them, who actually like them, who are able to recognise their strengths and build on them. Punishment and shame do not work.

Are there any other resources that you would recommend for adopters - both to equip themselves with knowledge and information and to help their children?

Obviously, I recommend Adoption UK! Our helpline is not just for when you are in dire straits. If in doubt call, message or email and we offer a listening ear, advice and information, as well as training for parents and professionals.

I have huge respect for Louise Bombèr. It was reading her books that got me started on my journey of understanding of adopted children and education. She started out as a teacher and began to wonder why some children were unable to accept or make use of what she was offering them. She didn’t blame them (or their parents), she looked deeper and continues to do so in her work with children, families and schools.

I have also learned so much from my children – I’m sure they have taught me more than I have taught them. I should have listened to them more.