Date: 8 September 2021
Most children who are adopted in the UK, were removed from their birth parents’ care through child protection procedures. Some were in foster care from when they were born, while others started life with their birth families and have vivid memories of this time. The reasons why children come into care are complex. Many have had early traumatic experiences due to abuse, neglect, domestic abuse or parental alcohol and substance abuse. Parental mental health, learning disabilities and poverty often also play an important part in the children’s histories. While we focus on adopted children in this article, many of the issues discussed are also applicable to children living with kinship and foster carers.
Adopted children have all experienced significant losses. At the very least they have lost their birth family and foster carers. If we understand attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness” between a child and their caregiver, it is easy to see that these losses can have a disruptive effect on the development of a child’s attachments. They may unconsciously feel that adults cannot be trusted and might one day leave them. School can therefore be a ‘big ask’, because they are being required to trust and follow adults. The learning process itself, engaging in curiosity, requires a child to feel safe and free to express themselves. It is hardly surprising that learning takes a back seat when the ‘primitive brain’ – the parts that govern our fear responses such as fight, flight, and freeze – is in survival mode and the child does not feel safe.
Because many adopted children have experienced hurt in their early relationships, positive relationships with adults in school can be a very powerful part of their recovery. Adults who are willing to really get to know them are one of the most important resources an adopted child can have in school. Adults who recognise that underneath behaviour that may look distracted, disruptive, or even aggressive, there is a frightened child, trying to survive. Someone to reassure them that whatever happened today, tomorrow is always a new day. Somebody to help puzzle out friendship issues, as friendships may be complicated by low self-esteem, a need to control (often misunderstood as “bossy” or “manipulating”) and underdeveloped friendship skills.
Adoptive parents have the difficult task of choosing the best school for their child; one which will support them to reach their educational potential through an understanding of their emotional needs. Adoptive parents will be looking for schools that can demonstrate a thorough understanding of the impact of trauma and loss, where attachment principles are firmly embedded within policies. They may choose a school with experience in teaching children who are adopted or in the care system over the highest performing schools.
Whole school training on the impact of trauma and attachment disruptions is often helpful. We recommend that each adult in school access this training, as everyone in the setting has a role to play in showing the child that they are safe and valued in school. This training might be provided by Regional Adoption Agencies (RAA), Voluntary Adoption Agencies or other organisations specialising in adoption support. Pupil Premium Plus is available for adopted children and can be used to fund training.
Adoptive families in England can also access funding via the Adoption Support Fund (ASF). Schools cannot apply for this funding directly but can advise parents to contact their RAA or local authority adoption service to request an assessment of their family’s adoption support needs, which may lead to an application to the ASF. Eligible therapeutic interventions include therapeutic parenting courses, creative art therapy, EMDR, play therapy and many other kinds of therapeutic interventions, but not educational support.
For some children who are moving to a new home, school can be a place of safety and routine at a time when everything else in their life has changed. In these cases, it would be appropriate to start at their new school soon after joining their adoptive family. In most cases however, it is important to wait until a child has begun to form attachments in their new family before asking them to handle the demands of a new school environment. A period out of school, with a phased start or reduced timetable may be appropriate for these children.
Early experiences of trauma and loss can have an impact on children’s emotional development. They may have missed out on developmental opportunities due to the disruptions in their early lives and may therefore present as emotionally younger than their chronological years, particularly at times of challenge and change. Rather than urging the child to show maturity, it is often more beneficial to consider strategies that may be associated with younger children.
Some children with complicated attachment histories may have an unconscious need to remind the adults around them that they exist. They know that they need adults to survive but cannot trust them to be there when they need them. They may ask lots of questions; try to stay close to trusted adults or may even seem to be disruptive, all in an unconscious attempt to hold the adult’s attention.
Other children may have learned very early on that they cannot expect much from others, and that they can only survive by meeting their own needs. They may seem quiet, reluctant to ask for help and at times may even seem invisible in the classroom. They may have outburst that seem to come from nowhere, because they are so skilled at hiding their emotions until they become impossible to contain.
Some children who have experienced early trauma might have a strong need to control their environment, because their brain tells them that danger is always just around the corner. Even a slight change to the normal routine can feel like evidence that the adults in school cannot be trusted. These early experiences can also contribute to a sense of high level of shame, sometimes known as “toxic shame”.
Adopted children may struggle to make sense of consequences due to lack of consistent routines in their early lives. They may see their own behaviour and the subsequent consequence as two separate events. This means that common behavioural strategies, such as the traffic light system, or loss of privileges, may not have the desired outcome, as these may instead be experienced as another rejection. To reduce overwhelming feelings of shame, it can be helpful to be very clear about expectations in school. Acknowledge when children are following rules correctly, not just when they are breaking a rule. Schools can create a culture of shame resilience by normalising making mistakes and modelling how to cope when things go wrong.
Adoptive parents attend preparation training prior to adoption and many parents and carers continue to access training and support after the child moves in. Parents and carers can therefore be a great source of information on meeting the needs of children living with the continued impact of early trauma, as well as living with the complexities of not growing up in a birth family. If the adults support each other to build effective relationships with the child, adopted children have the best chance of feeling safe and thriving in school.
This article first appeared in SEN Magazine September/October 2021.