What children go to school to learn v. What my adopted child needs to learn

Two weeks ago we made the (brave? crazy? insane?) decision to withdraw Spiderboy from Reception and begin homeschooling him. There were lots of things that led us to this decision, but the main reason was that he was not emotionally ready for school.

Spiderboy has missed out on a lot of the building blocks that a baby needs to develop into a physically, mentally, emotionally healthy child. He’s a bit like a brick wall, but the bricklayer skipped some bricks on the bottom layers.

While he’s been doing really well academically at school, he doesn’t have the solid emotional foundation to be building on, and we were starting to see the cracks. Now, we don’t hate school at all, and I loved the school we were at. But there are things that Spiderboy hasn’t yet learnt, which the rest of his peers already knew when they started school. Homeschooling is his chance to catch up.

How to spell v. How to play

Most children who start school have spent four years prior playing and being played with. They’ve cracked the shape sorter cube years ago. They’re pretty expert when it comes to making a game with bits of plastic. Play is so important in the brain development and the critical thinking skills of young children.

And yet, in Spiderboy’s first years he didn’t have ready access to age appropriate toys, and he didn’t have anybody teach him how to play. When he came home he really didn’t know how to play with toys and we’ve had to go right back to basics with simple, ‘baby’ toys. (Anybody who thinks play is instinctive in children has clearly never met a children who hasn’t been taught to play!)

Last week Spiderboy spent a whole day playing with Lego. It wasn’t a complicated building project, he simply took the Lego figures apart and put them back together again – over and over again. But I couldn’t have been prouder if he’d spelt pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis (I had to Google ‘longest word in English’!) We are literally taking a break from school to spend more time playing, and it is absolutely the right thing for my son.

How to have friends v. How to have family

Most children who start school have spent four years prior belonging to a family. They have a secure base where they are loved, accepted and protected. And from that base they can go out to explore the world with confidence.

Spiderboy has spent more of his life without a family than with one. He’s suffered mistreatment at the hands of his first family, and great loss when leaving his foster family. Family is a tricky and painful concept for Spiderboy.

All of the skills needed to be a good friend are first learned by being part of a family. And so giving Spiderboy a chance to catch up on learning what that means is only going to help him understand what it means to be a friend. It’s really intensive, concentrated time with his mum (like most newborns get to have) and more time with his brother while we try to grow that into a healthy, loving relationship. Since finishing school Spiderboy has been much more open to nurture and affection – in fact he’s begun asking for cuddles, which he never did before.

How to respect authority v. How to respect himself

School is a great chance for children to begin learning how to respect authority, and it gets them ready for life in the big wide world with bosses, politicians and the like.

But for a child who has experienced the neglect and insecurity that Spiderboy has, there is often a great sense of shame attached to those early experiences. Spiderboy has very little self confidence – not in the cute, shy way a lot of his peers do, but in an overwhelmed-with-toxic-shame-because-I-wasn’t-good-enough-for-my-first-family-or-my-foster-family-so-why-would-anybody-want-me sort of way.

Homeschooling is giving us the chance to work on this in a way that school can’t. Filling our days with unconditional love and gospel truths is going to do more good than a day of learning to put up his hand and address adults correctly.

How to express what’s in their heads in written words v. How to express what’s in his heart in any words

Being able to recognise and name feelings is a pretty crucial life skill. Even more so if your heart is full of feelings that are too big for you. Spiderboy has experienced things a child his age should never have to experience. He is full of very big feelings without any tools to know how to express them.

In the past this has led to very violent meltdowns and I have felt genuinely afraid for my own safety, as well as his.

Since leaving school, Spiderboy has started to tell me that he feels like he’s “going to wreck things”. This is a HUGE step for us! He can actually spot when he’s becoming overwhelmed, and he’s learnt a way to express it! Now we have a wrecking box full of newspaper that he can wreck.

Would he have learnt to do this while at school? Maybe. Maybe not. But I am certain that having one-to-one help as he learns to process his big feelings is much more helpful than a day at school learning to write sentences in a class of 29 other children.

How to be independent v. How to be dependent

By the age of four, most children have the basic building blocks, the secure base and the tools they need to venture out into the world and gain a bit of independence.

On the other hand, Spiderboy has been taught by his early experiences that he needs to look after himself, he needs to keep himself safe, he can’t be vulnerable in front of other people. This leads to the exhausting task of hypervigilance.

School (rightly) encourages children to develop their independence in healthy ways. But what Spiderboy needs first is to unpick his whole world view, learn to depend on other people and, only then, will he be ready to learn healthy independence.

Since leaving school we’ve had a lot more cuddles, a lot more carrying, a lot more ‘babying’. But until he has learnt to be a baby, can we expect him to learn to be a 5 year old, a 15 year old, a 25 year old?

Our days now are filled with picnics on the beach, picnics in the park, picnics in the woods, picnics at the allotment. They involve lots of cuddles, lots of talking, lots of mud.

Is it hard work? YES. Is it good fun? YES.

Will we go back to school? Never say never. But for today this is right, and tomorrow we shall see.

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Guest Post: To be known completely and yet loved outrageously.

I love this post! So true, how wonderful to be so completely known and yet not rejected, but loved.

Adopting Star

It was Friday, just after 5pm, the day had felt like an eternity, (as we knew the social work team were meeting to discuss who Star’s forever family would be,) and the phone rang.

It was Star’s family finding social worker ringing from the train station, because she wanted us to know, they had chosen us.

Wow.

I silently jumped up and down in our study, barely able to take it in.

And then a new waiting game started. Now, we were linked. We were the only link they were progressing but they needed to find out more about us and we needed to find out more about Star.

Which really makes you think. How much do we really know each other and ourselves? How should one judge themselves? Should we present our best, cleanest, neatest, politest version of us? The person we hope to be and wish other people…

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Wise child-rearing in a technology saturated society.

While we wait for our children, I am working as a nanny for a lovely little boy in Year 2. With some help from his Dad, he’s recently set up a website where he sells things he’s made. It’s linked to PayPal for easy online payments. He has a staff only section for the 3 workers who he pays £1 a month to design new products. Currently a bookmark costs 69p and, as he’s started receiving orders, so I asked him yesterday whether he’d factored in delivery costs, or was that charged separately? He hadn’t factored in delivery costs because he didn’t know what a stamp was.

How can a child build a website from scratch, but not know what a stamp is?!

Well, after a long conversation with the Tesco kiosk lady about the cost of stamps, he’s now reconsidering the price of a bookmark.

DSCF4794But it got me thinking. I am only 25, but my childhood was so different from this 7 year olds. At his age I had a pen pal who I posted letters to regularly. With my school friends I saved up my spare change and posted it to the RSPCA. We’d send postcards to family while we were on holiday. I’m not sure I knew what a website was, never mind how to make one. I’m still not sure!

We see so many statistics of children who are groomed by predators over the internet, or exposed to pornographic images before they’ve reached puberty. We shake our heads at parents pushing children round in prams who are glued to an iPad. It’s easy to think of the internet and technology as the root of all evil. We say children should enjoy childhood the same way we did – playing in the streets. (How on earth do we think that is safer?!)

Well until recently, I really believed technology to be the Destroyer of Childhood.

Yesterday, when I picked up my little website-building friend, I began to change my mind. For a long time I’ve struggled to get him to engage with Maths, he just doesn’t enjoy it. And why should he?! Yesterday he worked out how much profit he’d make if he sent his products first class, and how much second class. He worked out the individual cost of a stamp from the price of a book of 12. He estimated how many products he’d sell in a month, so how much he’d have to spend on stamps each year. He factored in the costs of staff.

He then tried to negotiate a better deal on stamps from his Dad. He reconsidered the features of his products to decide if he could sell them for more. He started designing flyers to advertise his business, and badges for his staff. He has an apprentice.

Maths, literacy, art and design, negotiation, persuasion, leadership, problem solving, hard work and discipline, the value of money. Suddenly learning came alive, and he was loving it! And suddenly I found myself wondering, not how can I slow him down, but how can I keep up?! He might never use a stamp, but when you know how to send an email, does it really matter?

He might never play Kerbie, or trap his friend in one of those massive commercial wheelie bins, but I think he’ll survive. Especially when he’s made his first million by age 21.

And so, as we get ready to welcome our children home, I’d love to know how you feel about your kids and technology. How do you keep them safe without holding them back? How do you keep up?! At a recent Therapeutic Parenting training day I heard about the benefits of playing video games in light of the Nurtured Heart approach. I’d love to know your experiences of this too! Please comment and join the conversation!

Why my mental health is a strength

When we decided it was the right time to pursue adoption, our main concern was that I have a history of mental health illness. A few years back I suffered from Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Depression. We worried that they would think I was unstable, unreliable, weak. We knew that these children would need extra care above and beyond ‘normal’ parenting, and that I would be the stay-at-home parent so a lot of pressure would fall on me. We didn’t want to take something on if it would be damaging for us or for the children. But we felt we were ready, and we knew the social workers would make the right decisions.

As we have gone through the process and learnt more about the things our children will be experiencing, I have become convinced that my mental health isn’t just not a weakness, but that it is a strength.

Hyper-vigilant, trouble sleeping, restless, reliant on structure, distant, short tempered, compulsive behaviours, irrational fears, overeating/unable to eat, emotionally erratic, expecting the worst, unable to trust.

These are all behaviours I’ve been told that children who have been neglected, abused or who have had a significant loss might have. It’s also a good description of me when I was at my lowest point.

I can never understand what these children go through on their way to their forever families. But I do know what it’s like to be on constant high alert. I know how it feels to believe everyone who comes to the front door wants to hurt you. I know the fear of going to sleep in case my loved ones die in the night. I know the utter panic of last minute changes to plan. I know what it’s like to lie awake all night because your mind is so busy that it feels like it might explode. I know the temptation to curl up and shut out the world because it hurts too much to be in it. I know what it’s like to want to reach out for help, but not be able to make the words come out. I know the confusion when your heart starts racing and your ears start burning for no apparent reason. I know how it feels to struggle to breathe as your body goes into panic and seems to implode. I know how much it hurts to really believe the person you love most is lying to you, or trying to harm you.

DSCF1339.JPGAfter two bouts of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and prescriptions of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, I’m OK. I know my mind much better. I know the signs of an attack and I know how to cope. I know the words to communicate what’s happening to those around me. I know there’s no shame in mental health problems. I know techniques to ‘talk to myself’, to control my mind and my physical reactions to it. I know how important it is to look after your mind. I know that we are stronger than we think. I know that all of this can be overcome, but that it’s not easy.

The things my children struggle with, the reasons why and the ways we deal with it will all be different to my story. But I am convinced that my experiences will help me to be a better mother, to understand just a little bit more what my children are going through.

And so I believe my mental health is a strength. And if going through all of this means I can help my children in just a tiny way to heal, then it will all have been worth it.

Our wonderful social worker (and the cake she never ate)

After a confusing rejection from our local council, we contacted Home for Good (a Christian charity that promotes adoption and fostering) to find out what next. They pointed us in the direction of Adoption Matters (our adoption agency) who straightaway arranged to have a social worker come and visit us in our home. We were so nervous! We’d had a home inspection when we adopted our second cat from Cats Protection, and that was bad enough!

We cleaned the house from top to bottom, we considered in great depth the placement of every cushion, every photo frame, every coaster. We told ourselves our story over and over to make it sound as good as possible. We meticulously planned who would open the door, who would sit where, who would make the tea. We baked the cake. It was the most carefully baked Victoria sponge in all of history. I made the blueberry jam from scratch that sandwiched it together and then we displayed it on my beautiful cake stand on the kitchen worktop.

SCake.jpghortly before she arrived, I started to worry it looked like we were trying too hard. Should we just hide it and give her biscuits? Eventually we decided the best thing would be to eat some of the cake. Then she could still be impressed by my marvellous baking, but wouldn’t know we’d baked it just for her! She’d think we were the sort of family who have fresh, home baking casually!

Well when she arrived I was completely knocked off guard – she was nice! She seemed to really want to help, to really get to know us. It didn’t feel at all like we were being judged or tested, she didn’t mind the cats trying to get into her bag. And she was so young! Now, I watched Tracy Beaker as a child so I thought I knew what to expect, but this was not it!

Then came the big moment, “would you like some cake?” And then, so simply, so casually, my last wall of defence, my last big pretence came crashing down with three words, “no thank you!”

Well, apart from feeling a little bit devastated, somehow my need to put on a Desperate Housewives type performance left.

I realised it was OK to just be ourselves.

Throughout the process, our social worker has worked so hard to get to know us, how we think and feel. And then to use that to help us be the best parents we can. We’ve never felt like she’s trying to trick us or trap us. It genuinely feels like she wants us to succeed! This has really helped us to be open, which means we’ve learnt more about ourselves and each other and have been able to really think through how we can be a more effective team.

I always thought that once we were approved we would sign up to all of the magazines and websites and trawl through profiles until we found our children. Now, after months spent with our social worker I feel so differently. I trust that she wants the best for us, and for our children. I am confident that she is very competent at her job and knows much better than us. I know she has worked and will keep working really hard because she believes in what she does. And so we trust our social worker completely to find our children for us, and this, I think is one of the best compliments we could give her. We thank God every time we think of our wonderful social worker.

Even if she didn’t eat the cake.