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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Guitars and Waistcoats… two very different boys.

It started this morning, almost as soon as we woke. Spiderboy had specific breakfast instructions, what bowl, what spoon, whether the spoon should be in the bowl or not. Batboy devoured whatever I put in front of him. Spiderboy needed a wipe for each little splash. Batboy seemed to be cleaning the table, and himself, with milk.IMG_20170312_212054409.jpg

Then we went upstairs. Spiderboy chose a shirt, tie, waistcoat and jacket with skinny jeans that matched his tie. Batboy wore jeans and a t-shirt. Spiderboy wanted to check the sometimes, always, never rule as he did his buttons. Batboy’s t-shirt was back to front. I combed their hair, Spiderboy’s is fine and silky, it won’t go out of place. Batboy’s is thick and fuzzy, it won’t go in to place.

The boys packed a rucksack for church. Spiderboy packed lots of books, and a game to play with his friends. Batboy packed only his guitar. When we got there, Batboy charged in while Spiderboy held back. Spiderboy read his books and then found some other children to play pairs with. Batboy chatted with adults and watched the music practice, standing as close as humanly possible. When it was time to go to their groups, Spiderboy clung to me and protested. Batboy went happily with the teachers.

I won’t go on, you get the point!

We adopted a ‘sibling group’. But we also adopted two individuals. They came as a pair, but they are also separate. And they both have very distinctive natures! When we went to Matching Panel, one of their questions was about how we would meet their individual needs. I’m not sure what we answered, but it must have been good enough. I remember thinking at the time that it wouldn’t be so tricky. We’d only read their CPRs (Child Permanence Report – basically everything there is to know about a child before you commit to being their parent), and they didn’t sound that different.

It has since become apparent that while the CPRs were accurate and detailed when it comes to medical and family history, it did not give a very good picture of who our boys are. There was clearly a lot of copying and pasting, and also guessing on the part of whoever wrote it!

We were told that both boys loved superheroes. Not true. We were told that they both loved dressing up. Not true. We were told that both boys loved Stick Man. Not true. We were told that they both watched CBeebies. Not true.

Our boys share many things. Biological parents, early life experiences, foster carers, hair colour, eye colour. But they do not share temperaments, preferences, challenges.

When they first arrived, we did not know them so well. We tried to maintain a standard, therapeutic parenting approach. We quickly found that something that worked for one boy, would not work for the other. Although they have lived through the same things, the fears, anxieties, anger and happy memories that they took from them are very different.

We are still getting to know our boys individually, and our family as a whole. But I wonder if the phrase ‘sibling group’ is very helpful in the preparation and matching stage. It makes it sound like one thing. But adopting two children instead of one isn’t just an extra mouth to feed or needing another bedroom. It’s a whole person’s worth of extra feelings and challenges to overcome.

It’s also a whole person’s worth of extra fun, cuddles and laughter. Everyday I am confused by their differences, but in awe of their shared resilience and courage. Every day I am amazed that God has blessed me with not one, but two amazing, wonderful little men.