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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Generation X-Box

A while ago I attended a training day on Therapeutic Parenting. The afternoon session was an introduction to the Nurtured Heart Approach. As a Christian, I had some issues with this approach, however one thing about the Nurtured Heart Approach (NHA) that stuck with me was the idea of Video Game Theory.

The three key points of NHA are:

  1. Absolutely No – “I refuse to energise negativity”
  2. Absolutely Yes – “I will relentlessly create and energise positivity”
  3. Absolutely Clear – “I set and enforce clear limits in an unenergised way”

NHA starts with the basis that every child has the capacity for greatness. Imagine a character in a video game, setting out on a quest. The Quest is Absolutely Clear. There are logical clear rules with defined consequences. As the Hero of the game, the player knows exactly what is expected of them, and what will happen if they break the rules.

If the Hero breaks the rules, very often they die! However, in most (child friendly) games, this looks simply like a time out, a black screen for a few seconds, before rebooting for another try. There is always a consequence, followed instantly by a second chance. And with a second chance comes more inspiration to follow the rules. Video games tend not to give energy to negativity. There are consequences to rule breaking, but once the consequence is dealt the Hero can move swiftly on and try again to succeed.

If the Hero follows the rules, they can win the game. There is always an opportunity to win. Victory in a video game is often loud, colourful and jubilant – quite the opposite of the “power down” defeat. This is what it looks like to give energy to positivity – music, fireworks, celebration.

Therapeutic parenting, or perhaps all parenting, needs to be a bit more like a video game.

The rules are absolutely clear. The consequences are completely consistent. The consequences are immediate, always followed by second chances. There is always a chance to succeed. Even the small victories are celebrated.

DSCF4861.JPGBefore we married, we fell in love over ‘Nazi Zombies’, a bonus level on the X-Box game ‘Call of Duty’. You basically shoot zombies dressed as Nazis, and survive as long as you can. It’s very fun. We also love playing the various Lego X-Box games – Lego Pirates of the Caribbean, Lego Star Wars, Lego Lord of the Rings – you get the picture. I always thought that playing video games was very bad for children; but when we heard that playing X-Box games could actually be therapeutic we were quite excited!

For children who have experienced very inconsistent and unpredictable parenting, very negative parenting, or not really experienced parenting at all, practicing this format in a video game can help them understand how rules work in real life. It can teach them the value in following the rules. It can give them a world where they start to feel safe because they can actually understand how it works. It can help them to switch off and relax their brain which might normally be on constant high alert.

Now, our children are not going to spend their lives glued to a computer screen. And they’re definitely not going to be playing Nazi Zombies anytime soon. But occasional family therapy time playing The Lego Movie or Lego Jurassic World on the X-Box is definitely on the agenda!

I’d love to know your thought on the Nurtured Heart Approach, or on video gaming in general! Leave a comment!