Back to school……and the difference a great teacher can make

So my foster son went back to school this morning. I was full of anxiety, trepidation, stress. He was beaming, cheerful and confident.

His last school year was disastrous in patches. Stubborn refusals to join in with lessons and activities, running away from staff, controlling behaviours and physical aggression which escalated to such a level that the head teacher threatened to exclude him.

There had always been problems with school, but last year was off the scale, and it deeply affected his friendships and our stress levels. Luckily, the parents of the children he had hurt were incredibly understanding, down playing events and giving him leeway.

We were at a loss to understand quite why things were so bad, but, and I feel awful saying this, my husband and I are convinced that some part of the problem was his teacher. She was lovely, enthusiastic, young and bubbly. We sat with her in a meeting before our foster son entered her class and explained that he needed boundaries…..very firm boundaries. It makes him feel safe if he knows who is in charge, and then some of the controlling behaviours recede, which usually takes away a lot of the conflict. She nodded and seemed receptive to what we were saying.

However, we discovered at a much later date that this teacher believed in fluid boundaries, and felt so sorry for our foster child that she allowed him to do pretty much what he felt like in the classroom. A recipe for disaster. He didn’t respect her authority, she didn’t understand or accept what he needed and so all the foundations of good behaviour which other teachers had nurtured in him collapsed. In three months. The really low point was when he stabbed another child in the back with a pencil.

I think this was when the teacher sat up and realised what was happening, but it was pretty much too late by then for her to claw back her authority. Our foster son spent the rest of the year in limbo, unsure of this new ‘strict’ version of his teacher, while also being aware of her vulnerabilities and sympthies towards him, he was miserable and unsettled. We were all glad to get the year over with.

This year, our son has a fantastic teacher. She is no nonsense, she is fun, she is firm and extremely kind. As we approached the classroom this morning, she whisked me into a side office and told me about the prep she has done, just for our child. She recognises that she has to be five steps ahead with him, anticipating his anger, looking out for triggers for his controlling behaviours, seeking out the best companions for him on tasks. She has allocated a safe area in the classroom for him to go to when he feels angry or sad or needs to talk. She will be making him feel needed by giving him specific, but varied jobs each week – the variety means he can’t become obsessed with doing one thing, to the exclusion of all the other children.

Speaking to this teacher makes me feel grounded, it gives me hope. She listens to me and accepts that I know what this child needs. So often as foster carers I feel we are perhaps judged as being harsh – I have to monitor everything my foster daughter eats as she has an eating disorder. I can’t allow either child to have a sleepover with friends as they are both prone to sexualised behaviour. I have to remove a lot of choice fom their lives because otherwise obsession and control loom too large and cause conflict.

To be listened to and not judged is a fantastic thing. We beat ourselves up enough in our own time – at least my husband and I do – about how we are parenting these challenging children.

Support from school can go a long way to removing the stress from fostering. I feel very blessed that our foster son has this teacher for the next school year. He has so much potential, and hopefully this year he will be able to fulfill it, rebuild friendships and blossom as an individual.

Watch this space……

Advertisements
Back to school……and the difference a great teacher can make

The ingenuity of abused children

One child I fostered was two years old when he arrived on our doorstep. Tiny, fragile, vulnerable, terrified. He clearly expected only the worst from adult caregivers. He screamed when I or my husband went near him. He constantly chewed his fists and hid behind doors and sofas. He tried to make himself invisible.

Then, a few weeks after he had come to live with us, he decided to trust me with an enormous, overwhelming secret. It was a secret which left me reeling. The trust and courage it took for that little boy to speak those words – I can’t convey how much it took out of him, or how much admiration i felt for him afterwards.

As time went on, this amazing child found different ways to work out the anger, the fear and the deep confusion which the abuse had left him with. He often dressed as a woman, and obviously felt safer in those pretty clothes, escaping his identity as a boy. The most incredible thing he did, and he only did it for a short period of time, was to take on the role of an adult social worker – someone he knew and felt very fond of. While he was ‘Bridget’, he would ask me to be him – ‘Alfie’. He would then ask ‘Alfie’ why he was sad and what had happened to him. I would talk about the abuse he had suffered, using his own words. As ‘Bridget’ – complete with her accent, mannerisms, a set of fake car keys and a handbag – he would then reassure me that what my parents had done was wrong and that he felt very sad for me. He would finish the chat by telling me that i didn’t have to go back and live with those ‘horrible people.’

I was left breathless by the simple, powerful effectiveness of these role playing sessions. How clever this child was. Not only was he able to feed his need for escapism by becoming Bridget; he was also able to talk through his feelings of anger and fear. Despite his parents best efforts to normalise the abuse he experienced, he knew, already, that it was wrong.

Therapists told me Alfie had Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder) and that these escapist behaviours should be discouraged, or they would start to take over his life. I didn’t agree. I could see how calm and happy Alfie was after them. I’m afraid I didn’t listen to the advice. Even if I had, I think Alfie would have carried on being ‘Bridget’ or whoever fitted the bill, but behind closed doors. Would that have been any healthier?

Alfie is now a young adult, and still amazing. He is colourful, theatrical and charismatic. He still likes to dress as a woman sometimes. He is still angry with his parents, as he has a right to be. But that ability to construct his own therapy has stuck with him.

We worry about him and his future, but we know he has that fantastic ingenuity to fall back on.

The ingenuity of abused children