Happy birthday to me…

It was my birthday this week. And it sucked. Partly because I’m creeping closer to 40 and I had a mini existential crisis (perhaps a forerunner to the impending midlife crisis). Mostly because Little Chick did not like me having a birthday.

Several times on Twitter I’ve seen adopters comment on how celebrations were ruined, plans spoiled, and that they had learned not to mark such occasions with their children. To date, we have all had a birthday since Little Chick has lived here and all have passed without a problem. In fact, he’s been non-plussed by it all, his birthday and Christmas included.

But something has changed. Instead of laughter, cake, and balloons, there is anger, frustration, and violence. And I don’t really understand why. Well, I have my suspicions.

Lately, we’ve noticed changes in Little Chick’s fight, flight, or freeze responses. When faced with perceived danger, his default mode was freeze. Over time, this had morphed into flight mode, with Little Chick darting off when confronted. Alongside this, fight mode has appeared. At the heart of these responses is fear.

A seemingly enjoyable outing with his cousins to a venue of their choice ended with hitting, kicking, general defiance, and running away – both publicly and dangerously. Whether he couldn’t cope with it being my birthday or was overwhelmed by other aspects is unclear. But he was clearly frightened. When you’re excited by your birthday and your plans get scuppered it’s difficult to (immediately) separate the behaviour from the child. To see it as fear rather than wilful or mischievous hijinks. When you’re the kind of person who still appreciates your parents’ acknowledge of your half birthday it’s hard not to take it personally.

But it’s not personal. It’s not about me.

And that’s adoption, really. It’s scary, it’s confusing, and it’s not about me.

School readiness

Unsurprisingly, Little Chick received a place at his first choice school. As a previously looked after child, he is entitled to this. All the same, it is a huge relief to know that come September he will be heading to the big school that seems best for him. It also seems prudent to at least consider school readiness. Part of me thinks that it is the school that should be ready for him, but this is probably not the time for that discussion. Similarly, I find that compiled lists of necessary skills can be arbitrary and unhelpful, making you focus on what they should be able to do rather than what they can do. However, like most local authorities, Derbyshire provide such a list, 10 keys to unlocking school readiness, which we will help Little Chick work towards. Come September, I don’t want him to find the front door to big school locked and firmly bolted.

Taken from the Derbyshire County Council website, and shared with parents through early years settings, The 10 keys for unlocking school readiness are:

  • I can settle happily without my parent or carer
  • I can tell friends and grown-ups what I need
  • I can take turns and share when I am playing
  • I can go to the toilet on my own and wash my hands
  • I can put on my own coat and shoes and feed myself
  • I can tell a grown up if I am happy, sad or cross
  • I know that what I do and say can make others happy or unhappy
  • I am curious and want to learn and play
  • I can stop what I am doing, listen and follow simple instructions
  • I enjoy sharing books with grown-ups

At first glance, this seems OK. Nothing too daunting, no major alarm bells ringing. Picking it apart, there are some areas to bear in mind for September. His time at nursery has given him the opportunity to settle without us. Some mornings he can be clingy, but a promise of breakfast is normally enough to entice him away. Waiting isn’t a strong point for Little Chick, but he is getting better. He can take turns reasonably well and will share when prompted, and sometimes without encouragement.

He is good at verbalising his needs, to adults certainly, and is gaining in confidence with his peers. This will improve with time and hopefully some of the Early Years Pupil Premium funding will aid this. Similarly, his emotional awareness is good, but will progress with more 1:1 intervention from his key worker at nursery, alongside what we are doing at home. Books can help with this too; Little Chick loves book, especially bedtime stories. This is when we have some of our most meaningful conversations. I try to keep it light, not wanting to worry him before bed; equally though, it is a chance to reassure him and perhaps fathom what has been troubling him that day.

Little Chick has a gorgeous sense of wonder. ‘Wow!’ is commonly uttered, but his surprise is never lessened or faked. He is full of curiosity, always wanting to know how things work. He wants to learn and wants to play. Currently, I can’t picture him in big school, a wee dot in that busy environment, but I sense that he will rise to the challenge.

Listening. This could be a stumbling block. When he does listen, he can follow instructions incredibly well, but he can be stubborn. If he’s not engaged you’ve got no chance. I’m not sure how to remedy this, or whether it will simply come with age and maturity, but this probably needs some consideration.

Self-care is probably the other area for improvement; I went to type ‘concern’, then realised that I am projecting unnecessary expectations and pressures on him. We have started to encourage him to dress himself and choose his clothes for nursery (from a small selection) and this has extended to coats and shoes. Velcro shoes are just about manageable. Zips, therefore coats, are still some way off. But, again, there is time.

He has made progress with toilet training, though perhaps not as much as we would have hoped or expected. But then, considering his past experiences, it is amazing that he is even considering anything other than sitting in full, soiled nappies. He will do it in his own time and school will just have to appreciate that. If we are still facing reluctance and issues in September then a conversation needs to be had with school, perhaps bearing in mind how his Pupil Premium Plus funding may be best spent. But my anxiety will not help him progress any faster. On the up side, he is a pro at washing his hands; just so long as school monitor how often he does this, for the sake of his skin and their floors.

Above all, I know that Little Chick is a kind, curious, brave wee boy. Everyone who meets him likes him. He is by no means perfect, but he has immense potential. He needs to be championed and that is our job. It is also school’s job, but it is our responsibility to hold them to that.

Early Years Pupil Premium (EYPP)

A new financial year is dawning, and a new pot of money has become available to Little Chick’s nursery. I speak of the much-fabled Early Years Pupil Premium. Nursery have experience of Pupil Premium payments – the government scheme introduced in 2011 to help children on free school meals and those with parents serving in the forces close the attainment gap between them and their peers – and have successfully administered the fund in the past. This is their first instance of Pupil Premium Plus, though that distinction is not made at this age: all payments are EYPP. Rather, this is the first time a child has been eligible based on this criterion. Pupil Premium Plus is allocated only to looked after or previously look after children. Rather than focus solely on attainment, the Department for Education’s acknowledges the enduring impact of trauma and loss in children’s lives and the key role of schools in supporting children who have had a difficult start in life. At this level, the payment is the same for both groups, but school aged children who qualify for Pupil Premium Plus will receive a larger payment than those issued Pupil Premium payments.

Payment is made directly to the education provider (in our case, nursery) and they have a legal responsibility to determine how this money will be spent, show proof of spending, and demonstrate how the intervention has succeeded. Little Chick’s nursery was happy to involve us in the process and our suggestions alongside their knowledge informed how the money was spent. I understand that not all settings involve parents like this. I also understand that while this money must be accounted for it is not necessarily ringfenced. As the only recipient of Pupil Premium Plus, his allocation was spent entirely on him, meeting his needs, though we were keen that if we could ‘piggyback’ other children we would.

Following PAC-UK’s advice (you can read their excellent summary document here), we considered Little Chick’s needs as a previously looked after child and recognised that permanently placed children can struggle with the following:

  • Attachment relationships with adults
  • Managing their peer relationships
  • Managing their feelings and behaviour
  • Coping with transitions
  • Developing their executive functioning skills

We grouped our existing ideas under these headings and used them as starting points to consider new ones. Some ideas were able to build on more than one category at a time. For example, using some of the money on staffing would allow more 1:1 time with his key worker, which would enforce his attachment relationships with adults. Using that time to play with resources and read books (bought with the allowance) would help him manage his feelings and behaviours. Some of these books would help him understand peer relationships better and purchases of outdoor toys (especially for messy play, his favourite) and activities, included seeds and composting for growing, would allow opportunities to build better peer relationships. Having identified other children that would be moving to the same school as him and/or had similar needs, he would be encouraged to spend time with them and when he needed a buddy for special activities they would be chosen as partners. Growing vegetables together would help develop executive functioning skills, such as planning and prioritising, impulse control, and self-monitoring. Additionally, they would learn about how things grow and the importance of eating healthily. This and other activities would also prepare Little Chick for coping with the inevitable transitions of the next few months, most notably leaving nursery and starting school.

Little Chick’s speech has developed, but he remains under the instruction of the speech and language therapist, until at least the end of the month, so this did not need to be prioritised. His social care skills are still behind his peers, so this would be one of the topics his key worker might approach in the 1:1 sessions.


Update (July 2019): We have been pleased with how the EYPP money was spent and the impact it has had. Most, if not all, of the initiatives have been a success. Additionally, his speech and language therapist is pleased with his progress. She will seem him again when he is in school so that she can observe him in the new setting but doesn’t expect any problems. She also suggested some flashcards for nursery to purchase to aid conversations and work specifically on some of the areas where he could improve.

It is a little frustrating that the money wasn’t paid earlier in the academic year, so that he could have gained greater benefit, but that is beyond our control. The resources will continue to help other children, so that’s something. That little library of big feelings books is Little Chick’s legacy. Similarly, it seems a shame that the amount paid to three- and four-year olds is significantly less than school aged children. Surely, more could be achieved with younger children, warranting a larger rather than smaller investment. But that is a political debate and one I am not prepared or capable of arguing today. Ultimately, I’m grateful for any provision that helps Little Chick meet his potential and help overcome the effects of early years trauma. However, I’m deeply saddened that it is needed.

Instagram

Lately, I’ve been questioning my decision to have social media accounts associated with adoption. Initially, I used Twitter as a prospective adopter so there were no moral quandaries about sharing a child’s story. But Twitter has – for me, at least – become a bit of a toxic environment lately and I’ve turned to Instagram to connect with fellow adopters.

Like on Twitter, I have a locked account, meaning I must approve any followers. Obviously, this doesn’t guarantee security – it is important to remember that all social media platforms carry risks – but it does make my content more private. It also means that I am more discerning about who I follow, choosing accounts that edify or educate, rather than just building an unmanageable horde of random people to follow.

I try to ensure that I only share photos of Little Chick from the side, behind, etc. and not face on. Partly, it’s a security measure; partly, it’s respecting that he might not appreciate me sharing some of his story. I hope that he – and others – can see and understand my intentions. He is an amazing little boy who deserves to be championed and celebrated. Our life is generally happy, but mostly mundane. And I think it’s helpful for others, especially prospective adopters, to see that.

My biggest concern with Instagram remains the same, the reason why I’m so late to the party. It’s a bit false. All social media can be fake but on Instagram it is especially easy to view things through a lens (terrible pun intended). When I started posting I vowed, to myself anyway, that I would be realistic, posting candid shots rather than staged shoots. And for the most part I have succeeded. Ultimately though, it is just a snapshot, a tiny glimpse into a life. I try to use the text to give a balanced view, explain that the angelic smile captured in that instant was followed by a frustrated fist coming my way. I don’t lie but I guess I’m not entirely truthful. It’s not that I’m fibbing, more that I’m misleading (mostly unintentionally) by omission. I want to give a true representation, but I also want to be fair to Little Chick. I need to be cautious in not oversharing his story. But equally I don’t want people to think I’m a pompous, egotistical bore. It’s a tricky balance.

If you’re an adopter, adoptee, foster carer, or birth family on Instagram and want to share your account please message me your details. I want to use Instagram, as I have done Twitter, to learn from others and broaden my understanding of adoption. If you have any suggestions for other accounts or hashtags to follow please also share.