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.

Toilet training

During Introductions, I thanked Little Chick’s foster carer for all that she had done for him – and, by extension, us. She accepted my praise, downplaying her positive impact on Little Chick’s life by saying it was both her pleasure and her job. Then she cackled with laughter: “At least I haven’t had to toilet train him. You can have that fun!” At the time, I brushed it off with some ill placed humour. But I get it now.

Toilet training sucks.

It is hands down the hardest thing we have had to contend with so far. I appreciate that toilet training is rarely easy and that boys tend to find it trickier than girls do. But I hadn’t accounted for a child that doesn’t complain when he is wet and/or soiled. Worse, a child that seems to enjoy the sensation and find some perverse comfort in it.

Recognising that Little Chick’s past experiences and developmental delay may make it a tougher proposition, we agreed early on not to push toilet training. It would happen when he was ready. Nursery have been supportive of this and haven’t negatively commented, even though most of his peers are already in pants. But lately we (I) have been a little nervous about the progress he’s making, or lack thereof. With one eye on starting school in September, I’m keen for him to make progress at his own pace – but quickly and now! Obviously, this pressure won’t help Little Chick and I’ve tried not to convey my anxiety to him. But he must sense it. He’s a smart boy and emotionally aware. And I do not have a poker face, especially when wiping up wee or poo.

Listening to our health visitor’s advice, we have tried skipping the potty stage and moving straight to the toilet. But this seems too bold a leap. Little Chick seems prepared to tolerate us if we allow baby steps. So, we have invested in potties. Plural. In various locations. In countless colours and styles. Heck, we even have one shaped like the small toilets at nursery with its own inbuilt flush. We have used bubbles to engage him – and encourage movements. We have added target signs to make it fun. We have stocked relevant reading material beside his potty. Perhaps we are doing too much…

Like everything with Little Chick right now, we will be led by him. I can’t imagine how tricky this must feel for him and how frustrated he is when he sees his peers succeed and our veiled disappointment when he doesn’t quite get it. But we will keep trying. Because, bless him, he is trying his hardest and that’s all we can ask.

Bouncing

Little Chick loves bouncing at the moment, usually on our bed. It is clearly joyful – his shrieks of delight attest to that – but it is also regulating. Adoptive parents shared the trampoline tip with us before we were even approved, and Little Chick has a small trampette in the garden. But he has outgrown that, and a full-size trampoline may follow.

Before we forked out for an expensive gift, we needed to lay the groundwork, physically and emotionally. Our garden is incredibly steep and doesn’t lend itself to jumping apparatus that requires flat ground. The designated area would require serious excavation before a large trampoline could be used safely. More importantly, we knew Little Chick enjoyed bouncing on our bed, but it wasn’t clear whether the thrill was the activity itself or the elicit nature of it, doing something he shouldn’t, in the one room of the house that is explicitly not his. We reasoned a trip to a trampolining centre would clarify this. So, I am sat in the viewing gallery as I write this, while Little Chick and The Other Mrs Reed Warbler are below.

It’s fair to say it has been a slow start. The necessary safety briefing caused some tension for most of the waiting children and I fully expected Little Chick to come bombing out of the tunnel, raring to go. But he was far more cautious, considered. This surprised me until I realised it wasn’t the bouncing that worried him: it was everyone and everything else.

Although the centre is kitted out in the two colours most associated with its branding, it is a dazzling sea of colour, not least because of the clothes the children are wearing. Seasoned pros have realised that a bright colour for easy ID is a smart move; some have taken this further by coordinating adult and children’s colours. Twinning in fluorescent outfits is something I will consider for next time (if today suggests that ‘next time’ isn’t a ridiculous idea). The noise is deafening. Over the years I have learned to tune out children’s playful screaming and turn it into unremarkable white noise. Little Chick hasn’t learned this trick yet and I can see he is struggling. Classic Disney tunes are blaring out across the arena. Honestly, I’m loving it, but this is a nostalgic throwback for me. It is a waking nightmare for the boy.

Sensory overload aside, he is coping brilliantly. Yes, he stands out. Yes, he is becoming dysregulated. But he and The Other Mrs Reed Warbler are doing a brilliant job of staying calm and bouncing it out. He becomes braver, trying apparatus much higher and trickier. He gives everything a go. But his favourite remains the inflated pillow that you run, jump, and launch yourself onto. The only problem is, there’s a queue. Little Chick was one of the first to try this when it belatedly opened and he was able to have a full ten minutes of sharing it with just one other family, a family who were kind and patient and didn’t mind a sturdy three year old having more turns than his equal half and hurling himself towards them. But as the session went on the attraction grew more popular and the queue snaked around the neighbouring trampolines. Waiting is not Little Chick’s forte. He is three, so fair enough, but he really struggles with waiting. I could see The Other Mrs Reed Warbler explaining the need to wait his turn and him protesting. After some time, he was amazing. He fidgeted and wobbled, waiting his turn, only cutting in a few times, but he was far better than I imagined he could be. He really wanted this and was trying so hard. Only one incident marred the experience. Two inept dads cut in line with their children then stood blocking the launchpad, while their own children flailed on the inflatable. Little Chick saw red and just ran and hurled himself over the edge. He missed one of the children by millimetres; it would have been a nasty collision that almost certainly ended with tears and most likely stitches or x-rays. The father of the child told off Little Chick; the attendant told off Little Chick; the Other Mrs Reed Warbler acted with dignity while rescuing Little Chick and used therapeutic parenting rather than reprimands.

When the session was finished Little Chick was clearly overstimulated, but the act of bouncing had prevented that from tipping over. The environment wasn’t quite right for him. This was a session exclusively for under-fives, but we made a mental note to enquire about the monthly slots dedicated to children with autism, sensory processing issues, and similar conditions. Little Chick told us that he loved it and wanted to come again.  We said we would try, not clear whether the fallout in the coming hours and days would be worth it.

There was no obvious fallout, or at least no more than we usually experience from a busy, exciting weekend. There have been many requests for bouncing. We will try again, in a few weeks. When its quieter. Once the Other Mrs Reed Warbler has recovered. A long-term knee injury excuses me from bouncing duty, so I will have to retake my place in the viewing gallery. I will observe, write, and drink surprisingly well priced coffee and cake. I look forward to it.


Edit (May 2019): We did return to ‘bouncing’, again for an under-fives session. Similarly, it was overwhelming and overstimulating, though Little Chick coped brilliantly. The limited availability of the quieter sessions – just one per month with restricted numbers – means we haven’t been able to access this option. We’re not sure that it is fair to take him to the regular sessions; it feels like we are setting him up for a fall. But it has convinced us that a trampoline is a great idea for a birthday present.

Our family: One year on

So, Little Chick has been living with us for a year.

During the past few weeks, the Other Mrs Reed Warbler and I discussed if and how we should mark the occasion. We certainly weren’t going to call it ‘Gotcha Day’, or anything equally crass that suggests ownership or possession. We considered naming it ‘Family Day’. This recognises that it is special, but every day is special in its own way for us – as parents – so we don’t need this. I don’t mean that every day is perfect or amazing – heck, no – but every day we remember how lucky we are to have this wonderful wee boy in our lives.

But it’s also a reminder of what Little Chick has lost; it draws attention to what came before. It can be helpful to look back and reflect on what has passed, on what has been achieved, but I believe greater value lies in looking forward, both planning and hoping; certainly, at his current age. As he matures, he may want to explore his past more, including the circumstances that led him to us, and we will support his life story work in whatever ways we can.

The anniversary is also a reminder of others’ loss: his birth family, foster family, the others whose lives he has touched.

Like most of adoption, its complicated. It’s bittersweet. It’s tough to know what’s best.

I’m still not sure whether it will be something we recognise formally with Little Chick or whether the other Mrs Reed Warbler and I will simply clink metaphorical glasses in acknowledgement of the massive change in our lives. Whatever we decide, our love for Little Chick knows no bounds and we both feel we don’t need to mark a special day to acknowledge that.