Home and away: adoption and attachment

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How school helped my adopted children to integrate and manage their behaviour

When we adopted our three children, we kept them all at home for the first ten weeks. We were concerned about potential attachment issues and we believed that the children, who were all siblings under the age of six years, would benefit from forging the strongest possible bond with us. Indeed, if either one of the school-age children had been having more difficulty settling in, we would definitely have kept them off school for longer.

Initially, the school had been keen for the children to start earlier, but they took our wishes on board and, when we felt the children were ready, the school was fantastic in helping them to feel a part of things. At the outset, we agreed a timetable that built up their time in school gradually, and included some days off for us to reconnect with the children. The school suggested that a flexible approach that was responsive to how the children were coping (or not) individually would be better than sticking to a fixed timetable, and this worked really well.

We were impressed by the school’s commitment to the importance of social and emotional development of individuals both in class and during breaks. Before the children visited school for the first time, they produced books for our children with photos of their teachers, some classmates, their coat pegs and some of the activities they would do. We went through these with the children before the first visit and talked with them about the hopes and worries they had. Both teachers and classroom assistants visited us at home before the children’s first school visit, to say hello and talk about what happened at school. Meeting their teachers left them excited and happy about the prospect of going to school. The message was that there was someone who would look after them at school and this was particularly important as their fear of separation and abandonment is understandably strong.

The role of class teachers

The class teachers did a great job of noticing when our children were showing signs of reaching emotional overload in class and allowed them time in the classroom “play zone” to help prevent their emotions from bubbling over. They also assigned buddies to the children to help them get familiar with the classroom rules and routines. We sat in class with our children for the first few weeks, which we feel was very important in terms of promoting their attachment to us; we weren’t just leaving them to get on with it in a terrifying new environment, we were there with them, and they were so grateful it made us cry. As they got used to the classroom, we reduced our presence quite gradually, leaving them for longer and longer periods.

Socialisation in the classroom can be a very big issue for adopted children.Being in the classroom environment also gave us a lot of valuable information about how school worked, which helped us to identify some of the emotional danger signs, practical issues and situations that might have resulted in a meltdown if not tackled. The children initially had problems with basic social skills in school; they avoided eye contact, ignored questions directed at them and zoned-out or completely blanked their classmates rather than interact with them. Being on hand helped us to recognise these issues and help them to start forming friendships, take the lead in saying hello and goodbye, and remembering names. It led us to talk to our children about social norms and how our behaviours can make other people feel.

The school tended to attribute these socialisation issues to the length of time the children had spent out of school. Our view is that these socialisation issues would have been present regardless of the timing – and would in all likelihood have been much worse earlier in the placement, given the extent of the change the children were already having to deal with.

Settling in full-time

Just before the end of the summer term, both our children completed two full weeks at school. Before school broke up, we got contact details and arranged play dates over the summer with some classmates, so there would be familiar faces in the classroom come September. We also kept them in touch with school work over the summer by getting them to read to us regularly and doing lots of art and even writing and maths projects.

By the time the two eldest began at their new school, the children:

  • made great eye contact with us (which was a big deal)
  • looked for us when we were out, and often sought us out in social settings, or when hurt or in need of help
  • could play well together as a sibling group for reasonable periods of time without our intervention.

They were also openly and genuinely affectionate towards us by this stage, and this continues to grow. Much of the emotional behaviour, oppositional outbursts and excessive sibling rivalry we had read about in files and witnessed during introductions also dissipated quickly over the initial few months. They were, in short, ready to face the new challenges of going to school.

After a wonderful summer break spent mostly at home, we expected there to be some struggles in getting the children back to school, but they have flourished, and we have not had a single day where there have been significant difficulties in getting them to school, so far. In terms of attachment, we have had issues and will continue to do so. Some things just are not solved that easily and there may be no “solving” them at all. However, after six months, all three children behave in a happy and confident way.

It is still very early days and only time will tell how everything turns out for us all – especially given the high number of adoptions that disrupt each year. We do feel that we have walked, and still walk, an attachment tightrope where a small wobble could quite easily lead to us losing our footing if we don’t handle it in the best way we possibly can.

It is clearly not always possible for adopters to give up work for any length of time and we wouldn’t want the ideas we have shared to deter anyone from adopting a child or children. First and foremost, all children need the stability that only a loving permanent home can give. We were lucky in that we were at a point where we could sort out our lives in order to share the care in the early months of placement. We simply share our experience here in case it is of some help to others.

We would, however, wholeheartedly recommend taking as much time as you possibly can with your children, and don’t worry about keeping them in the school routine if it doesn’t feel right for you or for them. These early times are precious and we have precious shared memories for the future.

Further information

The author has asked to remain anonymous. Her story has been supplied by Adoption UK, the national self-help charity run by and for adoptive parents and foster carers:
www.adoptionuk.org

The people pictured are not those discussed in the article.

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