Many looked-after children change families so frequently that school represents a place of safety.Susannah Kirkman reports
Many adopted and looked-after children have the worst possible start to learning. Often born to parents who are violent, addicted to drugs, or just can't cope, they miss out on vital early nurturing and then find it hard to make sense of order and compassion.
Their problems are usually compounded by frequent moves, according to Dr Randy Comfort, the founder and executive director of Our Place, a Bristol charity which supports foster and adoptive families. One of its charges had already had 36 placements by the time he was seven.
"The average age for adoption is five and a half years old, by which time the child may have moved families five or six times," Dr Comfort says.
"It's very hard for these children to get rid of such traumatic experiences. They have flashbacks and they find it hard to concentrate at school."
Another common reaction to trauma is that the child no longer knows how to respond to kindness. Instead, they recreate an atmosphere of tension and confrontation because they are familiar with this. "Some schools blame the parents for not controlling their children," said Susan Lytton, director of Our Place. "But trauma and learning difficulties are usually at the root of challenging behaviour."
Improving children's educational chances is at the heart of the philosophy at the centre, which runs education conferences for parents and professionals, offers in-service training for schools, and has a broad programme of activities and counselling for children and their families.
While the children enjoy cookery, art, drama or extra tuition in basic skills, parents can meet to offer mutual support.
Our Place was set up six years ago by Dr Comfort, an American educational psychologist who has two adopted sons and two birth children. It is mostly financed with money from a trust fund. "Many of our friends in the United States adopted Vietnam (war) orphans and I became aware of the difficulties such families face," she says.
The centre has a special interest in trans-racial adoption and one third of the families the centre supports have adopted children from overseas.
Unfortunately, lack of early stimulation often leads to learning difficulties. Children from overseas may have been well-cared for, but there are seldom enough staff in orphanages to build the crucial foundations for learning.
"Too little stimulation can lead to problems with visual processing, and co-ordination," said Susan Lytton, who has adopted a child from overseas.
"If a child has never had the chance to play with toys, they may find it difficult to hold a pencil properly, for instance."
Sequencing can pose another problem; children may have a short attention span or find it difficult to follow instructions. Pupils with chaotic early childhoods who don't understand the world around them find it a challenge to concentrate in lessons.
"If you're stuck in a cot and all you can hear is TV or adults screaming, you're not going to process language coherently," Dr Comfort says.
"Looked-after children are already far behind their peers when they start school, they can't trust and they don't know what 'safe' means."
She says that thorough assessment is essential to pick up a child's learning difficulties as quickly as possible. The centre can provide some assessments in-house, but staff also support parents through the statementing process.
According to Dr Comfort, another issue is that GPs and social workers do not place enough value on educational continuity when considering placements. "They focus on crises and don't look hard enough at the educational issues," she says. "Often they know very little about learning disorders."
The good news for teachers is that school often plays a positive role. It can represent safety and security; if pupils have done well at school, it is the one place they like to be.
Dr Comfort applauds the new post in every school of a designated teacher for adopted and looked-after children, although she fears that these staff will not be given the extra time they need to support the pupils. Another concern is that these teachers may be cut out of the information loop; to be effective, they must know about situations that will adversely affect pupils' behaviour, such as contact with birth parents or court proceedings.
Teachers can have a huge impact on pupils' lives by simply trying to understand their difficulties. "We have rarely met a teacher who is unwilling to change their approach when they realise what is going on," she says.
'Meeting the Needs of Looked-After and Adopted Children' is available for pound;2 from Our Place, 139 Fishponds Road, Eastville, Bristol, BS5 6PR.
Tel: 0117 951 2433
* Adjusting to any change of routine or teacher is difficult for a child in care. Try to explain the change well in advance and give them extra support.
lWatch out for bullying. Any child without "normal" parents is a target, and they may also take part in some pre-emptive bullying themselves. Talk to the class about differences: different looks, languages, abilities, struggles and lifestyles.
* The playground can be a difficult place for children who find it hard to regulate their behaviour. Try pairing the child with a playtime "buddy", several pupils could take it in turns. Offer the child the chance to come inside and read a book in the office if things are not going well.
* Listen to the child's parents and try to work closely with them.