The last thing that a deeply traumatised child needs is to be pinned down by school staff, singled out by teachers, or left so distressed that they wet themselves.
But these are real-life examples that show the problems caused when schools are unable to support vulnerable adopted children who were separated from birth parents at a young age, a charity is warning.
Adoption UK is calling for initial teacher training to explore how issues of trauma, separation and loss can affect children.
A lack of insight into these issues by teachers is leading to pupils being excluded, missing educational milestones and even, in some cases, being inappropriately restrained, according to parents interviewed by TES (see case studies, right and above-right).
Adoption UK chief executive Hugh Thornbery said: “It’s incredible that, at present, initial teacher training does not provide trainee teachers with an adequate understanding of these issues. We’re talking about some of the most vulnerable children in society, who will have already experienced trauma and neglect in their early years.”
Better insight from teachers into the complex challenges faced by these children could help them to manage disruptive behaviour that can “wreck carefully planned lessons and curtail other classmates’ learning,” Mr Thornbery said.
Many children who are in foster care, living with carers or even some of those living with birth parents may well have experienced similarly difficult starts in life, he added.
A 2014 survey of Adoption UK’s members found that 80 per cent of adoptive parents said that their child needed more or different support in school because of their early childhood experiences.
Nearly two-thirds of adoptive parents said that the school their child attended – and/or their teacher – did not understand the impact of their child’s early life experiences or their ability to engage with education.
Niamh Sweeney, executive member of the ATL teaching union, feared that an increasing emphasis on on-the-job training made it more difficult for teachers to learn about topics like attachment theory. She said: “I would certainly advocate more training for teachers in child development and attachment.”
Ms Sweeney said that she was aware of some “great projects” at primary schools, such as safe spaces for children who may be going through traumas and need time out of the classroom in a non-punitive setting.
But secondary schools could be less “flexible”, she said, despite the fact that problems faced by children in early life often present themselves when they become teenagers.
The calls come as the Department for Education considers plans to extend the role of virtual school heads – currently used to support looked-after children – to adopted pupils.
Last month’s White Paper said: “Many children adopted from the care system will also have suffered trauma and abuse.
“The emotional impact of this can continue to prevent them from making progress at school. We will therefore consider changing legislation to extend the current role of virtual school heads and the role and responsibilities of the school-designated teacher for looked-after children so that they continue to support children who have left care under an adoption order.”
Mr Thornbery said that this would help to ensure more effective use of the pupil premium, which was extended in 2014 to children who have been adopted up to eight years ago at a rate of £1,900 per pupil.
He said that the money was sometimes used inappropriately, and cited one example of a school that paid for the uniform of a pupil whose adoptive parents had a combined income of more than £100,000.
The schools White Paper said that the government will “improve the effectiveness of pupil premium spending by encouraging schools and virtual school heads to adopt evidence-based strategies”.
A DfE spokesman said: “We want every child to receive the best education possible, which is why all teachers are trained in how best to work with children with various behaviour issues.
“Initial teacher-training providers are free to use their professional judgement to determine the content of courses, to enable trainees to fully meet the teachers’ standards.”
‘Teachers were disinterested’
Dave East* adopted seven-year-old twin boys, and describes their experience of primary school as “hideous”. The boys would lock themselves in school cupboards, act aggressively and throw soft furnishings around the classroom.
One twin “spent most of his time trying to escape”, and was excluded from the classroom for the majority of Years 5 and 6. On one occasion, three members of staff pinned down one of the brothers to restrain him.
Mr East took reading materials to the school, to try to help them to understand the issues behind the boys’ challenging behaviour. But he found that the teachers were disinterested. It took nearly three years for the boys to obtain a statement of special educational needs. “The school just wouldn’t accept that they needed any help,” he says.
At secondary school, staff had strategies that helped to keep the boys on track – they have only been excluded for half a day between them in nearly five years. Mr East says: “They give them a consequence [for bad behaviour], they don’t get away with anything at all, but it’s all appropriate.”
For example, misbehaviour at lunchtime might mean being kept in at break. Achievements, however modest, are regularly highlighted, and teachers understand the need to sit them away from distracting windows, and to “check in” with them during lessons. The twins, now aged 16, are taking exams and hope to go to college.
*Name changed for anonymity.
‘We have to work as a team’
Emma Lansdale’s son regressed when he started nursery, and then school. He started wetting himself, and would sit under a desk, chewing his feet. Carpet time was challenging as, having spent much of his early life “strapped in a buggy”, he craved human contact and did not respect other children’s personal space, says Ms Lansdale.
At first, the school would give him time out, or make him stand up in class. But this heightened his sense of “shame”, which many adopted children feel, says Ms Lansdale.
The school worked with Ms Lansdale and an educational psychologist to develop techniques such as “fiddle toys” to help him self-soothe, a “visual timetable” setting out what he can expect each day, and a staff member to offer reassurance during carpet time. They also mapped out when he was most disturbed, which revealed autumn to be the most difficult time; this was also the time of year when he had previously been moved around before settling in his forever home.
Ms Lansdale says her son is now 8 and enjoying school. But she urges schools to engage with parents, saying: “We have to work as a team. Schools need parents as much as parents need schools, to show these youngsters that life can be positive after such a rough start.”