8 ways to help settle your adopted or fostered child into school

Starting school is a huge step for every four-year-old, but it can be especially challenging for children who have experienced early trauma.

This year, I'm one of the many parents waving children off to their first day of school. It seems only minutes since our twin boys arrived home at 14 months, but now they're nearly 5 and they’re definitely ready for a little more independence.

School is not a new venture for our family. We have two birth children who are now in Years 5 and 3. We have been involved in school life since our eldest started. I've worked closely with the school as a governor, and now as chair of the parent teacher association (PTA). My husband leads the local church, so he has been involved with assemblies and RE lessons. Plus, we were both teachers in a former life.

Given all this, we know some of what we're letting ourselves in for. But as our twins are adopted, we have a few more concerns about how they might settle in.

With these experiences, as well as those of simply being a school mum, here are some ideas of things that might help our adopted or fostered children settle into school.

1. Communicate as much as you need

I think we all have a deep-seated fear of being 'that' parent – the one who's always going into school, always asking for meetings, always concerned for this, that and the other.

But we needn't fear. Firstly, any school worth its weight will want to hear your ideas and your concerns. Secondly, any school with an understanding of trauma or the care system should know that your child may need additional support.

We are our child's ambassador; we are their champion and their advocate. Being concerned for them over our reputation is one of the hardest but most important parts of parenting.

So please go ahead and send that email, write that letter, arrange that meeting, explain that behaviour. Working with the school will provide the best possible outcome for your child.

2. Ask the teacher to be vigilant

There are some behaviours or conversations which might go unnoticed if exhibited or spoken by a child from a stable background. But when our kids have undergone trauma in their earlier life it is vitally important that we know of details, even if they seem insignificant.

Right from the start, let the teacher know that you'd like to be informed if there is anything even slightly out of the ordinary about how your child behaves or speaks.

Parenting children who have experienced difficult things can often feel like a guessing game, a long term mission of working out how they're feeling, how it presents and what strategies you can help them use.

Explain to your child's teacher that their information might be one more jigsaw piece to add to the picture you're trying to build at home. If it turns out to be nothing, no harm done!

3. Get involved with the school

When it comes to children's success at primary school, do you know what the most important factor is?

It’s not academic intelligence. Not social skills. Not the 'right' school with the Outstanding Ofsted grade.

No. The factor which makes the most difference is parental support and involvement.

You'll likely feel busy enough with caring for your family, plus any work outside of the home, so I'm not asking you to take on burdensome commitments – unless, of course, you have the time and motivation to do so.

I'm simply asking you to read the letters, check the school's social media, download their communication apps, keep in touch with what's going on, turn up to events and maybe even donate raffle prizes or other items which are being asked for.

Getting involved at whatever level you're able shows your child that you believe education is important. It also shows you have confidence in the establishment you've entrusted them to for 30 hours a week.

From the school's point of view it builds up your credibility, meaning that it becomes easier for you to suggest additional training on attachment or anything else that would help the school support your child better.

Having been a governor and built up this credibility, when I suggested that our school bought the guide 'Becoming an Adoption-Friendly School', they not only did it straight away, but asked me to attend Adoption UK's national conference along with a member of staff – not a cheap day out! The conference challenged us both, and we came back with plenty of ideas, but it would never have happened had I not first built trust with the school.

4. Watch for changes in behaviour

Keep an eye on your child's behaviour and general mood and take your cues from them. Try to avoid a lot of additional activities for the first half term so that weekends can be a chance to unwind and engage in some low-level calming activities at home. Then, if they need to go out, you can always plan something in. Better this way around than having to cancel scheduled trips and appointments.

This is hard for us, as all four of our children have September birthdays! But we have done what we can to minimise birthday disruption by scheduling all the parties on the same day as the birthdays, and not planning any additional weekend events for that month.

5. Take 'attachment days' when needed

Sometimes when a child is struggling, much can be achieved by taking them out of school for a day. You might call this an 'attachment day', or 'mental health day' or 'quiet day'. The important thing is that it's a chance for your child to have some unstructured time and a breather from the intensity of the classroom.

Any good school should be supportive of you doing this but do communicate what you're doing and why. Learning can't take place if your child is not in a good state to learn, so if they’re becoming overly anxious, aggressive, fearful or upset, then taking a day or two to re-set emotions may well lead to better learning on the days they are in school.

6. Encourage the school to access support

Communicating with the school, getting involved and showing them that you want to work with them will all reap benefits. Why not introduce them to some of the fabulous support that is available for schools?

If your school is already adoption and fostering-friendly then that's great – although there's always room for further training! Adoption UK offer some resources and training for educators, and The Fostering Network have some great resources too.

7. Pupil Premium Plus – ask where it's going

If you’re in England, make sure you’re aware of the Pupil Premium Plus, as every looked after and previously looked after child is eligible for it. This additional annual funding goes to the school and is different to Pupil Premium, which tends to be awarded to children from families in difficult financial circumstances.

Therefore, it is vital that PP+ is not spent reducing the cost of school trips, uniform and other resources (unless, of course, you require this support). The point of PP+ is to acknowledge the different types of support needed by children who have experienced some trauma – notably support with handling emotions, attaching to adults, relating to peers and so on.

To this end, it is worth asking your school how they are spending the money they're receiving for educating your child. You could suggest that some of it is used on training (see the point above), additional staff support in class or whatever your child particularly needs. While the money may not be able to be ring-fenced for an individual child, neither should it be used for general school resources.

8. Use the hierarchy

If you have any concerns at any point in your child's school career, try to deal with them as soon as possible, before they escalate to a point that makes school life difficult for your child.

The first port of call should always be your child's teacher. If the issue is a wider one, or isn't being resolved within class, then speak to the member of the leadership team responsible for your child's key stage and/or the headteacher, depending on the size of the school.

If you've persisted with the senior leadership team and still have unresolved issues, get in touch with the chair of governors to share your concerns. At this stage it would be helpful to have a social worker with you to help articulate the needs of your child and how the school could be better supporting her.

Sadly, if both the leadership of the school and the governing body cannot resolve the issue, then this likely signals a larger problem. Discuss this with your local authority, as they should be able to give advice about different schools in your area with more informed pastoral systems. It might be that an alternative provider such as a special school or home education is going to be a better fit.

Good communication is key to our children's success at school – but above all we know that God has our children in His hands. He loves them, and longs for them to find ultimate security in Him, so that they can thrive in school and life. As we intercede for our children, we can trust Him to guide us through our children's school days, however unclear they look right now. May God richly bless your child as they start school this September!

It's easier to go back to school when you’ve something stable to come home to. Could you give £10 to Home for Good's Back to School appeal today today and find stable and supportive families for children in care so that no child feels alone on their hardest day?

Written for Home for Good by Lucy Rycroft


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