Sunday, May 28, 2017

Trauma



I was talking to a friend this week who works on the pastoral team at a large local high school. A young girl from a neighbouring school was killed in the Manchester bombing on Monday. Some of the students at my friend's school had been in primary school with her, while others knew her socially or lived near to her. Some of the pupils and staff from his school had also been at the concert, and had thankfully escaped unharmed.

The terrible deaths of so many people at the Manchester Arena will have touched many communities around the country. Even for those of us who had no direct involvement, the shock of the events last Monday night still reverberates. Many of us have been to the Manchester Arena. Many more of us have attended some gig or other in our lifetimes. No doubt scores of schools and teachers around the country have been counselling, supporting and explaining in the wake of this horror.

My friend also told me about another boy at his school. The day before the Manchester bombing, this young lad had come home to find his dad dead on the floor. He was back in school on Monday, anxious to escape the house and get away from the trauma of it all. Again, the staff and students rallied round.

It reminded me, if I needed reminding, that trauma affects so many children in our schools in different ways. It can come as a result of a sudden event, like this young lad or those young people at the Arena, or it can build up over months and years of abuse or neglect or frightening experiences.

In the last week, the word 'trauma' has been spoken or written about many times. Broadcasters have discussed the effects of trauma with specialists, talked about how it is best managed, explained to us that what is needed in the early stages is a nurturing environment and openness, while some people will need extra support to begin one or two months later if they are still suffering the after effects once the initial shock has worn off.

I am glad to see these discussions taking place, and I am just as glad to see news articles and opinion pieces praising the teachers who have been there for hundreds of frightened, grieving kids all around the country. I'm sure none of them said anything like, "School is for education, it's not a counselling centre," or "It's my job to teach, not to be a therapist." I'm sure none of them said that.

So I have to wonder why, when so many children are entering the school gates daily with a huge dose of trauma in their backpacks, I've seen these words written in response to their trauma by teachers in blogs and on social media - "It's not my job". We are talking about children who have witnessed and experienced horrific domestic violence, or who have been left hungry many, many times, or who have been left alone, terrified for hour after hour, or who have been suddenly taken from their families, their homes and everything familiar to them at a moment's notice. We're talking about children so young that they don't have the communication skills to even engage in counselling to work through their trauma, children whose conscious memories may not even be able to recall the events that led to their bodies and minds repeatedly betraying them, children who find their hearts beating, ears ringing, sweat pouring at triggers they can't even identify.

Maybe it's harder to empathise with their experiences. As adults, we can all, perhaps, imagine ourselves in the place of someone who experiences a nasty car accident, or who is attacked on the street, or who is driven frantic over their missing child. Childhood neglect and abuse is perhaps more difficult to identify with. So maybe it's about empathy. Or maybe we just don't want to go there in our minds. We want a happy ending, where the trauma stops once the traumatic experience stops. Except we know it doesn't. The broadcasters and experts have told us that.

No adoptive parent, foster carer or guardian wants their child's teacher to be a counsellor, or a therapist. We understand that they are not trained for that - indeed, it is not their job - and amateur therapy is hardly desirable. What parents and carers of children who have experienced early loss and trauma want is simple: acknowledgement. Trauma is real, and its after effects are real, whether it happens at 2, 12 or 20, whether it comes as a sudden, traumatic event, or builds up over time through repeated actions or inactions. Let's make our schools a safe, nurturing place for all children who have experienced trauma. Who would not benefit from that?


Saturday, May 6, 2017

Crossover


I took OB to see the school nurse this week. The appointment was triggered by the education team at the LA because it had come to their attention that OB was being electively home educated. To be honest, I was pleased the appointment was made, and happy to attend. I took him to have his hearing checked myself, and am planning to take him for a vision check in the near future. I don't want him to miss out on the health checks he would have received as a matter of course if he had been in school.

It's never really obvious what to expect at these sorts of appointments. The invitation letter had been characteristically terse and to the point, so it was tricky to prepare OB for an appointment that I felt sure would involve some scrutiny of him personally and therefore be well outside his comfort zone.

When we arrived at the clinic, there was nobody else there at all. The nurse bounded in, seeming very pleased to see us (it later transpired that hardly anyone turns up to these appointments!), and then stared at me for a moment before asking me if I was a foster carer. It turns out she had previously been a LAC Nurse.

It can be strange, and sometimes disconcerting, when two worlds collide but, as the appointment went on, I began to feel very glad that this person had not only met me before, but also clearly knew and understood some of the additional issues we face as an adoptive family.

The health check included the basic height and weight check that I had been expecting, but after that it mainly seemed to focus on behaviour. The nurse asked me a lot of questions about OB's behaviour, right in front of him, which I found pretty difficult to answer without getting into areas I didn't really want to bring up.

Added to that, both of the children were reacting as usual to me actually attempting to have a coherent conversation with someone other than them. At the point at which I was trying to explain how we had accessed post-adoption support (using as many acronyms as possible in the hopes that OB wouldn't cotton on!), Birdy was under the nurse's desk trying to steal things out of her bag, and OB was lying on the floor near me fake-laughing really loudly!

How grateful I was, at that point, to be speaking to somebody who already knew all the acronyms and to whom so much could just go unsaid. She didn't bat an eyelid at OB's antics, and put some video on her computer for Birdy to watch so that we could actually speak to each other. She understood my concerns at filling in the 2-page form about behavioural issues, and reassured me that my honest assessment would not trigger a deluge of inappropriate interventions.

As a home educator, whenever I attend any meeting with 'the authorities' I know that I am under scrutiny. I know that what we do is out of the norm, and that some are suspicious. I know that some children, sadly, do slip under the radar. This is why I make it my business to co-operate fully with the LA, to attend all the appointments, to be as open and honest as possible. I hope that in doing so, the difference between those who electively home educate, and those who just opt out and drift away will be reinforced in the minds of those whose job it is to keep their eyes open for signs of trouble.

However, I am also aware that this can come with a risk; that it exposes us to all sorts of 'authorities' who may have precious little understanding of the particular challenges that we sometimes face, and who have fairly extensive power to intervene in our lives. I mean, how would the average person react to the sight of a 'home educated' 6-year-old lying on the floor of the nurse's office making robot noises and emitting great guffaws of forced, fake laughter?

At that appointment, I was grateful for the 'crossover', grateful not to have to try to explain why I prioritise attachment over KS1 attainment descriptors, grateful not to be forced to go into personal details of my son's history while he was in the room with me. I was grateful to be with someone who just 'gets it'.

And, as a measure of how well she 'gets it', the nurse handed me a sheaf of leaflets as I left. These are guidance sheets produced by the local CAMHS to assist those parenting children who have experienced early trauma, abuse and neglect. They cover eating difficulties, attachment difficulties, empathy, stealing behaviours, lying behaviours and the importance of play. They are very, very good. It made me wonder why, as a LA foster carer, I had never seen them before!