Friday, January 29, 2016

Review: The Teacher's Introduction to Attachment

I bought this book for an early-years specialist friend, tempted by the relatively short length of it, and the author's name - Nicola Marshall heads up Braveheart Education, training teachers and schools across the country. I couldn't resist a sneaky read of it before I gave it away!

Aimed at teachers, carers and school support staff, the book promises to be "simple and concise" and, as a relatively slim volume, it is less daunting than some others I have seen on the subject, providing the immediate advantage that any educator it's given to might actually find the time in their busy schedules to read it. The bulk of the material is covered in a little over 130 pages. Not only that, but it is handily divided into manageable chapters, broken down into short sections that can easily be read and digested in a few minutes. I read the whole book in three sittings.

There are four sections:

  • Part 1 deals with the theory behind attachment and trauma, covering some definitions, and also an introduction to brain development and how early traumatic experiences can affect it. The content is similar to what I have read elsewhere, but is both straightforward and thorough enough to provide a good grounding for someone who has no prior knowledge.
  • Part 2 covers five "guiding principles". These are laid out as over-arching ideas to help the reader form a basis of understanding about how children with attachment difficulties might be operating, and how that might affect the ways in which adults relate to them. For example, "Structure Over Chaos" explains how free time and free play can send some children into chaotic overdrive, heightening stress and anxiety, and lays out the principles behind using a more structured, more closely supervised approach to create a safe environment for activities, with secure boundaries. Other principles covered in this section are "Relationships Over Programmes", "Emotional Age Over Chronological Age", "Time In Over Time Out" and "Sensory Less Over Sensory More".
  • Part 3 goes into more detail over some specific areas of concern, such as shame, control, self-regulation, changes and organisation. Each one of the nine short chapters here explains the theory behind the area of concern, describes how to recognise if this is a problem area for a child, and suggests some strategies to help.
  • The final section, Part 4, covers a few more general areas, such as triggers, rewards and communication.

Although I have done a fair bit of reading around attachment and some of the issues raised in this book, I haven't read a book specifically aimed at educators before, so I can't compare it to the works of other well-known authors in the field. However, I would recommend it as a resource for teachers, if for no other reason than it covers the main points using a very clear and understandable style, but without being dauntingly lengthy!

As a teacher myself, I would personally have appreciated a few more anecdotes related specifically to the school setting, and perhaps more specific focus on how to relate it to the classroom on a day-to-day basis. However, the book is written by an adoptive parent, rather than a teacher, and I think that in itself gives a useful perspective, helping educators to see things from the parent's viewpoint. As it is, the basic principles are laid out, with some guidance as to how to adapt practice in light of them, and then each school and teacher can go forward from there in the way that best suits their setting and practice.

Hopefully the early-years specialist I bought it for will find it useful - if I get any feedback, I'll let you know!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Think of the Little Ones

After years of teaching teenagers, doing youth work with teenagers, and volunteering with teenagers who had been raised in Romania's orphanages, I chose to foster babies and toddlers. The trainer on my Skills to Foster course was incredulous. "Why, with all your experience, are you not fostering teens?" she asked.

The answer was simple and, to me at least, obvious. I had seen too much of that end of the spectrum, too much of the results of things that had gone wrong for children long before I met them. I had read a little about the impact of early childhood trauma, the effects of neglect on the developing brain, the importance of secure attachments, and I hoped to do what I could for children at the very beginning of the process. Perhaps what little I could do might begin to ameliorate some of the effects of their experiences, and help to secure an easier future than so many of the abandoned teens I had met were experiencing.

I was probably, no, definitely, naive. But I still think that fostering infants and toddlers is a serious job, requiring a unique skill set. A growing body of research indicates the importance of getting it right in the earliest months and years. Some of the children who have come to me have already displayed obvious signs of difficulties arising from their early experiences - anxiety, lack of stranger danger, problems around food, destructive behaviours, meltdowns, night terrors, excessive clinginess, violent outbursts - I could go on. But even for those little ones who present as 'normal', there is no guarantee that there will not be difficulties later in childhood.

It seems obvious to me that early intervention is better than waiting until crisis point and then trying to unpick years of difficulties, behaviours and thought patterns that are thoroughly entrenched.

It seems obvious to me. But not, as it turns out, to everyone. Two comments were made to me in the past two weeks that showed that an understanding of the effects of early neglect and abuse and broken attachments is not as widespread among professionals as I imagined.

Firstly I was at a meeting for foster carers where the allowances structure was being discussed. Here, carers receive a basic allowance for each child, varying according to age, and then a skills payment based on what the carer themselves brings to the table in terms of experience, qualifications, etc. The highest skills level is level 4. This level is not available to carers with children under 5. The explanation was simply that, "obviously", these very young children don't have the level of needs that an older child would have. Level 4 is reserved for those caring for children who have been assessed as having significant additional needs.

Now, I understand that a tiny baby may not display signs of significant additional needs (unless they are withdrawing of course - not uncommon!), but surprisingly young children (yes, even toddlers!) can show very clear signs of attachment disorder and other difficulties arising from their early life experiences. In her book "Why Can't My Child Behave?", Dr Amber Elliot suggests that neurological changes in a child's brain caused by early neglect can be evident from as young as six months. Certainly, three and four-year-olds can display extremely challenging behaviours! If a child is self-harming or throwing furniture, their age is only relevant to the amount of damage they can do, not the amount of need they have.

The second comment was made by a Health Visitor, lamenting with me that more couldn't be done for these traumatised little ones. She told me that CAMHS in our area does not accept referrals for children under 5. A light bulb went on in my head. It's so easy to imagine that pre-school children do not have significant additional needs if they are never assessed in the first place.

I take preparing children for permanence extremely seriously. Many of my foster children will go on to adoptive placements. Adopters should know that any child under 5 coming from my LA (and I'm sure it's not the only one) will not have been seen by a children's mental health professional. Any assessment of their attachment or their emotional needs will be coming from the social worker with input from the foster carer. Now, I have done some research, and social workers are not ignorant, but in my opinion, the input of a qualified psychologist or similar would be appropriate in some cases.

Adopters taking children from my LA should also know that therapeutic work will not have been carried out with the children. Their foster carers will not have been trained in any such techniques, beyond the most basic courses on attachment. We will all have relied on love, security, routine, boundaries and 'good enough' parenting - all good things in themselves, but are they enough? Some adoptive parents will later find that the answer is "no".

I'm sure money, as always, is a factor. But, not only does this collective blind eye do the children a disservice, it seems to me that it is also inefficient. If the foundations are faulty, a building will fall. Surely it is easier and more cost-effective to attend to the foundations before the building has gone too far, than to wait until later and have to unpick layers and layers of unstable brickwork?

However naive, I still hold on to the hope that foster carers doing the 'easy' job of caring for the little ones are, in fact, sowing something good into a child's life that will one day bear fruit. Nearly five years in, I'm not sorry I made the choice I did, but I wish I could do more.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Spread a Little Happiness

It probably doesn't occur to me often enough to tell the people I value just how much I do value them. In specific moments, when someone steps into the breach or does something heroic, of course I am thankful and I say so, but often it's the constant 'being there' that goes unmentioned, despite being so appreciated.

Last night I spent an enjoyable hour on Twitter following and participating in The Adoption Social's Awards Evening. Now I know some of you are rolling your eyes reading that. An awards evening on Twitter? Seriously? That's what you do of an evening these days?!

Well, yes, I don't get out much. In fact a lot of single parents don't get out much. Although I have lovely people who will babysit for me so that I probably get out more than most, the fact remains that most evenings, once the children are in bed, it's just me on my sofa with my books, my baby monitor, my TV and my laptop.

So yes, I was excited about this Twitter event, and I don't mind if you judge me!

The Adoption Social had asked the twitterverse first to nominate, and then vote for people in various categories. The categories encouraged us to think about who was kind, who was there for people, who was funny, who was encouraging. It made me take time to think about who had made an impression on me, not just on social media, but in real life as well. It was a prompt to think through all those who have encouraged, strengthened, supported and put up with me over the past five years!

These awards were nominated by peers, were voted on by peers, and the prizes were the congratulations of peers (along with a fair sprinkling of emoticons - I must work out how to do those!). In case you're wondering, I did win one, and it does mean something to know that people you respect value something that you do, however small.

So, friends, on social media and in real life, let me take a moment to award you a virtual prize too. None of us can do it all alone. Whether through a meal made, a kind word, heroic babysitting, a smile, a laugh, a listening ear (or Twitter or Facebook account!), you have made my fostering and parenting journey not only possible, but wonderful. I hope to remember to be a bit more appreciative in future, and if you find it cheesy, I'm not sorry!