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Adopted children can find their progress in school hampered long after placement in a loving family. Dr Emma Gore Langton looks at the ways adoptive parents can help their child at school, and the measures you can ask schools to take.

Adopted children are much more likely than other children to have experienced abuse and neglect, and the impact of this difficult start in life does not disappear when children join loving permanent families.

Research shows that adopted children experience higher rates of social, emotional and behavioural needs, with around 38% having clinically significant levels of difficulty. And academic attainment is also significantly affected – data collected by the Department for Education in 2014 shows that at key stage 2, only 49% of children reached age related expectations in reading, writing and maths, compared with 75% of non-adopted children.

The Department for Education is increasingly recognising the enduring impact of children's early experiences. It gives an annual grant of £1900 per adopted child to schools, and it says teachers and schools have a vital role to play in helping adopted children socially, emotionally and educationally. Called Pupil Premium Plus, these funds are intended to provide specific support, to help raise adopted children’s attainment and address their wider needs.

Teachers and other school staff often need training to understand the impact of attachment difficulties, trauma and loss in school.

Adoptive parents can ask schools to offer support to their child in the following areas:

1. Coping with transitions and change

Children who have experienced loss in their early lives can find change anxiety-provoking, and it can trigger reactions.

Schools can prepare children by talking them through what will happen; building calming activities and mindfulness into transition points in the school day; ensuring that they provide a 'good goodbye' when children or staff leave the school; and letting parents know of any unexpected changes such as supply staff covering absences.

2. Managing anxiety, shame and other difficult feelings

Children who have been abused and neglected can experience difficult feelings which can result in challenging behaviour.

Schools can provide nurture groups or nurture breakfast clubs to help children settle at the start of the day; help children to calm down as we would help young children, using soothing strategies; provide structure during unstructured times such as playtimes and the end of term; and use empathic behaviour management strategies such as gently acknowledging the child's feelings.

3. Developing trusting relationships with adults

Children who have learnt that adults are unpredictable, unavailable or harmful may find it difficult to form secure trusting relationships.

Schools can provide a key adult who will be available and predictable and a mentor for the child; provide relational play which children might have missed out on; use transitional objects to help the child 'hold on' to the adoptive parent and the key adult in school; and make efforts to reconnect and repair relationships with the child when things go wrong

4. Developing social skills and peer relationships

Children may be preoccupied with ensuring their needs are met by adults, or may not yet have the skills they need for successful interactions with other children.

Schools can provide opportunities to develop play skills; provide social skills groups which explicitly teach social skills; and set up small structured interactions where children can practice key skills (eg taking turns)

5. Developing children's executive functioning skills

Children who have relied on their survival brains may need additional opportunities to develop their thinking brains.

Schools can provide coaching to develop planning and organisation skills; offer scaffolding by breaking tasks down into steps and teaching children to use checklists; and provide a narrative of everyday activities such as getting changed for swimming or ensuring that children have their homework in their bags.

Every child is different, so the support should be based on a holistic understanding of the child's strengths and needs.

Some schools use the Personal Education Plan process (which is statutory for looked after children, but not for adopted children) to identify, plan for and review children's support needs.

How can adoptive parents help in their child’s education?

  • Sharing enough information for the school to make sense of the child's difficulties, and being clear about the purpose of sharing (who needs to know what, and for what purpose?
  • Making contact with the key support staff (SENCo or pastoral lead) to establish a partnership when the child joins the school, rather than waiting until things go wrong
  • Initiating a dialogue about how the school spends the Pupil Premium Plus grant
  • Working with the school to identify potential curriculum hotspots, such as family trees or teaching about genetics, and working with the school to identify modifications which will include the adopted child
  • Identifying and linking up with other adoptive and special guardianship families at the school
  • Contacting their local authority adoption service if they need support to advocate for their child's educational needs

Dr Emma Gore Langton is an educational psychologist and head of education service at PAC-UK, an independent adoption support agency which provides training and advice to families and professionals

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