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 over a third having clinically significant levels of difficulty. Academic attainment can also be significantly affected eg in reading, writing and maths.
The Department for Education acknowledges the enduring impact of children's early experiences. In fact, in recognition of the fact that teachers and schools have a vital role to play in helping adopted children socially, emotionally and educationally, the government gives a school an additional fund for every adopted child that attends the school. Called Pupil Premium Plus, these funds are intended to provide specific support, to help raise adopted children’s attainment and address their wider needs.
Adoptive parents can ask schools to offer support to their child in the following areas:
- 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.
- 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.
- Developing trusting relationships with adults
Children who have learnt that adults are unpredictable, unavailable or harmful may have developed attachment disorder and 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.
- 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 practise key skills (like taking turns).
- 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.
- Make contact with the key support staff (SENCo link or pastoral lead) to establish a partnership when the child joins the school, rather than waiting until things go wrong.
- Initiate a dialogue about how the school spends the Pupil Premium Plus grant.
- Work with the school to identify potential curriculum hotspots, such as family trees or teaching about genetics, and work with the school to identify modifications which will include the adopted child.
- Identify and link up with other adoptive and special guardianship families at the school.
- Contact your local authority adoption service if you need support to advocate for your child's educational needs
With thanks to Dr Emma Gore Langton, educational psychologist and head of education service at PAC-UK, an independent adoption support agency which provides training and advice to families and professionals