6 sensory activities for summer

The end-of-term transition anxiety has kicked in here this week. The dysregulation has moved up several notches. Both the girls are tired. There have been lots of tears and slammed doors and shouting about how terrible we are followed by apologies and more tears and cuddles and a bit more wailing and then calm (more-or-less). Time to break out a few more of my tried and tested sensory activities to see us through to the end of term and into the holidays.

6-sensory-activities-for-summer

Note: this is an update of a post I wrote last summer. This stuff works really well for us, so I’m sharing it again.

Around here, as in many adoptive families, holidays are hard work, especially the first few days of adjustment to the different routines. Joanna (8) and Charlotte (7) both have sensory issues caused by their early experiences: Joanna’s are primarily aural (oversensitivity to sound and a fear of loud noises), while Charlotte’s are mainly oral (she likes to chew things – toys, clothes, books – and is very fussy about food and will not countenance the idea of a raw tomato within five feet of her plate). Both are also quite fidgety and love to fiddle with things – to self-soothe because of attachment-related anxiety.

Enter the list of sensory activities to help them stay regulated, happy little sausages during the holidays. You’ll note that all of these are of the uncomplicated ‘buy it and get on with it’ variety, rather than Pinterest-worthy creations that require you to spend a week crocheting the shoelaces of elves first. The only one that requires any advance preparation is number 4, but that’s just putting some stuff in the freezer overnight. Job done.

1: Beads

The beads are a great calming activity – the sorting and threading and concentrating works beautifully to help them stay regulated. Seriously – it’s amazing. I have rarely seen them so calm! As long as there are enough of each type to go around and sibling rivalry doesn’t kick in, all is well. This particular set was £6.00 from Tesco and has kit for four necklaces with lots of beads left over. I haven’t been able to find it there this year but there are similar kits on Amazon (try the WINOMO Alphabet beads or Melissa and Doug Deluxe Wooden Bead Set).

2: Playdough/Plasticine/FIMO

An oldie but a goodie – give them a supply of dough, cutters and rolling pins and let them do their thing. (All you have to do is watch it get trodden into the carpet.) Nice and tactile for those who enjoy that sensation and/or the creative possibilities. Alternatively, our OT recommends the gloop made by mixing cornflour and water. It’s great for making fingers work harder and giving that feedback their muscles need.

3: Baking

Basically an edible version of the previous idea – adding an extra sensory experience into the mix. Use a simple biscuit recipe and let them go mad with the cutters, or for a treat try my chocolate cake recipe. (This cake is EPIC and also completely foolproof.)

chocolate-cake-small.jpg

4: Frozen archeology

A great idea for hot weather. Take some of their plastic toys and freeze them in a big container of water (with food colouring or a bit of orange squash in to hide the toys if you want), then give them a spoon to perform their archaeological dig! This activity provides new tactile experiences to keep sensory-seekers interested and can be combined with playing in a paddling pool for extra entertainment! Joanna and Charlotte love this.

sensory-activities-for-summer

5: Water

Charlotte completely lights up with joy when she’s in a swimming pool, and it’s a full-on immersive sensory experience, so our girls have a fortnight of swimming lessons every summer. But if that’s not an option, then a middle-of-the-day bath can work, especially if you colour the water with food colouring. In hot weather, the classic run-through-the-sprinkler game reliably produces a lot of shrieking and giggling in our garden. In hot weather we sometimes peg out a tarpaulin on the grass and squirt washing-up liquid or bubble bath on it. We then put the hose at the top end (our garden is on a slight slope). The girls love to slide down the slope and get covered in bubbles, then rinse off in the paddling pool. (Don’t have a tarpaulin? Grab one from camping shops or from Amazon here for under £6.50.)

Our garden bubble-slide.

6: Masking tape racetrack

This one needs a roll of masking tape (washi tape works well too) and some Matchbox-type cars. The first time we did it I designed a course for them myself, but Joanna added her own modifications. I like to include plenty of obstacles to make it more of a sensory experience. We have cushions to drive over, maybe a beanbag mountain, a cardboard tube tunnel, whatever we happen to have in the recycling box at the time. I find that the girls’ attention span increases when they can use the tape themselves after I’ve done the basic layout. They also enjoy using lots of props (e.g. people, trees and buildings from their train set and toy farm).

Racetrack

An early prototype

I hope you find these helpful during the holidays. If you you have other sensory play ideas I’d love to hear about them. Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

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6 ways to help an adoptive family in the summer

For many parents, the idea of filling a six-week summer holiday with endless activities, day trips, the library’s summer reading challenge, and new-school-shoe-shopping is enough to make them want to hide under a large beach towel for the duration.  And if you’ve been in the vicinity of an adoptive parent whose child(ren) struggle with end-of-year transitions, you may be aware that they have more holiday apprehension than most. Our children’s behaviour is often less predictable, more volatile, and especially when they are struggling with the ‘all at sea’ feeling of being out of routine, they can just lose the plot. It’s very demanding to parent these children, who need specialist therapeutic techniques to calm their oversensitive, maladapted fight/flight/freeze responses. How can you support them appropriately? Here are my six ways to help an adoptive family in the summer holidays.

6-ways-to-help-an-adoptive-family-in-the-summer-holidays

1. Don’t mention the transition

When talking to adopted children, remember that they are more likely than average to struggle with the end of term, the summer holidays, and the prospect of adjusting to a new teacher, new classroom, and the added pressure to keep up at a higher academic level. They may be missing friends, upset at saying goodbye to a teacher they have become attached to, and generally feeling sad and wonky. A jolly ‘I bet you’re excited about the end of term/the holidays/being in year X’, while well meant, might not be tremendously helpful. Unless they initiate that topic of conversation, stick to something safer. Remember that although they might be fine with you, any stress may be hidden and stored up for release when they feel safe at home later, ie, a meltdown aimed at their parents.

Statements, rather than questions, often feel safer when a child is getting used to being around someone new or a new place. Something along the lines of ‘Hi Joanna, it’s good to see you again. The biscuits are here, you can help yourself, and George is on the swings if you want to play’ is the sort of thing that would put my children at ease. Even a simple ‘I like your T-shirt’ is a good way to avoid talking about school and school holidays.

2. Offer childcare

Offer to take the children out for a day. Or for an afternoon. Or just to the park for half an hour. A little bit of breathing space to mentally regroup is likely to be very welcome. If you have more cash than time, maybe offer to pay for a holiday club, or swimming lessons. If it’s not appropriate for the children to be separated from the adoptive parents at the moment, maybe you could bring an activity to the house – a craft to make, or a game to play, so Mum/Dad can have a lie down in the the next room, for example. Or all meet up at the park/for a picnic/at soft play/etc. Just having an extra adult present can sometimes help children contain some of their more ‘exuberant’ behaviour (and sometimes not, so take your cue from their parents).

3. Send postcards

You don’t have to be on holiday to send a postcard. One from your home town will be fine – if the children have been there and recognise the picture, so much the better. It’s lovely for them to know that others are thinking of them when they are elsewhere, and especially when they’re out of their routine. If you want to go a step further, you could seek out the postcards that are also jigsaws (my children love these), or use a company such as Photobox to create your own. Pete and I use the Postsnap app to send postcards to the children when we’re away – you upload your own photos and it creates and sends a postcard from within the UK, meaning that it arrives sooner than a traditional postcard from overseas. I recommend it. (Use code 3D04BE to get £2.00 of free credit on the Postsnap app after you make your first purchase.)

4. Check in with the parents

While the family is out of their term-time routine, they might not have their usual support systems in place – people at the school gate, teachers, social workers, others, to talk to. Offering them a chat, either in person, on the phone, or by text, can give them a place to offload. Just send a message to say you’re thinking of them. Offer to get the coffee and meet them somewhere the children are occupied.

5. Offer resources

They may not have the time or energy to use all of them, but there are some great resources online. Keep it simple – stuff they can print and do rather than things that need a lot of preparation. For example, you could point them towards the excellent downloads on Twinkl for summer holiday activities and for transitions. Twinkl membership costs £48.99 for a year, which sounds a lot but is good value if you make the most of it. We get our money’s worth by using the printable sheets for practising tables, the visual timetable cards, colouring sheets, games, labels, telling the time – it even has child-friendly mental health resources. Some other alternatives can be found on Pinterest (but beware ‘Pinterest perfectionism’), and I have a few of my own humble offerings, including the summer holiday schedule.

6. Read a book

If you’re planning some summer holiday reading of your own, you might consider swapping one of your novels for something that explains a bit more about the realities of adoptive parenting. Some suggestions:

Sally Donovan’s No Matter What
Dan Hughes’ Building the Bonds of Attachment
Amber Elliott’s Why Can’t My Child Behave?

All of these will equip you to support your friends with a greater understanding of their experience and parenting techniques. (Read these already? Check out my reviews to find something else.)

Thank you

Many adoptive parents say that friends who support them are few and far between. Your willingness to help an adoptive family in the summer, in sensitive and appropriate ways, is very much appreciated. Thank you.


If you liked this post, you might also like to read:


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Create your easy-peasy summer holiday schedule

That long expanse of summer holiday fills some with joy and others with horror. For those of us with children who thrive on routine, the summer can be a difficult time. They find it hard to adjust to the differences and anticipate September transitions to new classes and new schools.

Enter the summer holiday schedule.

creatre-your-easy-peasy-summer-holiday-schedule

Using the summer holiday schedule

This is an easy-to-edit Word file that I update every year. It’s not complicated, just the dates from the end of one term to the beginning of the next, with an activity or two marked on for each day. a the moment that tends to be about as much detail as they want, though we also have a Twinkl visual timetable on hand for days when they need a bit more clarity about a simple day at home (‘But what are we doing after lunch?’).

I use them in the Christmas and Easter holidays too, because Joanna and Charlotte thrive on knowing what to expect. If I could add a meal plan for the entire holiday that would make them happier still.

Here’s ours for this summer (click for larger version).

How I fill the summer holiday schedule

This is Joanna’s first year at a residential summer camp (I’m not sure which of us is most excited about this prospect) so that was scheduled first (purple). Charlotte will be spending a few days with my parents so we can have some time off (pink). Then the SEN activity club the girls love – I booked as many slots as i could for that (yellow). Then because I’m talking part in the self-carecamp in Yorkshire at the end of the holidays, we’re turning that into a family holiday by hiring a cottage nearby, which fills out the last week (green). We’ve just renewed our national Trust membership and are determined to recoup the cost, so I scoured the magazine for local child-friendly activities (brown).

Being outdoors is great for Joanna and Charlotte, so, weather permitting, there are also a smattering of days where it simply says ‘park’ and ‘garden fort’. (Note: this is an excellent garden fort kit that keeps them occupied for ages, especially when combined with an old shower curtain for the roof. Highly recommended.)

The rest is filled in with things like a ‘jobs and rewards day’. This is code for ‘get them to tidy their rooms, do the hoovering and clean the bathroom, which is pleasingly endorsed by their OT, in return for a small supply of Freddos, new crayons and those awful magazines with plastic tat attached’. There’s also a pyjama day. This basically means ‘you can watch DVDs while I do all the laundry from the holiday and if you stay in your PJs it means you’re not creating any more for me to wash’.

Your own summer holiday schedule

Of course your family’s schedule will look different from ours. You may not have childcare. You may have exotic holidays. Maybe yours involves a lot more time at the beach, the swimming pool, or the ice cream shop. (We can but hope, hey?) But scheduling your holiday in advance takes a huge amount of stress out of the whole business. It gives children a sense of certainty about what to expect, and it helps parents not to flounder in the face of weeks of nothingness.

To make your own, I’ve produced a blank template. You’re welcome to download and edit it to suit your family’s needs. Some people do a text-only one like mine, others like to add clipart or their own drawings. Whatever works for you.

blank-summer-holiday-schedule

Download yours here:  HLM Blank summer holiday schedule 2017 (MS Word)

More tips

If your children struggle with the back-to-school transition, you might like to try a couple of things we do. First, schedule a school visit to the new classroom for the end of the holidays, to go and say hello and refamiliarise them with where everything is. We arrange this with the headteacher in July (so it’s not yet on our schedule above). Second, plan something fun for the first weekend of term, and include that too, so that it doesn’t look like the fun stops when school starts up again.

I’d love to hear how you get on with this summer schedule – or summer holiday planning in general! Leave me a comment or let’s talk on social media.


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Headspin: an update

How do other adoptive parents juggle all the stuff that we are expected to cope with? How does anyone cope with all the advocacy and admin and energy required for parenting two or more children with additional needs of any kind? This week I am really feeling the resulting headspin. My brain has way too many tabs open – too much stuff pending. Too many forms, and emails, and meetings, and phone calls.

headspin

As we hurtle towards half term (how did that happen? It was only Easter ten minutes ago), here’s what’s going on with us.

SEBD school visit

As I’ve mentioned previously, Joanna’s needs are not being met in her mainstream primary school, and she needs an alternative placement. Following the EHCP review, we visited our first SEBD school. I asked most of my questions. The school was good – lots of evidence of good strategies in place for helping the children with self-regulation, lots of breakout spaces for children to use to calm down, staff whose job it is to track children around the premises and help them to return to where they are supposed to be, that sort of thing. The OT facilities were particularly impressive. We liked the headteacher. But I had an uneasy feeling, and I haven’t quite put my finger on the reason.

The boarding dilemma

Part of it is about boarding. We’ve said we’d like to consider weekly boarding. I’m still torn about the boarding side of things – we need the respite, it means fewer transitions and long car journeys for Joanna, but she is still only eight years old, and I don’t want her to think of it as a rejection. When the person showing us round the school said ‘And here’s where we teach them to do their own laundry’ I had to take some deep breaths as I thought about what is in effect someone else parenting my child during the week and her learning all those little steps towards independence from someone else. Once we’d left the school I may have had a bit of a cry about that. Trying to put my feelings aside and focus on what is in Joanna’s best interests is a bit harder than I thought. Turns out I feel pretty horrible about asking for respite when it means my little girl living somewhere else. I need to get over not being able to meet all her needs myself, however much I’d like to. That’s hard. I don’t understand my own thoughts and feelings about it all. How can I be jealous of someone else getting to do that stuff with her and for her and yet at the same time be asking for respite because I am finding it so hard myself?

So. We still have at least two more schools to visit, but I haven’t booked them yet. There’s so much processing to do; so much else going on; so much psyching myself up for it all needs to happen.

Risk assessment

A few weeks back, as well as scaling a 7-foot wall and escaping from school, there was an incident where (a) Joanna ran away from home, (b) we tackled her to the ground in the park after 40 minutes of not-quite-chasing her; (c) a couple saw us grab her, heard her scream and assumed we were abducting her; (d) said couple called the police; (e) I pre-emptively emailed  school and PAS; and (e) the police came round to talk (supportively) about it all. PAS subsequently came out to do a risk assessment to help move things along in terms of the support they can offer. The idea is that by illustrating the constant need for us to be risk-assessing all the possible moves the girls might make, the CPV, the risk of various types of self-harm and putting themselves in dangerous situations… they can justify providing us with respite and putting pressure on the SEN team to speed up the school placement business.

Occupational Therapy

Meanwhile the OT has started working with Charlotte. (A full year after the OT assessment was done, but let’s leave that rant for another day.) Today she is in school talking to the teachers about both girls. She’s also doing an observation of Joanna as part of her assessment. Said assessment will form part of the paperwork for the EHCP review, which should support our case to get appropriate help for her. Obviously the funding isn’t yet in place for the OT to work with Joanna as well, but apparently PAS are working on it.

CAMHS

Joanna is still on the waiting list – that’s 8 months since her assessment. Charlotte is on the waiting list to get an appointment to be assessed. Not even a date for the initial consultation yet. Don’t hold your breath.

Alternative psychotherapy

Joanna’s previous therapist (whose funding didn’t get renewed in the LA handover debacle) has recommended that Joanna have EMDR therapy which sounds a bit strange at first but seems to get great results. An ASF application for funding went in two months ago. PAS are supposed to be chasing it and/or funding it themselves. Again, no news.

FASD assessment

We continue to pursue an FASD assessment for Charlotte. The paediatrician has bounced it back to the GP with a permissions form for us to complete. Sounds straightforward, but they expect us to sign to say that we’ll accept the panel’s verdict about what happens next, which could mean Charlotte actually seeing the paediatrician, but could be them sending us on a parenting course. That is one of the options they can prescribe and if we sign the form, we’re saying that’s acceptable, which it isn’t. Obviously. I’m very much up for any course that is FASD-specific, but not as an alternative to actually seeing a medical professional who can make a diagnosis. So we haven’t signed, and the school nurse is having a conversation with the GP about it all. Again, no news for a week or so. I’m expecting a call any day.

The book

After a ridiculously long hiatus which we’ll put down to ‘dealing with life’, I’m resuming work on my self-care book. (Hurrah.) This week I’ve completed a first draft of the first chapter and have sent it to some agents I’m meeting next month. (If I say that quickly it doesn’t sound as scary.) More details will follow, and there will almost certainly be more requests for people to be case studies for various aspects of self-care in the weeks/months to come. Watch this space.

Self-care

I between all this, I have my now annual self-care week – a solo trip to soak up some restorative mountain views, sleep, practise my excruciatingly poor German language skills, shut down a few of those headspin-inducing tabs for a whole, and generally be Hannah, not just mum. That’s coming up in a couple of weeks, or to be precise (not that I’m counting…)

I. Cannot. Wait.

Peace! Sachertorte! Mountains! Strudel! Maybe the occasional yodel… I am so thankful for the airmiles that Pete clocks up with work.

So in the next 24 hours I’ll be sticking my Teach Yourself German cassettes on again (‘Ist der Garten schön? Ja, der Garten ist schön…’) and battening down the hatches for half term. I hope yours is a (relatively) peaceful one.

PS I’m sorry if you’re sick of seeing this on Twitter. But I’d be so grateful if you could spare a minute to vote for me in the #BiBs awards if you like what I have to say about the importance of self-care for adoptive parents. Thanks.


BEFORE YOU GO…

  • If you found this post helpful or interesting, please vote for it. Thanks! 🙂
  • You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. I love to talk to fellow adopters.
  • You can also sign up here to receive my monthly newsletter. It contains my recent blog posts, my favourite adoption-related blog posts by others, and relevant resources from around the web.
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10 mental health challenges for adoptive parents

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week. To mark the occasion, and because I believe that the mental health of adoptive parents is both (a) critical to the success of adoptive placements and (b) massively overlooked and under-resourced, here are my 10 mental health challenges for adoptive parents.

Keep reading below for my five possible solutions, and my rallying call for a new campaign.

10 Mental Health Challenges For Adoptive Parents

10 mental health challenges

These are just some of the things I  – and many others – deal with on a daily/weekly basis. Any one of these is difficult. Taken in combination they are a threat to good mental health.

  1. The fight to be respected as an authority on what is best for my children, not dismissed as ‘just Mum’ because my professional qualifications are in a different area.

  2. The fight to get them the support they need. The constant stream of forms, appointments, phone calls, waiting lists, and rejected applications.

  3. Frequently explaining to professionals and passers-by that actually, it isn’t our parenting that’s the problem.

  4. Battling to stay regulated while the children scream in my face, throw things at me, and try to hurt me, because I gave them their lunch, or asked them to put their shoes on, or said it was bedtime. (Read more about child-on-parent violence in adoptive families.)

  5. Helping them to become regulated again after a meltdown when I want to curl up under the duvet on my own and release some of the stress with a good cry.

  6. Trying not to dwell on the hurtful things they said while they were angry, and convincing myself they didn’t mean them.

  7. Living in fear of confrontations with other parents because of my child’s behaviour towards theirs.

  8. Making time for self-care, only to have it interrupted by a call from school because they can’t cope and want me to go and calm my child or collect her.

  9. Trying to ensure the children hear consistent messages about their worth and behaviour at school and at home; that they’re not thought of as ‘naughty’.

  10. Being the administrator and communications hub for every aspect of my children’s care. The meetings. The emails. The phone calls, the form-filling. The trying to get all the different parties – PAS, GP, CAMHS, OT, EP, psychotherapist, school – to speak to each other and just copy me in on emails. Trying to manage them all is a full-time job in itself. On top of my actual job. And therapeutic parenting. Oh, and self-care. And having a marriage that benefits from time spent together outside of childcare and meetings and paperwork.

Aaaarrrggggghhhh.

So what’s the solution? If only there was a neat answer. I have a few suggestions though.

5 possible solutions

  1. Prioritise self-care. MummyWriter wrote an excellent post on this recently, and you can use my free self-care resources to get started. Until things change on a wider scale, we have to manage this for ourselves. I’m sorry, it’s rubbish that it’s like this, but it is. Look after yourself. Start here.

  2. Connect with the adoption community. Reach out to other in the same situation. Twitter is especially excellent for this, but I also go to Adoption UK’s local meetings and other informal gatherings of adopters. I recommend going to adoption conferences and training courses whenever you possibly can, not just for the content, but to meet other adoptive parents and to experience being among people who understand. I don’t know how people manage without the support of other adopters. This is such a massive source of sanity for me.

  3. Don’t sweat the small stuff. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, pick your battles, both in terms of the children’s behaviour and the stuff you fight for with school and support services. Sometimes (most of the time?) you can be fighting battles on multiple fronts simultaneously. Of course you’re exhausted. You need support. Get the people who are supportive to fight some of them for you. Put some of the others on hold until next week. And then go and have a sleep.

  4. Don’t vote Conservative. I’m sorry to get political here but the cuts to social care imposed by Conservative governments have played a huge part in getting us into the current mess, where tiny budgets and understaffing restrict the help received by vulnerable people. THIS IS HORRIBLE. Vote for those who will fund social care, mental health, and the NHS in general. We need those things.

  5. Ask the powers that be for a proper national campaign, like the ‘Maternal Mental Health Matters’ one that ran last week. Not just the constant recruitment ads for new adopters. Adoption agencies need to care for the adoptive parents who are already living this, in at the deep end, because without us the whole business falls apart. The adoption charities need to work together on this. The voluntary agencies are probably a bit better at this than the LAs. Let’s share good practice and be open about what’s needed.

So let’s start working towards the launch of an Adoptive Parents’ Mental Health Week. Heck, I’m claiming the #APMHW hashtag now.

Join in! Tweet a few LAs and VAs and ask them to think about it. Something like this, perhaps:

Let’s make this happen. Because we’ve earned it. 


BEFORE YOU GO…

  • If you found this post helpful or interesting, please vote for it. Thanks! 🙂
  • You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. I love to talk to fellow adopters.
  • You can also sign up here to receive my monthly newsletter. It contains my recent blog posts, my favourite adoption-related blog posts by others, and relevant resources from around the web.
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30 questions to ask SEBD schools

Having started the fight to get Joanna into a specialist school in the last couple of weeks, we’re keen to keep up the momentum and arm ourselves with plenty of first-hand knowledge from Actual Visits so we can make the best possible case to the SEN panel. And here is where it begins: my 30 questions to ask SEBD schools.

They want paperwork, they’re going to get paperwork. I’m going to write a masterpiece comparing and contrasting the various options. Bring it on.

30 Questions To Ask SEBD Schools

To recap: we’re looking for a specialist SEBD (social, emotional and behavioural difficulties) school for our eight-year-old daughter, Joanna. Her current mainstream primary school can’t meet her needs or cope with her dysregulation and violence. We are struggling at home  with both girls’ CPV and fighting each other. (Read more about our CPV experience here.) There have also been a couple of running away incidents lately – one from school and one from home. Arrrgh.

We’ve just had an EHCP review (brought forward after a rash of exclusions for violence last term) and although we had a good argument for a particular school based on a lot of Googling and scouring of websites, we agreed that we also need to visit the three schools under discussion in order to make an even more informed choice.

30 questions to ask SEBD schools

We’re going to see the first school (our current first choice) this week. I’ve been thinking up questions. Here’s my list so far.

The home–school relationship

1) How do you keep in touch with parents?

2) How frequent are communications – not just about academic progress, but behavioural and general comments in what’s going on for her?

3) What does the partnership with parents look like in terms of consistent strategies around behaviour to make sure Joanna receives the same messages at home and school?

Academic issues

4) How does the transition from mainstream work? What would that look like for Joanna?

5) What would the year 4 timetable look like for Joanna?

6) How do you measure academic progress?

Therapy and behavioural issues

7) What therapies are available on site?

8) Are class teachers/TAs trained in issues relating to early trauma?

9) What proportion of the pupils come from a similar background?

10) Would she miss lessons for therapy? How does that work?

11) Is therapy delivered 1:1 or in groups?

12) Joanna has been working happily in class for 90 minutes and is then given a maths question that she can’t immediately work out. Her self-esteem is threatened and she suddenly becomes angry, shouting, throwing a chair at someone and running out of the room. In your school, what happens next?

13) Do you have much sensory OT work incorporated into the classroom?

14) What are your expectations of her? What happens if she fails to met your expectations?

15) What measures do you have in place to stop her running away?

Boarding

16) What is in place for keeping in touch with Joanna during the week? Can she call us?

17) What routines are in place in the mornings and evenings?

18) Who would be looking after Joanna in the mornings and evenings? Can we meet them?

19) What happens if she’s ill?

20) Can we see what the rooms are like?

Social skills

21) What help is available to Joanna for developing social skills, building friendships, etc?

22) What are the male/female ratios in her year group? In the school overall?

23) Are there any extra-curricular activities available (eg football, chess, drama)?

24) Joanna really struggles with transitions. What do you have in place to help with different types of transitions (on a daily basis, between school years, and from primary to secondary)?

25) What behavioural issues is she likely to learn from other pupils? What are the main issues they face?

Securing a place

26) If we really want Joanna to come here, what are the arguments you’d recommend us putting to the LA in the EHCP review paperwork?

27) What’s your relationship like with the LA’s SEND team?

28) Do you have any other advice for navigating the system?

29) How competitive is your admissions process?

30) What do you think is the school’s best selling point?

More questions

These 30 questions are just a starting point. I’d love to hear other people’s, especially if you’ve navigated this process already or are doing it at the moment. Is there anything you think I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments or on social media (see below).


BEFORE YOU GO…

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Review | The PCOS diet plan

PCOS is really common, especially in the adoption community, and can cause weight gain amongst other symptoms. Enter specialist eating plans to help lose the weight and improve the other symptoms. If you like your meals to be heavy on the science and intense on the planning front, The PCOS Diet Plan could be just the book for you.

Review PCOS Diet Plan

My PCOS experience

I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) at the age of 17. The person doing electrolysis on my rampant facial hair (picture Evan Baxter’s ‘It just keeps growing back’ scenes, if you will) suggested it would be a good idea to investigate the possibility with my GP. After numerous blood tests and ultrasounds and being prodded about Down There by student doctors (mortifying), the diagnosis was confirmed, I was handed a prescription for Dianette, and off I went.

It wasn’t until later that I read more about PCOS and the association with weight gain. I was a bit overweight as a teenager and as an adult have managed to lose large amounts of weight with Weight Watchers a couple of times, but it is a battle and on top of the trials and tribulations of adoptive parenting (read: I eat when stressed) I have not yet been able to conquer it again since the girls arrived.

PCOS and adoption

I know that many people come to adoption having had issues with fertility and that PCOS is a common problem. I ran a poll on Twitter:

The result: more than a third of my Twitter followers who took part in the poll have a PCOS diagnosis. This is higher than the average in the overall population (estimated at 10%), and especially when I didn’t ask only women to participate in the poll! It wasn’t conducted in an especially scientific manner. But it is broadly in line with what I expected, ie that there is a higher-than-average prevalence of PCOS among adopters. With that in mind, I tried out this book to see if it’s worth a go.

The Book: First impressions

If you’re either (a) really into nutrition or endocrinology, or (b) love to do a lot of detailed homework before starting something new, it’s more likely you’ll enjoy the first section of the book. I found it like wading through treacle, which, given the emphasis on avoiding refined carbs, is probably not the effect the author was going for. The first half of the book is not dissimilar to an academic paper, with lots of citations of various studies and long latinate science vocabulary that explained the why and took a long time to get to the ‘what to do’ element. I’m fine with a couple of chapters of it, but spent at least an hour’s reading wishing the author would cut to the chase and give me some sample menus so I could see what I was dealing with.

The PCOS Diet Plan: what’s it about?

The short version is that women with PCOS should aim for a plate of food that is 50% non-starchy vegetables, 25% protein (eg chicken or fish), and 25% wholegrain carbs, with yogurt of milk as a snack between meals. The long version (and it is a lot longer) involves ‘carb budgets’ and using one of the diet/nutrition apps (I used MyFitnessPal) to work out how many calories you should be on for your height and weight and then dividing those up between carbs and proteins. I’m used to having all these details figured out for me by Weight Watchers and just dealing in points, so it made my head spin a bit.

If, like me, you’re a frazzled adoptive mum looking for simple steps to lose a few pounds, you might want to pass on The PCOS Diet Plan.

I wanted to love it.

I tried it out for three days.

It was just too complicated.

I ate fewer carbohydrates, was alarmed at how much sugar there is in a mango, and had to faff about entering nutritional values into the app. Yes, I lost a few pounds. But I couldn’t sustain all the faffing on top of an already bonkers lifestyle (y’know, the CPV and whatnot). For people with more time and inclination, I’d say go for it, but it’s not for me.

The details
Professional Reader

The PCOS Diet Plan
Hillary Wright
Ten Speed Press
£14.18 (Kindle £14.99)
Published 2 May 2017

Disclaimer: I received this book free via NetGalley in return for my honest review.


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Review | The Special Parent’s Handbook

This book covers it all. From food issues to advocating for your child, via handling meltdowns and battling with paperwork, The Special Parent’s Handbook addresses everything with the humour and practical advice that comes from hard-won first-hand experience. Whether your child’s issues are physical, mental, or emotional/behavioural, there is something here for you.

Professionals should read this too. There is so much here about the impact of being relegated to a mere ‘service user’ on actual human beings. The Powers That Be could learn a lot from The Special Parent’s Handbook about how our mutual interactions can be improved by listening – really listening – to young people and their parents.

Review: Special Parent's Handbook

About the (amazing) author

I first became aware of Yvonne in March this year. She was tweeting about an event she was organising for parents of children with violent, challenging behaviour, or VCB. As I fall into that category twice over, I signed up straight away, and on Saturday 1 April joined 80 other parents in London for the conference.

At the conference, a well as hearing from a number of experts in the NHS and legal fields (find them all on this Twitter list) about their perspective on children with additional needs and helping them to access services, Yvonne spoke about her experience with her son Toby. As is usually the case, the people who live this are the ones who are most helpful. Yvonne talked about how she helps Toby to regulate by reducing instructions to short phrases, often sung to him to remove any stress from her own voice which could cause his behaviour to escalate.

It completely blows my mind that Yvonne wrote this book in four weeks flat having received a terminal cancer diagnosis. Yvonne – I know you’ll read this – you are such an inspiration and I have no idea where you find all your energy. Thank you. What you have achieved in this book and continue to achieve through all your campaigning and bringing people together is amazing, and I know there are hundreds of us who appreciate it all. (Do please remember to put your feet up occasionally!)

So. Why is the book so good?

About The Special Parent’s Handbook

The Special Parent’s Handbook is gold. In my Amazon review I summarised it like this:

This book is great. Yvonne has such a depth of experience and the wisdom that comes from having learned a lot of things the hard way. Her family’s story is told with humour, grace, and insight and in a way that makes it all very relatable. Her advice on accessing services you didn’t know existed and on battling for the help your family needs is invaluable. I related to so much of the content. It should be required reading for all the professionals we encounter as well as for SEND parents and their friends and families.

What it covers

Toby has a combination of disabilities: learning difficulties, autism, and a physical disability which means that he needs to be tube-fed. You might wonder, then, how his mum’s unique experiences with him translate into more broadly applicable advice for other parents. Yvonne has managed this well, by separating the advice into chapters by topic while also weaving in her family’s own story. To give a flavour of the wide-ranging advice, here are a few of the chapter titles:

  • The Advancing Army of Professionals
  • Building your Support Network
  • Siblings
  • Becoming the Expert
  • Being in Hospital
  • Hospital Appointments
  • CAMHS
  • Education
  • Social Services
  • Food Issues
  • Meltdowns

My children Joanna and Charlotte have no physical disabilities, so although I read it cover to cover, I particularly honed in on the chapters to do with support, both formal and informal, and on the behavioural stuff (meltdowns, siblings, and food issues). It addresses these incredibly well. The writing style is conversational and very accessible, making it ideal reading for exhausted parents with little residual brainpower at the end of a difficult day!

Real-life advice

Though Yvonne’s children are not adopted, there is a huge amount of overlap in the types of services she has needed to access, and the battle to be heard and respected as a parent is the same across education, health, and social care. I thought Yvonne’s advice on this aspect of parenting was one of the highlights. It includes tips such as putting a framed photo of your child on the table in important meetings, to remind the professionals that this is about the child, not their budgets and policies. My Kindle highlight facility went into overdrive on this book because it contains so much real-life helpful advice. You know what I mean. Actual practical stuff that helps. This is the book’s focus. She nails it.

Summary

Review | The Special Parent's HandbookI recommend this book wholeheartedly. Whatever additional needs your child has, the guidance on advocating for them, on surviving as a special needs parent, and on doing it all with your sanity and sense of humour intact are all here. Adoptive parents may even rejoice that there is no specific mention of post-adoption support, though social services in general are comprehensively addressed.

Once you’ve read the book, I can also recommend connecting with Yvonne online. You can find her on Twitter (@YvonneNewbold), through her website (yvonnenewbold.com), and through her various Facebook pages: The SEND Parent’s Handbook and Breaking the Silence on VCB.

THE DETAILS

The Special Parent’s Handbook
Yvonne Newbold
Amity House
£12.33 (Kindle £7.36)


BEFORE YOU GO…

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Home for Good, let’s talk long-term support for families

Home for Good, the Christian charity that encourages the church to get involved in adoption and fostering, has released a new, three-minute campaign video. It’s basically pretty good, but like many pro-adoption campaigns, it lacks a bit in addressing the longer term. And I think that’s a bit ironic, given the ‘for Good’ part of the organisation’s name.

Here it is.

What follows is a longer version of my comment on their Facebook post.

I love Home for Good

I’m a vocal campaigner for Home for Good. I’ve run an event with them at our previous church as an ‘adoption champion’. I love their message of inclusion and care for the vulnerable. But my lived experience and the rhetoric fail to match up. I love and support Home for Good (the sort of support that involves talking, doing stuff, and parting with cash), and I’m thankful that this video addresses this issue of the wider church family getting involved. But let’s widen the discussion. Let’s go beyond the welcome and think long-term support.

Home For Good Let's Talk Long-Term Support

I think it’s wonderful that the Kandiahs’ church has supported them and that there are other churches that do likewise. For every family having this great experience, my conversations with other Christian adopters suggest that there is at least one other family really struggling with church. I’ve shared our experience, and others left theirs in the comments of that post. This weekend Starfish and Me shared hers. The conversation continues often on Twitter (click through to see the replies to the tweet below). It is a widespread problem.

It is right to give raise awareness of the needs of vulnerable children and to advocate for them. But it is equally important to give attention and help to those who step up to care for them. It is only in supporting adoptive parents and foster carers that their caring is sustainable long-term.

Not just welcoming

It’s not just about welcoming children.

It’s about supporting the whole family for the duration of the placement(s), not just a lasagne when a child moves in.

It’s about being there for the school exclusions.

The child-on-parent violence.

The battles to get professional help for our children and young people.

The exhaustion.

The relentlessness.

I speak as a burnt-out adoptive mum of two, in contact with lots of other adopters in a similar situation. Church can be the hardest part of the week. I am an adoption champion and would love to continue to encourage others to adopt and foster, but the reality is that is incredibly hard, and often very lonely.

Adoption And Fostering Guide For ChurchesThe leaflet Home for Good have produced for churches is a great start. I recommend it wholeheartedly. But it needs to be read by the whole church. Not just by the children’s workers, the leadership team, or the pastoral care people.

But by the people who tut at the child who can’t sit still and at the parents who do things a bit differently.

The people who serve the coffee and don’t understand why the adopted child takes six biscuits.

The people who think they are great at support because they showed an interest at the start, but haven’t spoken to the family since.

And then we need to see some action. Not sure what to offer? Try starting with my 10 ways to help an adoptive family. But also ask, because we’re all individuals and I don’t claim to speak for everyone.

Let’s Talk

Please, let’s keep having this conversation – in the comments below, on social media, and in our offline discussions too. It’s not just about homes for children. Let’s support the carers too, and do it for the long haul. Or in other words, for good.


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Eye contact in adopted children: attachment, FASD, or autism?

Charlotte (age 7) is struggling with eye contact. And therefore so are we. Is it an attachment issue, FASD, or even autism? How concerned should I be? And should I be starting the fight for yet another assessment? Where do I start to find out? What information is there about eye contact in adopted children? Here’s what I found out.

Eye Contact In Adopted Children: Attachment, FASD Or Autism


Not today, thank you

It’s hard to know what Charlotte wants at any given time, as she changes her mind a lot. Sometimes she demands that we look at her, other times she screams at us not to look at her. Sometimes she wants to look at us, other times she refuses to. On extreme days, our children even scream at us for looking in the car’s rear-view mirror while driving. Not because we are looking at them, just because we’re using it to drive safely! Argh.

Possible diagnoses

I’d like to find out what this problem is about so that I can respond appropriately. Is it primarily an attachment issue? Is it part of FASD? Could it even be a sign of autism? Without a diagnosis it’s hard to know where to start. Is the advice for dealing with eye contact within each of these diagnoses the same or different? I did a bit of research to find out.

(Disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional. What follows is based only on my own experience as a parent and a bit of Googling.)

Eye contact in attachment disorders

John Bowlby (Mr Attachment Theory himself) lists eye contact as one of the critical factors in healthy attachment. His view is summarised by Psychology Today:

‘If the caregiver is responsive to the child’s signals and interacts with sensitivity, a secure attachment will be formed, reinforcing the child’s own positive emotional states and teaching him or her to modulate negative states. Deprived of the mother’s gaze, the area of the brain that coordinates social communication, empathic attunement, emotional regulation, and stimulus appraisal (the establishment of value and meaning) will be faulty. Such children are likely to develop “insecure attachment” along with all sorts of subsequent losses in self-esteem and feelings of belonging.’

So for Charlotte, whose birth mum wasn’t able to provide this for her, attachment looks like a possible contender. She probably didn’t have consistent doses of eye contact in her first few months of life. As a consequence, it may just be too threatening for her now.

Side note: though we were taught as prospective adopters that attachment theory is basically gospel truth, I am increasingly hearing of respected professionals calling it into question. I’m hoping to cover that in a future post.

Eye contact in FASD

It was harder than I expected to find good information about eye contact in FASD. One helpful resource is produced by psychology students at McMasters University in Hamilton, Ontario. They have a blog, ‘Live and Learn with FASD‘. There’s also an associated YouTube channel on which they have a series of videos for young people with FASD to help them improve their eye contact. They say:

‘It has been shown that some children with FASD experience problems with maintaining eye contact, and will typically look elsewhere on someone’s face when they speak. Their amygdalas, which play a role in processing emotions in the brain, tend to be less dense than in children without FASD. … While individuals [with FASD] tend to look at the centre of a picture of a face that is not moving, when a person’s face who is talking appears they tend to look at the mouth instead. This is because when the mouth is not moving, the eyes are more of a stimulus than the mouth in general, but when the mouth is moving, the mouth is a more important stimulus for the proposed pathway along which the information is processed’.

Eye contact in autism

Eye contact is well-known as a symptom of autism. An article from the charity Autism Speaks, ‘Why is it so hard for someone with autism to make eye contact?’ explains:

‘The act of making eye contact is extremely stressful for some people affected by autism. There are many books and articles written by adults with autism who describe the terrible stress they felt when well-meaning parents and teachers tried to force them to make eye contact during conversations. In many cases, they describe being further distracted and unable to focus on the conversation because of this insistence.’

This does sort of sound like Charlotte at the times she screams ‘STOP LOOKING AT ME!’ She has a few other behaviours that I’ve seen described as autistic traits, too. She loves pretending to be a dog, she likes lining things up, and she has sensory issues, especially around food, which can lead to massive meltdowns. Tomato on her plate? Salad leaves? She’ll scream, push the plate away, and either hide under the table or leave the room, slamming the door behind her and shouting. However, there is also a lot of overlap between FASD and autism, which leads to the question…

Which is it?

This helpful printable chart summarising the overlapping behavioural characteristics in FASD and other diagnoses indicated that FASD and autism are both possibilities. (I took this to our GP and it was a really useful tool to discuss it.) As Charlotte’s behaviour ticks all the boxes for FASD, I think it highly likely that she has it. Autism, though? Though I occasionally wonder about it when she exhibits certain behaviours, I don’t think so. This chart from MOFAS (below) is helpful in explaining the differences.

Differences Between Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders and Autism

Source: Dan Dubovsky MSW SAMHSA, FASD Center for Excellence

FASD Autism
Occurs as often in males as in females Occurs in males 4 times as often as in females
Able to relate to others Difficult or impossible to relate to others in a meaningful way
Restricted patterns are not commonly seen Restricted patterns of behavior, interests, and activities as a core area
Verbal communication may be slow to develop but is not commonly significantly impaired Difficulty in verbal and non-verbal communication
Difficulties begin at birth Difficulties may begin after a period of normal growth
Difficulty in verbal receptive language; expressive language is more intact as the person ages Difficulty in both expressive and receptive language
Spoken language is typical Some do not develop spoken language
Spontaneously talkative Robotic, formal speech
Echolalia not common Echolalia-repeating words or phrases
Stereotyped movements not seen Stereotyped movements
Ritualistic behaviors not commonly seen Ritualistic behaviors
Repetitive body movements not seen; may have fine and gross motor coordination and/or balance problems Repetitive body movements e.g., hand flapping, and/or abnormal posture e.g., toe walking
Social and outgoing Remaining aloof; preferring to be alone
Difficulty with change and transitions Inflexibility related to routines and rituals
Can share enjoyment and laughter Lack of spontaneous sharing of enjoyment
Can express a range of emotion Restricted in emotional expression
Funny; good sense of humor Difficulty expressing humor
Microcephaly more common Macrocephaly more common
Considered a medical disorder in the ICD.  Not in the DSM-IV Considered a mental disorder in the DSM-IV

I’ve added colour to indicate where Charlotte’s behaviours fall definitively on one side – and that is mainly on the FASD side. She does have some language issues, such as becoming non-verbal at times of stress, using a made-up language and babble, and often preferring to communicate through grunts. (Some might say that sounds like a typical teenager.) But in other areas her social skills are generally OK. Yes, her level of empathy is a bit lower than I’d like. But she certainly prefers to play with others rather than alone, and she is very, very talkative. She also has a fully-functioning GSOH. Hmmm.

Conclusion

Problems with eye contact in adopted children are not desperately unusual. People have discussed the topic in a couple of threads on the Adoption UK forums, for example. It could ‘just’ be a consequence of early neglect. I’m aware that neglect in the first 18 months of a child’s life has a massive impact. (This was the age at which Charlotte was taken into care.) But my gut feeling is that it’s more than that. This is partly because I have Charlotte’s sister Joanna to compare her to.

Joanna was in the same birth family for even longer (nearly 3 years). Eye contact is occasionally an issue for her, but not to the same extent, and with Joanna it is almost always shame-related. Charlotte’s seems to be fuelled by something else: I get the sense it comes from overwhelm of some kind.

Meanwhile, we’re pressing on with trying to obtain an FASD diagnosis, and I’ll ask these questions when I’m finally face-to-face with someone who knows about this stuff. And as I find out more, I’ll update this post. If you have other sources of information on this topic, please leave them in the comments.

Further reading

I recommend these two books about FASD, both of which contain very practical advice and strategies, including a bit about eye contact.

You might also like to visit:


Have you experienced eye contact issues in your child? What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments.


Before you go…

  • If you found this post helpful or interesting, please vote for it. Thanks! 🙂
  • You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. I love to talk to fellow adopters.
  • You can also sign up here to receive my newsletter, containing my recent blog posts, my favourite adoption-related blog posts by others, and relevant resources from around the web.
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