School can be one of the most challenging areas of life for an adopted or looked-after traumatised child. It pokes at all the things that these children find the hardest of all; listening, focusing, concentrating, peer relationships, being judged, tested, cognitive skills, behaviour systems, change and the list goes on.
One of the big decisions which carers and parents of traumatised children face is which type of school will be the most suitable for my child. I chose our son’s first school based on the fact that it was within easy walking distance and the head seemed nice. It was a small village school. Things did not turn out well. Jamie was often in trouble, did not respond well to the behaviour systems and made some very unwise relationships. His trauma was interpreted as naughtiness and a lack of discipline by some parents. There were complaints. It was a difficult time and not made easier by living and being educated within the same community. We eventually moved him to another small village school some distance away, which I knew to have knowledge and experience of working with traumatised children. It was an overwhelmingly positive experience. He was accepted, his needs were understood and dealt with patiently and with empathy.
Our daughter, who is less traumatised but nevertheless presents with some attachment difficulties thrived as well in this small school, early on. So far, so good. But as I came to learn, a child who is slightly ‘different’ can stand out in a small school particularly one in a mainly middle-class area. She gradually became socially isolated and this was not just the work of other children but parents as well. She would find herself the only girl in the class not invited to her ‘best friend’s’ party, the same friend who would then beg to come to our house to play. She suffered a whispering campaign. She was called ‘weird’. Towards the end of last term she filled in a questionnaire. One of the questions was ‘how often to you wake up and not want to come to school?’. She ticked ‘almost always’. She told me this with tears in her eyes. She is a robust child who doesn’t like to expose her emotions so I knew we had a problem. This was all despite the school handling attachment issues professionally and the staff providing fantastic support. I suggested to her that she think about changing schools. She nearly bit my hand off. Within a couple of days I had visited our local middle school, a large secondary school-like set up which takes children from nine to thirteen and had put her name down.
She has only been at her new school for five days. She went in bravely, not really knowing many children but she come home every day with the biggest smile on her face and yesterday said ‘I’ve had the best day ever’. The school have rung to tell me how pleased they are with her, that she has made some lovely friends and appears happy and enthusiastic. It was the best news. I know there are likely to be bumps in the road but this is a great start. She needed to feel part of a gang, to have a wider choice of friends and to be accepted for her enthusiastic and sometimes eccentric and artistic ways.
I have learnt along the way that school has a large impact upon the lives of our children and upon life at home. It is important to get it right. And if a school doesn’t get attachment and trauma, then you will be forever swimming against the tide. However a small village school, whilst having a safe, family atmosphere can sometimes be too claustrophobic, too tight, not accepting of difference.
So we now have two children, in two completely different school systems. Raising traumatised children is never straightforward least of all when it comes to education.