There are many misconceptions around adoption and possibly the biggest is that it’s a happy event and the children will be automatically settle & bond with their new parent(s). Actually adopters have to work really hard to create a strong and stable attachment with these traumatised children. Home Education, I feel, is one of the biggest contributions adoptive parents can make to their child’s recovery and future happiness. Home educating an adopted child is possible and in fact beneficial to many.
You may think that your adopted child has been spared trauma by being removed early. However, even children who were in foster care from birth will have a non verbal memory of the separation and may have not had a healthy gestation. In our case, our children experienced a large amount of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, amphetamines, arguing, fighting and poor diet whilst still in the womb. In the USA all adopted children are automatically considered to have special educational needs, despite the fact that they have far more relinquished babies with healthy maternal habits during pregnancy.
Here in the UK, schools’ understanding of the effects of early trauma on children is sparse, possibly because it’s a particularly difficult area to train teachers on as each child has suffered uniquely and what is good for one is not for another. Many parents find themselves having to educate their teacher and some simply don’t get it.
Attachment and Nurture
Parents or carers affect the physical growth of their infants’ brains by nurture. All the gentle rocking, soothing when distressed, cooing in response to baby gurgles, eye contact & touch enables the child to feel safe, relax and develop healthy neurons & pathways all over the brain. This allows the growing baby to learn such things as cause & effect (if I cry, someone comes), self regulation (if I’m upset, mama sooths me, so I know this upset will end, it doesn’t terrify me & I learn to calm myself over time).
Chances are, adoptees won’t have had this, so their brain chemistry may actually be different. They may have had high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, active in their body & brain. As this flows through the brain it forms pathways and stimulates the part of the brain (the R complex) that is our ‘flight, flight or freeze’ centre- it regulates heart beat, breathing & adrenalin release and when over stimulated keeps children in this ‘emergency’ mode. Adoptees may have been in this mode for years. When it is activated, it blocks electronic impulses to the other parts of the brain- reasoning, logic, empathy, learning- so while it is active, children aren’t able to learn or progress emotionally.
With recent developments in brain scanning technology, it has been possible to see the effects of early developmental trauma on a child’s brain- in the neglected child parts of the brain have failed to thrive while the R complex, which is the stress response centre, has worked overtime and, as with muscle growth-, has become larger & more dominant.
This part of the brain, in children for whom it has been very active, is very sensitive and will fire up over what appears to be very small things- fear (causing over-reaction & inability to calm self or be calmed), criticism, negativity, threats, intimidation & anger (more of these later!) At home, you can keep your child close, more regulated and provide plenty of nurturing and attachment opportunities to support healthy re-development. You’ll be able to give your child the time and space to regress and fill in the gaps they may have missed out on.
Children may have developed coping mechanisms to be able to get by. This may be that they present in a particular way to get attention- this won’t be what we’d call ‘normal’ attention seeking behaviour, this is behaviour evolved to get enough attention to get food, get a hurt seen to, get a nappy changed or even so that they are ‘not seen’ by a threatening adult. They will probably have come from a chaotic household, with lots of people coming & going at all times of day & night. Children who never know what to expect and have no routine are often constantly wary or hyper-vigilant. This is exhausting for them (possibly resulting in hyperactive behaviour) and damaging to healthy development.
It may be that adoptees have learned that if you’re friendly to strangers, they’ll get you something to eat, they’ll give you a few minutes playtime and make you laugh. It may be that they’ve learned to get things for themselves, to be secretive, hoard & hide food, not accept adult help or closeness (keep the source of possible danger at a distance), look after younger siblings. In order for them to ‘unlearn’ those behaviours, they’ll need to spend a lot of time at home, initially without visitors or being overly-stimulated. This is standard advice from adoption agencies and the process is called funnelling – starting off with no one but the parent(s) and slowly extending it a bit at a time- and is key in getting children to ‘attach’ to you.
Adoptees need to be able to get used to their new lives slowly and really get to trust their new environment- to know that we are safe, that we’ll provide for their every need, that we’re reliable and they are ok to relinquish control. This is crucial for their development as children from traumatic backgrounds often develop attachment disorders- this may present as ADHD behaviour, as inability to recognise cause & effect or distinguish positive from negative attention. So it is important that adopers are still the ones who give them food & drinks, sooth them if they fall, do all the main care giving stuff so they learn not to be indiscriminately affectionate with people they don’t know.
They may revert to old charming behaviours at school, but at home you can expand the funnel slowly person by person when you see signs that they’ve internalised the appropriate attachments in their own way. They’ll need to feel their environment is predictable, safe and loving, and that parents can provide that for them- this way the other parts of the brain can ‘wake up’ and the children can start repairing & learning.
The good news is that when brain scans are done after children have had significant input (therapy, therapeutic parenting, exercise, healthy diet & quality sleep), their brains have responded and positive growth can be seen. Plenty of outdoors time supports this- oxygen is vital for brain repair and by teaching your child at home, you can take classes in the garden or down the beach as often as you like! Whether the trauma will ever completely ‘go away’ is unlikely, but we can almost certainly improve the lives & their possibilities.
Adoptees need to be taught behaviour in a different way to how un-traumatised children learn not to do things. This is known as ‘therapeutic re-parenting’ and the theory is not to stimulate cortisol production so the pathways etched in by the stress hormone can decline and new, healthy pathways into the thinking & feeling parts of the brain can grow. For a school to fully take this on board is unrealistic and it is impossible to stop children saying negative things to each other.
Adoptees need to be kindly shown a more appropriate way to behave without getting their heart beating, their breathing up & cortisol pumping- because they have learned in the past that trouble often starts like this over something small, they may instinctively ‘know’ that things are going to escalate & they won’t be able to calm themselves, they may become defensive, aggressive or withdrawn & overly compliant. Perhaps all that was wanted was for them to share a toy in the playground, but because the request was made with a negative ‘No, don’t snatch Daphne, share nicely’ it set off a criticism reaction and her behaviour became excessive. It’s better we say ‘Oh, Daphne, we do it like this here darling’ and give her a gentle hair rub or hug so the message goes into the right part of the brain- the limbic system which is the part of the brain responsible for emotions, compassion, caring, appreciation etc & not the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ part. At home, you can do this.
School incentives and punishments, such as sticker charts & ‘time out’ also are ineffective for many adoptees whereas at home you can reward and praise, you can ‘time in’ and help your child become calm.
Emotional & Behavioural
Many if not all adoptees will have ‘EBD’ emotional and behavioural difficulties. They may be overly compliant which would get overlooked in school, they may hoard food or have other anxiety behaviours that would be penalised in school. At home you can support them through this.
For example, as children may have to ‘unlearn’ behaviours that served them well in their old life but are not necessary or even appropriate in their new one- so some of your choices may look odd, but there is probably a very good reason for them! For example, children who have been fed a poor diet and not encouraged to run about may be over-weight, there may also be some levels of aggression (in this example) so as a parent you may chose to continue with foods that they enjoy while they settle in and build a bond and prioritise working on the aggression over removing comfort food straight away. This may not be supported in schools who have strict healthy eating policies.
Privacy & Safeguarding
There are many aspects to the particular needs for adoptees, one of them being privacy of their history. While social media is rampant and schools try to protect pupils online it is all too easy for any of hundreds of peers to upload and tag photos, giving a possibly dangerous birth parent information. It also may be difficult for children who don’t like sharing their history, many schools have family trees on the curriculum which may bring up uncomfortable issues when your child is not ready for them, many do ‘bring a photo of yourself as a baby’ day and adoptees often do not have these pictures. At home, you can do the ‘Life Story’ books, (which are scrap book type things and will contain photos, have important dates, people & events in there so the child grows with an understanding of their past and why they can’t live with their birth family) at a time that is comfortable for your family and meets your childs needs without it being thrust on you by school.
There may also come a time when adoptees ask significant & trusted adults in their life uncomfortable questions- did you adopt your little boy? Why? Do you know my other mummy? Why? Why don’t I live in my old house now? It’s impossible to predict but at home, you or your friends and family will be the ones fielding these questions. You’ll be able to help them know how to answer whereas in school they may be given awkward and inaccurate answers from people you don’t even know.
There is also the issue of Safeguarding in school. Adoptees often confuse memories, or just get a glimpse of one. For example during a sex education class they may suddenly become aware that they know this and feel fear, they may get a flashback. At home you’ll be on hand to support this and get support from your Post Adoption Social Worker quickly.
Their story is personal and may be uncomfortable for them, in school they may have pressure to explain why they’ve started in their new class, they may feel internal pressure when the topic of families comes up, they may not want to disclose but feel the omission to be dishonest, whatever the reason, at home your children have the opportunity to socialise in peer groups (Brownies, sports classes, Home Ed groups etc) where either the issue isn’t pressing or you’ll be there to support.
It is also important to remember, that while you may chose to educate your children at home initially, this doesn’t exclude them from attending school at a later stage.
For further adopters’ experiences of education, READ
There is a government consultation about proposed new EHE (England) guidance. We will be producing a guide ASAP to help you respond, so no need to rush in.
For now, have a read, BUT DO NOT PANIC ABOUT THE PROPOSED CHANGES: