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Starting Secondary School

26th January 2022 Blog

Nothing prepared me for how big an adjustment secondary school would be for my son. I am the sole parent to a wonderful child I adopted from Ethiopia aged 20 months. My son has a bright, big beautiful smile and just wants to have fun and play. He’s very tall and looks closer to 15 years of age, than the 11 years he actually is. Being outside in the elements is a big part of our daily life. Taking a walk or jog around the block together, finding kids to kick a ball about within the park, a space to play table tennis or shoot hoops helps keep us both grounded.

My son chose to go to a secondary school where he knew no one but liked the energy and the opportunities offered and the fact that so many children looked like him. It was his first choice. Everyone told me to be prepared for the workload, that would be so much more than primary school. What they didn’t tell me, was that my child would regress with the enormity of the change, new rules, and expectations. People told me your child won’t want you to walk them to school or pick them up. They’re going to go off with their friends and you won’t see them again. I was told I wouldn’t have any access to the school or teachers, and I had better choose the school carefully. But it’s actually been quite different, my son wants me to take him to school each day. He doesn’t mind being seen with me on the bus. Possibly it’s also a reaction to the pandemic, but when secondary school started he needed extra hand-holding, a lot of extra love, and assurance that it would be ok.

The anticipation of a new school, having the correct uniform, arriving on time, completing homework and other curriculum tasks has been a constant source of worry. The amount of information that they have to take in is mind-boggling, he now wakes me up in the middle of the night due to a reoccurring bad dream. He wants to do well, but the learning curve is so steep. From wearing the exact uniform and having it in perfect condition. Packing the correct items in his bag for the day. Keeping track of his bus pass and lunch card, library books, and pencil case. When he’s given detention, he gets ‘derailed’ and we both have to work exceedingly hard to get him ‘back on track’ again. The notion of rejection is very real for my son.

My child has had detentions for looking at the ceiling, for answering a question out loud, for looking behind him when someone was kicking his chair. Another detention for not finishing his homework (when the computer had marked it finished) as well as one for being one minute late. This leads to anger, frustration, and sadness. Each day is an emotional rollercoaster and I never know how it will fall. I dread the afternoon text that my child has been given another detention, as the fallout is so bad.

Most of the time he feels the detention is unjust. ‘It was another child who shouted out in the classroom’, who ‘laughed too loud’, ‘pressed the keys of their piano’ when the teacher was talking. The problem is, that my son then doesn’t want to return to school the next day for fear of being put into isolation. (Following detention many of the state schools isolate the children as further punishment.)

Being adopted and spending time in an institution, my son’s past is layered. He spent time in two different orphanages. He missed out on key developmental opportunities due to the disruption of being taken away from his family at a very young age. He suffered malnutrition and poor health as a baby. He feels he’s doing his best at school, but it’s not recognised by the teachers. Sadly the sanctions in state schools are more serious than they ever were before. The schools have many unruly children to deal with in the classroom and have had come down hard on law and order. But for many children, this form of regular detentions extinguishes the flame to learn and participate.

Since September I have emailed and phoned the school, and met with his head of year explaining the emotions of adopted children are not straightforward. Not being recognised for his achievements, only for his mistakes makes him feel bad about himself. Loss of privilege manifests as rejection. He is emotionally behind his peers, emotionally closer to a nine-year-old. My son prefers the company of younger kids to his peer group. He’s a good child, not vindictive or mean. His behaviour doesn’t warrant the sanctions he’s received.

I’ve spent a long time writing emails and calling the school and finally met his teachers and finally managed to get him a Senco (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator) whom he meets once a week to explain his frustrations and anxieties. They’ve given him a book to write down his worries and we are finally making progress with a reward system. State schools are full of young teachers that want to make a difference. Some teachers just aren’t aware of the struggles adoptee kids go through.

My experience – what I have learned.

Teachers don’t make the rules but have to follow them. Following the pandemic, they have a higher percentage of disadvantaged children. Apparently, Year 7 is the most strict of the school years, they ease off the kids in Year 8.  If you’re a polite and responsible parent that wants to help and support the school they will be open to working with you.

When applying to secondary schools make sure your child is known to be adopted. Look on the school website to find out about their Pupil Premium, the percentage of children eligible, and their strategy for these pupils. When you tour the school, ask how the Pupil Premium money is spent? Is this through free school uniform and lunches, or teaching assistants, one-to-ones, and small group interventions? Do they have a trained staff member for looked-after children? Even if they don’t, they may well be open to learning more.

Ask if any of the staff has done any training on attachment and, or trauma? Being honest about your child and their needs is vital to their place in the classroom.  How does the school deal with behaviour? This was very important to share with my son ahead of school start so he knew what to expect. We’ve now asked many of his school friends how Year 7 is going in their respective state schools, and it seems that detentions and time in isolation are a way of school life. Explaining to my son that moving schools doesn’t guarantee any fewer detentions has been helpful, he has no choice but to figure it out and I’m proud of his achievements so far.

Teaching our children how to fit in, and be a part of the secondary system is a full-time job. But each term we accomplish a few more steps forward. My son really wants to succeed, so with steady communication with the school, we will get there in the end.

Single adoptive mother, South West London

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