‘Blog series: Adopting, Adapting and Adoring- “Sometimes the hardest path is the only one you can take”

This is the second post in the blog series.

“It’s nice to go for a day out, isn’t it Daddy?” my eldest son turned to me and told me. It wasn’t really a question or certainly one that he needed an answer to. It was our first real day out in over 12 months. Since last March we hadn’t really ventured any further than the local park and the excitement of finally being in the car for longer than 15 minutes, was palpable. Even the electronic devices had stayed at home – of the boys’ own volition I might add! A sure sign that big things were being anticipated.

We reached our destination, hopped out of the car and began to follow the footpath to the countryside walk we had chosen. It wasn’t a new activity; walking together is something we have regularly done as a family. Yorkshire, the Lake District, Wales and on the odd occasion several floors of Manchester Primark. However, the destination was new and the boys were instantly transfixed by the views around them. ‘What’s that over there?’, ‘Is that a horse?’, ‘Do you think that’s an electric fence?’ were all questions that began to flow as they explored their surroundings. We carried on a little further and talk turned to where we were heading as we spotted the first summit on our little journey. ‘‘All the way over there? No you have GOT to be kidding, Daddy! That’s not even possible.’’  My youngest son feigned shock before adding, “Come on then. We can do this.”

It struck me that a change of environment and a change of challenge, brought about an entirely different way of thinking and attitude towards accomplishment. Had I produced a piece of paper, a reading book or handful of calculations I would have watched a very different scenario unfold. Yet out in the open air, with the sunshining and their support network around them both of the boys acknowledged the challenge before them and decided to tackle it head on. “We’ll go in front and show you… you know… old people… the way to go!” My ten-year-old laughed as they passed through a gate and out into an open field. Over the proceeding two hours, they became adventurers, explorers and zoologists as they surveyed the land, discovered hidden streams and tried to track the mysterious footprints left by an unknown beast! (I hadn’t the heart to tell them it was most likely one of the many dogs we had already passed.) They became wizards creating wands and staffs from discarded sticks and long grass, casting spells of protection and challenging one another to a wizard’s duel.

Here they were, in the great outdoors and in the best classroom of all – the one roofed only by the sky *, using their imagination, drawing upon the resources they had, planning and evaluating and best of all collaborating. They worked together to navigate this unknown terrain and all the while continued to reference our destination. “Come on it’s just a little further. If we go over that way, I think there’s a path.” At one point as they picked up momentum and began to hurtle down a particularly steep slope, my nerves got the better of me. “Be careful!” I cried out to them, “You’re going to hurt yourself if you don’t slow down!” My eldest laughed, looked back at me and said, “It’s ok Daddy, sometimes the hardest path is the only one you can take.”  And on that point I could do nothing but agree.

Written by John Clarke, Early Years Education Lecturer.

John Clarke

‘Blog series: Adopting, Adapting and Adoring – Life lessons in loving after looked after’

1st post in the series.

3 images of a boy, one upset, one pulling his tongue out his mouth and one looking sad.

Live wires and bonfires

‘Ooh he’s a lively one!’

‘Oh, bless him, he’s such a live wire!’

‘He’s adorable, he’s just such a bundle of energy isn’t he. He’s so bouncy!’

‘He’s like a little Tigger.’

‘I bet he sleeps at night?’

‘You’ve got your work cut out for you there!’

These are all phrases attributed to my youngest son so many times that I gave up counting a long time ago. It seemed for a while like we could never enter a shop/café/library/medical surgery without somebody passing a comment. Usually delivered with a half-hearted chuckle and smile. I of course would oblige and play the conversational game; ‘Oh he certainly is/You don’t know the half of it/Tell that to my sofa/Even Tigger would be tired etc’ coupled with some sort of implied exhaustion, a tussle of his hair and a quick exit. Very quickly though it stopped being funny. I played the game not wanting to be abrupt or hurt the feelings of a well-meaning stranger but increasingly, I became more and more frustrated as my own levels of real-life exhaustion began to grow.

What they didn’t see was the reality that was staring them in the face. My son is not ‘a live, wire’ nor is he ‘bouncy’ or even remotely ‘Tigge-like’. What he is is a very hurt and confused little boy trying to manage the emotions of the very real adult threat that pervades his experience of the world. Adults for him are not the safe base of security from which he is able to navigate the world but instead they are a dominating and frightening force to be distrusted and feared.  His early life experiences have taught him this and no amount of casual interactions with well-meaning strangers are going to change this.

When we adopted him and his brother age 3 and 4 they had both experienced a catalogue of complex and frankly shocking events. I would challenge any adult to put themselves in their shoes and then see how ‘lively’ they felt afterwards. Having survived extreme neglect and abuse at the hands of their primary caregivers their life experience had taught them a simple lesson; people aren’t reliable. My eldest son displayed this quite clearly. For a long time, he was rejecting, angry and aggressive. He was hurting and was not afraid to show it. As his emotions smouldered, smoked and erupted for all the world to see, he seemed unable to contain it. Regardless of the occasion, location or company, when things got too much it was time to batten down the hatches and wait for the fire to burn itself out. Only then could any repair work begin to take place.

My youngest son conveyed his emotional state by becoming hyper vigilant to the needs and emotions of those around him. Seeking to please and receive approval, he was unafraid to win the crowd over in any way he could. What translated as ‘adorable’ interactions where his attempt at managing the emotional state of others. Afterall, a happy person can’t get cross with me unless I keep them happy ALL THE TIME!

As he moved from Nursery to Reception, these behaviours became apparent and were perpetuated further as he embarked on his transition to Key Stage 1. ‘He just will NOT sit in his chair,’ one irate teacher told me. ‘He follows me around the room and is desperate to show me everything he’s done. I have to constantly tell him he needs to sit down and have a go.’ I nodded in all the right places but inside I cringed. I had explained to the school several times about the boys’ past, about their experiences and how they may communicate some of this through their behaviours. I had reassured them that we were aware of this as a family and were seeking support for all of us. Still the problem persisted. Not because of my son but because there was a lack of understanding around his needs.

Teaching is nothing without relationships. If you have no relationship with the children in your class how can you hope to teach them anything? Would you listen to somebody who knew nothing about you or who showed no interest in who you were as a person. Not a learner but a person, whole and complete. How can we build a relationship then if we don’t take the time to understand the children in our care (and I include the word ‘care’ here for a reason)?

Fast forward another two years and my son has a good relationship with his current teacher. He speaks highly of her as his ‘best teacher’ and his behaviour tells me a lot about how safe he feels around her. However, he sobbed the day before schools were due to reopen. Not because he didn’t want to go back, not because he didn’t want to do Maths, English or Science and not because of COVID. He sobbed because he didn’t know if he was going to have his teacher all day or not. Having attended school as part of the ‘Keyworker’ groups his experience of school had changed once again, and the metaphorical rug had been whipped out from under him. Some days he was in his own class, some days he wasn’t. Some days he had his class teacher and other days he didn’t. He had started the year using one entrance to the school and now had to use a different entrance. Yet again, his needs were being overlooked. Because he is not aggressive nor loud or disruptive, he will simply try his best in whatever way he is able to.  He needed to know if that figure of safety would be present for him when there were going to be more children around to compete with.

The whole world is in turmoil and nothing is as it was or as it seems but perhaps COVID can teach us more than how to operate a zoom call or how to carry out a Phonics lesson on Microsoft Teams. Perhaps this feeling of uncertainty, of fear and apprehension that we have all come to know and try to make peace with, could be the eye opener we all need to illustrate how some children experience the world every day. For those children who have lived through neglect, lived through abuse or have experienced separation and being placed in the care of strangers the world can be a scary and frightening place and it is our job to look out for that, to address it and CARE for all of their needs in the time they spend with us.

Written by John Clarke, Early Years Education Lecturer

John Clarke