Updated: Nov 28, 2022
The unveiling of the annual John Lewis Christmas advert is a UK TV highlight, and often one that leaves many viewers in tears. The advert for 2022 is no exception. This years advert focuses on a man learning how to skateboard (badly!) and throughout the advert, we find ourselves asking why he is so adamant on learning this new skill? At the end of the advert, it is revealed that he and his partner are fostering a child from the care system who is a big skateboarding fan and he was learning it in order to bond with her. It is poignantly highlighted that over 108,000 children are currently in care.
Children in the care system, or looked after children, can be hugely misunderstood and certainly can be overlooked in the education system. Being in the care system could mean that many children experience social, emotional or mental health difficulties (SEMH) which we need to understand in order to fully support them in school.
Fractured Relationships and Trust
The early years of a child's life are the most formative years. This is where they will make emotional, mental, physical and social patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that will likely stay with them for life.
UK law states that a child should stay with their biological family wherever possible as it seen that staying with parents is the most conducive outcome for a child's future. However, this does mean that if a child is taken away from their biological family, then it will likely be for severe reasons, such as abuse, neglect or other household conditions which are detrimental to a child's development and/or survival. It may not always be the fault of individual parent; every situation is different. In short, if a child is taken into the care system, they were not safe in their original environment. This could happen at any age, but it is likely that a child will not have the capacity to understand why they have suddenly been taken away.
A basic knowledge of attachment theory teaches us that the first relationships we make as a child become integral as to how we experience relationships going forwards, and so the relationship with a child’s primary care giver will be a vital part of that pattern. If that relationship is fractured, or broken completely in the cases of children in care, then it is going to affect their ability to form relationships with others in the future. Imagine for a moment;
You are 3 years old. You live with Mum and Dad. You love them both very much and you understand that they care for you and provide you with all that you need. Suddenly, they are gone and you are alone with strangers. You feel alone, abandoned, rejected, ashamed, mistrusting...
Why would you ever trust someone again? What if they hurt you? Even if there are some difficulties at home, a child rarely has capacity to understand why they would be separated and many still want to remain with parents despite issues. On top of these horrific feelings following a separation, some children may also be dealing with the after-effects of experiencing abuse (physical, emotional or sexual). If their primary caregiver had been a harmful person, it stands to reason to think that other adults may also do the same and therefore they can trust no one.
Temporary Homes - No Safe Base
Unfortunately, it is rare that a child is placed into their new forever home straight away. A majority of children in the care system will experience multiple temporary homes before they find a family who can foster or adopt them long-term. Some children can experience up to 15 different homes throughout their childhood and with each new home comes the expectation to form new relationships again. We have already discussed how it may be challenging for children in care to form new relationships again, but imagine having to try and do this 15 times over the course of your childhood and perhaps just when you are starting to feel comfortable with your new family, you're swiftly moved on.
Is it any wonder that, in the classroom, children from care backgrounds struggle to form relationships with peers or teachers? Even if you say you're a safe person and that you'll be there, how can they trust that?
Looked After Children are more likely to have experienced more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE's) that will affect their behaviour and thought patterns. A child who has been neglected, form example, may believe that that when they have access to food, they need to have as much as possible because at home they don't get fed often. This is pure survival and it happens far more often than we think.
Case Study: Daniel Pelka
Daniel Pelka was a gorgeous 4 year-old boy who was systematically tortured and killed by his parents in 2012. Alongside a myriad of catastrophic physical injuries that ultimately led to his early death, it was noted that Daniel was extremely malnourished and weighed less than 2 stone. He had been seen scavenging food from the school bins just weeks before his death.
There could be a whole host of behaviours that children exhibit because they are trying to survive and many of them we would label as 'naughty' or 'bad' but it is simply a survival mechanism. We need to take the time to teach them, gently and slowly that in this environment of school, they will always have their needs met.
Holding on to what little they have
Many children get attached for a blanket or a toy when they are younger but most grow out of this by the time they reach school. However, some children who have experienced care will hold on defiantly to coats, phones, balls – possessions. Often a root of this is that they have very few possessions – they were forced to leave them behind in a move. Without it, they have nothing. It may seem like a trivial to you, but to them, it is an item they hold dearly and may be the only thing they have that gives them an identity.
A 14-year old gets out their phone in the middle of a lesson. As per school rules, you attempt to confiscate it but they refuse. You give a warning and they tell you to 'piss off'. You now need to escalate the situation due to the bad language and defiance on top of the original misdemeanour. You tell them this and they give you evils.
Turns out, after speaking with them after the lessons, the phone is the only way they can communicate with their birth parents and the only thing they had which contained pictures of their siblings whom they'd been separated from.
Following this encounter, you may find it difficult to get them to engage in lessons and activities. They no longer trust you - you tried to take away one thing that was truly theirs.
Differentiation of Lessons
Not all children start in the same place and so, whilst having policies and curriculum outlines are useful, in order to achieve true inclusion, we need to ensure that we differentiate appropriately. By differentiating work, you are providing all students with equal opportunities to achieve desired outcomes from lessons.
A 2019 review showed that looked after children were twice as likely to be excluded from mainstream school due to behaviour. The behaviours seen may be due to a number of reasons, but often I have seen it be due to a lack of differentiation where the children struggle to engage with work and therefore lose self-confidence, self-esteem and feel 'stupid' and so acting out is easier than managing or dealing with those feelings. It also, often, gets them out of doing the work that they may be finding too difficult.
So, not only are these children being failed by their families but school may not be a safe place either and many are failed by the education system.
If schools and staff are aware of the disadvantages that looked-after children are likely to face, we can then make the differentiation needed to give these young people the best chance with their education – and one of the most important tools they may come across that will help break the cycle.