I have learnt to celebrate the small steps that children make whether it’s an improvement in behaviour, learning to open up during counselling, not wetting the bed any more or not waking up in the night screaming from terrors we can’t imagine. Life with M was difficult at the beginning; she hadn’t been to school for several months when she first came to us as a young teenager and we considered it a cause for celebration that she willingly went in for her first day at a new school only for her to come home muddy and mutinous as she’d got into a fight, screamed at a teacher and received her first detention; all on the first day. We were called in to see the Head of Year and whilst he expressed a level of sympathy for M having been in difficult circumstances, he was not going to allow this behaviour. We, of course, could only agree and promised to talk to M about her behaviour.
Things only got worse. In the first week M was sent home for fighting with another girl, received the highest level of detention given at the school and kept in an isolation unit for her own safety and for the safety of other children. It was made clear to us that this was not acceptable and we tried hard to talk to M about the consequences. We made a small dent and things improved marginally for a few weeks. At least the aggression to other students had stopped but she was still disruptive in class and swung between being the class clown or rude and disruptive. The school laid on punishment almost every day but M had grown up being punished in inventive ways and she just dug in, preparing for battle. We tried to work with the school but they insisted that punishment was fair as they couldn’t single M out. This stalemate went on for months with school being just another part of life that M resented and was a tool to emotionally beat her up with and remind her what a failure she felt she was.
After banging our heads against a brick wall for months and following a disastrous parents evening with very poor predicted grades we decided we would handle it ourselves. We devised a reward chart which we thought M might think was too young for her but she loved the idea and we kept it simple. If she could manage one day without a detention there would be a small reward and we built her self-esteem from there. She was rewarded for doing and handing in homework on time, for participating in class and she rose to the challenge. We went from a day to a week, to two weeks and onto a month. She nailed it all, without even one detention.
We imagined the school were thinking about her behaviour change too and contemplating what was happening. This is what we hoped but they didn’t even notice. It was a sign to us that we were doing the right thing. Some schools embrace working with Looked After Children and have a support structure in place and will instinctively understand that behind disruptive behaviour is often pain and confusion but this school just gave lip service to it. M refused all counselling and as far as they were concerned they had done their bit.
M continued to rise to our incentive challenges and her confidence and self esteem grew with each hard won reward. We also heaped praise on her for every achievement big or small and we could see her swelling with pride as the year went on. She started setting her own challenges and personal goals and one of them was to move up to a higher group in Biology – her favourite subject.
We went from the girl who threw a temper tantrum at being asked to do the smallest amount of homework to her writing out a revision time table voluntarily and by the end of the year she had progressed to the top of her class. This was a huge achievement as this particular teacher had been on the receiving end of M’s most difficult behaviour and I had countless emails and calls expressing her concern.
There was talk of M moving up a level in Biology at her next parents evening which was very positive. None of them could understand the change in her behaviour and we told each teacher we sat with what we had done and how hard M had worked. M beamed with pride at each teacher’s positive comments and vowed to get to the higher level in her favourite subject before the GCSE’s class sets were decided.
On the Thursday before Good Friday which was M’s last day at school before the holidays we received a letter from the school telling us that M was officially moving up a class in Biology and we were delighted knowing how pleased she would be when she came home. However, the Good News Day got better as she also brought home her end of term report which showed that she was meeting every single target but also exceeding several of them, particularly in Maths and English and of course, Biology.
Praising a child when they’ve done outstanding work is easy but we learnt to praise every little tiny achievement until it built into the big ones. Statistically, Looked After Children’s outcome when leaving school is significantly poorer than non LAC and we are out to blow that stat out of the water.