Being an adopter, being a parent can be a lonely business, as you struggle with the change in your identity, battle for the right support for your children and immerse yourself in learning about parenting, trauma and attachment. Yet I was still nervous at attending my first Adoption UK Conference this weekend. I had no idea what to expect…
Four Hundred Fold
The room was packed with around 400 adopters, educators and social workers, in what can only be described as cosy seating, but we smiled as we bumped arms and legs. The speakers were incredible, knowledgeable, inspiring and more. And every so often they would tap directly into the mood of the room, and be rewarded with a simultaneous groan, sigh or laugh from 400 people, like a warm hug of shared experience.
When Nicki Campbell told of people asking if he’d ever searched for his ‘real’ mum, the room rolled its eyes and tutted, murmuring our assent as Nicky corrected their language, stating that his (adoptive) mum is his real mum.
When Daniela Shanley’s (of Beech Lodge School) slide said “Can I have a word?” we groaned, and felt that blushing embarrassment as she described the walk of shame.
The experience of the people in that room, their struggles to be heard, their fight for support for their children, their desire for their children to be given the same chances in life, just being part of that crowd of warrior woman and men was an inspiring and uplifting experience.
A Little Bit In Love
Amongst a host of incredible speakers, all of whom blew me away with their insights, their research, their experience, their passion and more, there were three that stood out on Saturday.
First was Sue Armstrong Brown, the new CEO of Adoption UK. Despite almost disappearing behind the lectern, her voice and passion carried straight to my heart and I fell in love with her a little bit.
She argued that “adoption needs its champions to be heard” and that instead of just improving the current (flawed) system, we needed to create one that reflects modern adoption, one that is fit for purpose.
She wove in shocking statistics from Adoption UK’s research (summarised in this infographic) whilst never once admitting defeat or feeling bowed by the challenges ahead. Whilst adopted children are 20 times more likely to be permanently excluded from school, her mood and tone was one of a fight that we will win.
Then Daniela Shanley blew me away with her dedication to providing a school to suit her child, even if that meant she had to build it herself after being told “this school is not for your son, and there is no school for your son.”
She connected with all the parents who have ever been told that their child is naughty, difficult, disobedient and more. She challenged us to look at adopted pupils in a new way, through different eyes rather than judging and excluding them using inflexible and rigid policies about journals or swearing that are not the right fit for their needs.
If you are thinking “we can’t do that” then look at her school’s behavioural policy (based on Dan Hughes PACE approach) or email it to your child’s school to show them just what can be done to support adopted children whilst maintaining standards.
This quote sums up her ethos:
All behaviour is communication, even when they are kicking the sh*t out of a filing cabinet.
If only all teachers and schools looked at pupils holistically, investigated the triggers that led to a situation, and were more curious about what the child was trying to express before they lent so heavily on policy, judgement, isolation and exclusion.
From Head to Adopter
And finally, I have to mention Stuart Guest, head of Colebourne Primary School in Birmingham. The only man (after my husband of course, better put that in) who made me want to move my life to Brum lock-stock and barrel just for my kids to attend his enlightened school. He introduced his children thus:
These are eleven, seven and four… we were never very hot on names
How I laughed throughout this presentation. His entire persona of friendly dad, come headteacher, come hater of baths gave him a humanity that I fell for. Never mind thinking constantly “going to use that one” in reaction to the simple, practical tips that he and his wife use daily.
These three speakers stole my heart in different ways that day.
The final session of the conference was emotional and unforgettable. Four young adoptees (age 16 to 21) shared their stories and experiences of school. Their prepared answers to questions about how they felt about school, bullying, whether or not they reached their full potential was not easy to listen to, but it highlighted just WHY the changes are so necessary.
Midway through a clear response, a quiver started, C’s words started to stumble and catch, and she turned to her mother for comfort, shaking her head as she couldn’t continue. And every heart in the place reached out to her, felt for her, was there with her, as we recognised the tough times that some of us also experienced in school or that our children are experiencing today.
It was soggiest of the tissuetribe moments. I was overcome by the struggle, the truth of their school lives, and overwhelming desire to be part of the force for change, to be part of the tidal wave that would change the experience of adoptees in the future.
But it wasn’t just the speakers who inspired. I bumped into a friend of mine (I sometimes forget she also adopted) and stupidly asked her with surprise “what are you doing here?”! I caught up with some of the lovely adoption twitterati (although their flower/ trainer/ sunset profile pictures don’t make it easy to recognise them, and I ignored a few for which I am sorry), and chatted with many others in snippets or more.
It was hard to wrench myself from the warm enveloping hug of being with a tribe of understanding. As I sat on the train home, I summed up the day with my final tweet:
Today was my first conference – would I recommend it? Hell yes!
The conference was a clarion call to adoption warriors from all parts of society. Adopters, adoptees, teachers, heads, virtual heads, governors, parents, pupils, local authorities, agencies, post adoption support and Adoption UK to work together to create an educational system where all looked after or previously looked after children get the support and help they need to reach their potential.
Joining The Battle Hymn
In the few days since the conference, I have heard phrases and ideas echo through my mind. I have thought about how best to support my children, their teachers and school. I have implemented new approaches and tools at home, with more ideas to be instilled when I get the time to read the slides again. I had a talk with Bubbles about her recent anxiety (chewing through cardigans) that cemented our bond, then used that conversation for a meeting with Bubbles’ teacher, which went well.
I am not the mother I was when I arrived on Friday night, I feel engaged, supported and inspired in a whole new way.
Adopters need a voice. Adoptees need a voice. And with the help of Adoption UK and other organisations, all these voices will be heard, and not just in a superficial “that’s nice” way, but in a deeply, heartfelt way such that change happens, such that systems and education evolve. Because the future of these young lives depend on it. The schools and teachers must educate themselves, such that their policies and procedures embrace adoptees and include them, recognise their specific challenges, steering away from the teeth-gnashing “all children do that” denial of the uniqueness of their early experiences, and help them achieve their potential.
We all deserve to the best version of ourselves.
I became a warrior that day.
Singing the battle hymn of the adoptive mother.
At the conference, I became part of a choir – four hundred voices chanting in unison, raising our voices to the heavens, to Parliament, to whomever will listen, to the media and more, until the current educational approach to adopted children looks as dated as hitting children with a ruler in Victorian England.
It’s time for change. Will you join the choir and have your voice heard.
I am in. Bring it on.