School transitions for Children with Early Neglect and Trauma
By Gail Hardman-Woung, LCSW

    Transitions can be exceedingly difficult for our children.  By now, you have survived the initial transitioning back to school.  In fact you may be surprised at how well it went.  In many cases the first week or two of school can go well
as our children are excited to see friends and meet their new teacher.  However, even children who are eager to return to school can sometimes have difficulty adjusting.  Many of you may be feeling the familiar frustrations that homework can bring.  Beyond having a new teacher, many kids have new schools, standards of behavior and social and academic pressures.  As a mother of four children (three adopted) I am on the back end of much of this.  My adoptions were completed 14 years ago.  However, I do remember the difficulty of these transitions.  How I wish I knew then, what I know now.

    Transitions affect all children, but for our children they can be even harder.  A study released this summer (Becker-Weidman, 2009) found that children with early trauma and neglect, who were chronologically 9.9 years of age, were socially and emotionally only 4.4 years old.  This comes as no surprise to many parents.  How difficult school must be for our special needs children.  If a twelve year old has lived in a healthy family for three years, they have had three years of normal social and emotional growth.  For many this means just three years of intimacy, love and experience living in a family.  In these ways, they can only be three.  Last week an eleven year old boy came into my office.  After a lengthy tantrum he explained through teary eyes “I shouldn’t be in sixth grade, I should be in third.  I don’t know
what they are talking about.”  This boy has been in a safe family for six years.  Socially, emotionally and academically he is six years old.  

    Transitions for younger children can bring on more bedwetting and tantrums.  These behaviors are in response to the transition and the feelings of powerlessness.  They generally represent temporary regression and are simply the child’s way of saying I am scared and I don’t like this.  More than once, I have heard young children state that they believed if they were bad enough, they could return to their previous classroom.

    A sense of belonging is central to building self-esteem.  It is hard to imagine how this can happen in an environment where many of our kids are forced into a role of pretending.  Pretending that they get the joke; pretending that they understand, pretending that they fit-in.  In our home, children came home had a snack, relaxed a bit, and then it was time for homework and a chore.  I can only wonder how much less storm or shutdown I would have received, had I had a better sense of their days.  Had I realized how emotionally exhausting school could be for them.  It is no wonder so many adoption books point to anxiety as the underlying concern.  

    So what do we do in the face of stormy or difficult behavior?  I know what I did.  I tightened up and got stricter.  I restricted video games and television.  I imposed charts and penalized kids for backtalk.  I did what educated moms do (no wonder we have the highest rate of disruption), I took control of the situation.  In other words, I firmly stated without words, I don’t get it, you aren’t good enough, and I don’t know where you belong.  Thank God my children have forgiven me.

    My way was ineffective.  It brought control battles and damaged relationships.  My oldest daughter who was nine when she came home, learned to hate school.  Today, I recommend less corrections and more connections with our children.  I recommend joining with your child and helping them to understand that you are the go to person
in their lives.  When we join with our children providing support and encouragement, it is then easier to teach study skills and time management.  Although I still encourage a high structure environment, this environment MUST be accompanied with compassion and high nurture. 

Erick Erickson divided life into stages with essential tasks.  The first stage being the development of "basid trust" vs. "mistrust".  That is why it is so important for us to go backwards and pick up the lost pieces before we move our children forward.  Erickson believed the second task is "industry vs inferiority".  He felt that we need to master this early on in order to have the confidence to engage in the world and lead a productive and enriching life.   We can help our children become solid and secure by letting them know that we understand that they sometimes feel lost and behind.  We can help them to understand that they belong.  When this happens, many of the other problems take care of themselves.  Last month at the Attach Conference in San Antonio, one of the speakers said something that really resonated with me.  He said "the kids we work with are some of the loneliest kids on the planet".