To my teacher: a memo from a child in foster care

‘To my teacher: a memo from a child in foster care’ blog article was written by Jeanette Miller, Senior Consultant, Parenting and Early Years Program at Australian Childhood Foundation.

Dear Miss Kendall

Tomorrow will be my first day at school, and you’ll be my teacher, so I thought I’d let you know what that means to me.

I know it’s normal for kids to be a bit nervous about starting school, but this is an extra tricky time for me because of where I come from.

My mum couldn’t look after me properly when I was a baby and she still can’t, that’s why I live in a different home now. I don’t know who my dad is. I’m five, but I’ve lived in six different houses. I’m not sure if Rod and Jenny – my new foster carers – will be my ‘forever parents’.

Not being sure about stuff…like when I don’t know what’s going to happen, is really, really hard for me.

Any kind of change (even change that you might think of as good or exciting) feels scary in my body. A counsellor told me it’s my nervous system thinking I’m not safe and trying to protect me. It can’t tell the difference between good change and bad change either, so it gets my body ready to defend me against threat.

That means that even ‘exciting’ events like Christmas, going on holiday or starting school can feel unsafe, and I might suddenly not be able to keep calm.

I don’t really know why, but it feels like my body can get lots of energy all of a sudden and I’m ready to fight or to run. Then, other times, I feel like I can’t move… my whole body goes still, and I can’t hear properly anymore… without meaning to.

I don’t get to choose how I am in situations like that… it all happens without me thinking, and I don’t like it because it can get me in trouble.

There’s been a lot going on lately; in the last month, three ‘exciting’ events have occurred at once.

After Christmas, our family went away on holiday, and now I’m about to start school for the first time.

So, all this change and uncertainty makes me feel really wobbly… and when I feel wobbly, I act wobbly.

So the best thing you could do for me at school is to help me feel safe. It’s only when my nervous system feels safe that I can play, learn, and connect well with you and the other kids. It’s only when I feel safe, that I can hear well and pay attention to what you’re saying, rather than noticing everything else around me.

Starting school is a huge change, but I know there are going to be heaps of mini-changes I’ll also have to go through every school day: arriving at school in the morning, going from classroom to playground and back again, table to mat for story time, our classroom to the library and back again, classroom to the bathroom and back… each of those changes can feel as wobbly for me, like walking across a trampoline.

Those are the times when my body is most likely to change into the energy mode, and I sometimes run away or fight or, if it feels so scary that I can just kind of go away (which the counsellor calls ‘dissociate’, faint or have a toilet accident. To do well at school, I could really use your help. There’s so much you can do to help me feel safer during those tricky transitions: early warnings, egg timers, colour clocks, visual timetables, predictable routines…

It was great that we had a couple of visits to the school at the end of last year so that at least I know what it looks like, and which will be my classroom.

And that home visit you made to my place was great too. Rod took a photo of you and me together that day, and I’ve been looking at it every day in the holidays.

But I’m a bit worried about that classroom. I know it’s a really nice, new building that costs lots of dollars, but I find it pretty scary, actually. All those high ceilings and big open spaces with walls on angles and massive windows mean I’ve got nowhere to hide. Please help me by allowing me to make little safe spaces like cubbies in corners or under tables…or at least, let me sit in a position where I can have my back to a wall.

Open-plan classrooms mean that there are large numbers of children working in a single space, and for me, the bigger the open space, the more unsafe it feels.

Please make sure I can work in small groups for much of the time.

I find unstructured time really tricky, too. Playtimes and ‘free time’ can put my nervous system on alert to danger because there are no boundaries to help me feel safe.

It helps if I can know what’s going to happen, who’ll be there, and where I’ll be. Supervised ‘lunch clubs’ or letting me stay inside at playtime and bringing some other kids inside to play with me can help me to feel safe and stay calm.

Getting along with the other kids can be pretty hard for me. It’s easiest to get along with other kids who have a story like mine, but I know that when we hang out, I can end up in trouble doing something I shouldn’t! Jenny has been helping me learn how to play with some other kids. They are nice and don’t seem to lose it as much, so I’m trying to learn that from them. I hope you can help me find kids like that in the class sometimes, too.

Most of the other kids in the class spent their first five years with parents who really helped them grow up and learn about how to be a good friend.

My counsellor says that when you’re consistently loved and cared for by bigger, stronger, wiser and kinder adults as a baby, you get a healthy, strong sense of who you are right from the start.

I missed out on that, and now I feel like I’m not real unless I’m the centre of attention.

I really need people to make sense of what’s going on sometimes, but I often don’t know how to ask for help when I need it, so I might just seem naughty even though I’m trying. As I learn that I can trust you and rely on you too, I will start to make more sense of this new world. It’s your relationship with me that will eventually help me to feel comfortable in my own skin at school.

There are just ‘one too many wonderfuls’ for me in your classroom!

All those colours and patterns and shapes and all that noise! It’s so overwhelming and kind of exhausting! I know you’ll feel happier to have me around when I’m calmer and can keep calm, and you can help me to do that.

Please don’t expect me to ‘sit still’!

I find having my ‘fidget toys’ helps, and lots of sand, water, clay, shaving cream, goop… Let me experience lots of rhythmic activities with music, movement, story and rhyme. The chance to feel connected and in sync with others helps too, through games like ‘follow the leader’ or ‘silly walks’, as well as heavy work play, which kind of keeps me in my body and feeling less wobbly… and of course all the other kids benefit from those things too.

I‘m going to need opportunities to release some of my pent-up energy, and we could come to an agreement about what that might look like. Maybe I could run around the oval a couple of times before coming back inside?

Please don’t think of my bad days as a sign of weakness. Those are actually the days when I’m fighting my hardest just to survive.

Thanks for listening

Billie the foster kid.

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