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My first day at school as a child in foster care

An open letter from a prototypical foster kid on their first day of school…

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 because she’s got a mental illness and was living rough with a drug habit when I was born. I don’t know who my dad is. I’m only five, but until last year, when I moved here to live with my foster parents, I’d lived in six different houses. I’m not sure if Rod and Jenny 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 threatening to my nervous system. It can’t tell the difference between good change and bad change, it just registers elevated nervous activity, so it gets my body systems ready to defend me against threat. That means exciting, novel events like Christmas, going on holiday and starting school can tip me into survival mode, where I might suddenly spring into fight, flight or freeze behaviours without meaning to.

I don’t get to choose how I behave in situations like that. It all happens instantly and outside my conscious control.

Of course, in the last month, all three of those 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.

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 my middle ear systems allow me to pay attention to what you’re saying, rather than to focus on more threatening sounds in the environment.

Starting school is a huge transitional change but I know there are going to be heaps of mini transitions I’ll have to navigate throughout every school day: arriving at school in the morning, going from classroom to playground and back again, table to mat for storytime, our classroom to the library and back again, classroom to the bathroom and back. Each of those transitions can feel as wobbly as stepping from one boat at sea to another. Those are the times when I’m most likely to lash out in fight mode or run off in flight mode or, if it feels so terrifying as to be life-threatening, to dissociate, faint or even lose control of my bladder or bowels. There’s  so much you can do to help me feel safer during those tricky transitions: early warnings, egg timers, colour clocks, visual timetables and 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 state-of-the-art modern building that cost millions of dollars and I can tell that the architects had a ball designing it but I find it pretty terrifying actually. All those high ceilings and big open spaces with angular walls and massive windows mean I’ve got nowhere to hide. To feel safe, I need both emotional and spatial containment. 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 threatening it feels. Please make sure I can work in  small groups for much of the time.

And speaking of structure, 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. I need to know what’s going to happen, who’ll be there and where I’ll be. Supervised lunch clubs or allowing me to stay inside at playtime and bringing selected 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. We traumatised kids tend to be attracted to each other and that doesn’t usually end well! You might like to pair me up with one of the well-regulated, kind kids in the class sometimes but please be careful not to burn them out either.

Most of the other kids in the class spent their first five years growing in the context of healthy, nurturing relationships. When you’re consistently loved and cared for by bigger, stronger, wiser and kind 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 don’t exist unless I’m the centre of attention. I feel rudderless without input from other people and I often don’t know how to get that in socially acceptable ways. Your consistent, empathetic, nurturing care can be my rudder. 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 self-regulate my emotional state and you can help me to do that.

Please don’t expect me to sit still! Give me sensory fidget toys and lots of sand, water, clay, shaving cream and goop. Let me experience lots of rhythmic activities with music, movement, story and rhyme. Attunement experiences like follow the leader or silly walks, as well as grounding, heavy work play is great for me too. 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

Jeanette Miller is a senior consultant in the Parenting and Early Years Program at the Australia Childhood Foundation. 

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4 comments

  1. A story growing up without my Nana because my Nana has to be my mother…. Just a thought

  2. This is such a moving and thought provoking letter. Is it possible to use it in our training programmes? thank you.

  3. I see children like this every day as a case manager and this is a beautifully written piece that teachers could benefit from.
    I have recently started working as a therapeutic life story worker and along with patients and support from carers and teachers these children can develop the skills they need to be settled engaging learners.
    I hope this is read by many teachers and they can take on board this valuable advice.

  4. Wow, what an awesome and well written story.. I too Case Manage high risk children and they have been exposed to some pretty awful abuse… they all know what this feels like…

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