In the last year, there were 2.4 million calls to children’s services because of concerns about a child – a 78% rise over 10 years. More serious investigations (where a child is at risk of significant harm) are up 178% and there are now 75,000 children in care in England – a 24% increase in a decade.
An effective early years education is extremely important for these children, as many have had negative experiences that can be difficult to overcome. Nursery settings are therefore vital in helping these children thrive and develop to their full potential.
Going into care is traumatic
The first thing to understand is that going into care is one of the most traumatic situations a child can face, even when they are removed from life-threatening situations for their own protection. The emotional repercussions of an enforced separation from birth families are complex, but can be mitigated by several factors including the:
- appropriateness and timing of intervention
- suitability and skills of the foster family
- access to emotional and mental health support
- physical and medical condition of the child
- stability of the placement
- length of time the child is in care
- contact arrangements with the birth family
- the effectiveness of children’s services
- the quality of education the child receives
What is the care system in the UK?
Children enter the care system when it is not safe to, or they cannot for whatever reason, remain at home.
- A parent might be struggling to give the proper care and attention to their children due to a temporary illness, drug or alcohol problem, or incarceration
- A child can be removed under a care order from the courts to protect the child from significant harm, neglect or abuse
- A child may be an unaccompanied asylum-seeker
Over 60% of children entering the care system do so because of neglect or abuse (sexual, emotional or physical). However a child is brought into care, their mental, emotional, developmental and physical wellbeing will almost certainly be affected.
Approximately 18% of children in care enter the system between the ages of birth and 4 years, although the largest age demographic is 10-15-year-olds.
Everyone involved in the care and education of these children should aim to understand their needs properly, and nursery settings have a responsibility to ensure that children thrive within their system as much as possible.
What happens to children in the care system?
Children could be placed with family members (known as kinship carers), foster carers, or children’s homes, depending on their needs, and the availability and suitability of accommodation places. They may be placed in care temporarily, long-term or eventually adopted.
When in the care system, children will have many other adults involved in their care apart from their parents, including social workers, foster carers, court-appointed guardians, medical professionals, the ‘virtual school’ and counsellors. Children can feel overwhelmed and many feel very self-conscious about their ‘looked-after’ status, so sensitivity is needed.
Children may also move foster homes or pre-schools/schools several times causing further trauma or feelings of rejection. And although rare, children may also suffer further abuse from foster families or staff in care homes.
Nurseries are crucial links to minimising negative effects
A child may already have been attending your setting before going into care, in which case, you should aim to make the transition as smooth as possible by talking to the new carers about what the needs of the child are.
Often however, children may arrive having had little or no prior nursery education, or few developmental stimuli or appropriate language at home. This can mean these children often lag behind their peers, and nursery practitioners need to understand how this will affect their behaviour, social-interactions and their ability to communicate with, or trust adults.
Some things to be aware of:
Many children do not understand why they are in the care system, so they may have unanswered questions, unexpressed feelings and guilt
They may still be living in a constant state of trauma, which affects their behaviour – behaviour patterns that served them when they were in an abusive or negligent situation, can often stay with them for years resulting in tantrums, anger, withdrawal, selective mutism and aggression
Many children have speech and language issues due to a lack of appropriate stimuli in their first few years
Children often feel stigmatised and discrimination – they may have to face awkward questions such as “why doesn’t your mummy collect you anymore?”
Many looked after children have diagnosable mental health issues and may need to access formal mental health services such as CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services)
Some children find it very difficult to trust adults due to previous experiences, resulting in behavioural issues, an inability to follow instructions or attachment issues. They may need to re-learn to trust adults
- Older children especially, can often feel that no one is listening to them and their voice is not being heard, which can cause them to challenge authority or feel disempowered
Contact issues with birth families
Some children in care are not allowed to see their birth families, and some are granted access on a regular basis. Both situations can give rise to conflicting emotions which may result in poor, aggressive or withdrawn behaviour.
Understanding these situations are traumatic or difficult for children, is the first step in helping them cope. In the next part, we will look at specific things pre-schools can do to practically help.
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