In the second of our series looking at the challenges faced by children in care, we offer some practical advice on how best to meet the needs of these children.
Ways to help children in care
Communication with the foster family
Foster carers write regular reports about how the children in their charge are coping, so it is important that you communicate any incidents you notice which might reflect changes in the child’s wellbeing, or in their general mental or developmental state. Patterns of behaviour can then be identified, so interventions can be sought. This is particularly important around the time that children have contact with their birth family, which can be upsetting for children.
Unique safeguarding issues around children in care
Safeguarding all children is important, but children in care may have very strict guidelines about who they can and cannot see. It is extremely important that your setting is very vigilant about who collects the child. In some cases, birth family members have been known to turn up to nurseries to gain access to the children, so be especially wary of people phoning up claiming to be family members.
Understanding ‘irrational’ fears
Many children in care have suffered abuse, leaving them with psychological scars. This can result in unusual or seemingly ‘irrational’ anxieties such as a fear of going to the toilet or enclosed spaces, or anxieties about specific people (e.g. people with dark hair, men, people who speak in a particular tone). They may have been abused in these places by similar-looking people. The reason for these anxieties might not be immediately obvious to others, but may have a deep-rooted, logical explanation. Keep an open mind as to why a child shies away from certain people or activities, and try to help them by speaking calmly and offering alternative solutions.
Photos and publicity
You will not usually be allowed to publish photos of children in care. This is because the child’s location might be withheld from the birth family. However, you will need to be sensitive to this when taking photos and try not to make it obvious that one child in your setting is not allowed to be included, which can add to the stigma of being in care.
Mother’s Day and Father’s Day
Celebrating Mother’s Day and Father’s Day is something that comes quite naturally to pre-schools, but be aware that for many children, making a card saying “the best mummy ever” will not only be inaccurate, but could potentially bring back traumatic memories.
Try to be sensitive around these days and suggest other people the children could write to instead. There is no ‘hard-and-fast’ rule here, so it’s best to ask the foster carers for advice when it comes to celebrating these family days.
Another area of concern for children in care is their relationship with siblings. Children can be split up from siblings when they go into care simply because of the availability of foster placements at the time. You might find then that children only see their siblings at your setting, which could either be a source of joy or anxiety for them. Be understanding and patient in this situation.
Keeping to routines and boundaries
Routines and boundaries are usually extremely important for children in care, but they may not fully understand them or have had many boundaries previously set or enforced. This can result in children resisting instructions or simply not understanding what is expected of them in social situations, so good nurseries will offer extra help in understanding and following instructions.
Often children are living in a constant state of anxiety and their behaviour will reflect this. Try to educate the children about other behaviour options they have in difficult situations, especially when their learned-behaviour-pattern, (usually based on a coping strategy from a previous traumatic experience) is currently one that is no longer appropriate – such as tantrums or aggression. Staff need to explain the options and be particularly patient here.
Nutrition and understanding a child’s relationship with food
Some children are taken into care due to neglect and may not have had enough food; or food may have been used as a way of controlling them or inappropriately ‘rewarding’ them. These children may have developed an unhealthy relationship with food as a result. Some children have never had to sit down to eat, so patience and understanding are again needed to help children overcome any food issues they may have.
Christmas and birthdays can bring back painful memories
Birthdays, religious celebrations like Christmas or other festivals are usually happy occasions where presents are exchanged, and children are made to feel special. But think how you might feel about these days if you were never made to feel special?
Many children in care have experienced situations like this and these occasions may bring back negative or traumatic memories for the child, which can seem irrational to others. Abusive adults often use gifts to ‘buy’ children’s secrecy too, so caution and care is often needed around these subjects to help the child overcome them.
In conclusion, children in care can benefit greatly from the ‘normalisation’ and physical, social and developmental education that pre-school settings offer. They may just need extra understanding, time and patience from staff within your setting to help them thrive and become the young people they are meant to be.
Read the first part of this article here.