Inez Wins (This Time)

April 25, 2019 0 Comments

I have a love/hate relationship with the public school district after nearly 3 decades of advocating for my children, all of whom have been in foster care. To obtain trauma-informed education for all of my children has been a focus for me, and it has been a long, hard, painful road. I have, though, in the past couple of years, seen growing awareness amongst many, many teachers, some of my kids’ special education teams, and rarely a school administration.

Trauma Informed Education

Trauma-informed education is a way of looking at the behaviors and motivations of children who have experienced trauma of some kind in an entirely different way. This approach encourages us to look at the emotions and reactions behind behaviors that are commonly labeled as ‘not motivated,’ or ‘lacking focus,’ or ‘oppositional.’

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I had one child who had all of these labels in 7th grade and it took a lot of education for the educators (I was pretty persistent) and for this girl to start to understand her behaviors differently.

  • Not being motivated was actually fear and lack of confidence. She had missed SO much school in her earlier years that she was behind in her academics and she was not understanding much of the material. After years of mixed reactions (and abuse) from adults, she was afraid to ask questions or bring attention to herself, so she just accepted that she was lazy and stupid.
  • Her perceived lack of focus was actually dissociation when she would get triggered or anxious. She had learned very well how to tune out (a simple explanation) everything around her when she was living through awful things and then afterward when triggered and her emotions started to rise. So she would get anxious when she wasn’t comprehending the instruction, disappear for a while, then tune back in and would have missed the intervening discussion or material. It was a vicious loop of dissociation and anxiety.
  • Her oppositional behavior was her way of protecting herself from the school situation which was out of her control. Her attitude was her shield.

After nearly 3 years of pushing the teachers, the school and this young person, she was nearly caught up in academics, which reduced her anxiety and protective dissociation. She was starting to feel proud of her growth and safer in her learning environment (because her teachers were using interventions to approach the trauma and not the behaviors). Her oppositional attitude was starting to turn into self advocacy as she, herself began to understand her own reactions.

Back to Inez

I spoke above about the love/hate continuum I have regarding my interactions with our public schools. My feelings of frustration, anger, grief, and worry are sometimes overpowering when the teacher, the team, and/or the school “just don’t get it.” The process of finding an educational plan for a student becomes a scenario where they are the experts and I am treated as though I don’t know enough to understand what they are saying. It is very easy for the parent to be discounted as the expert of their child, especially as we get emotional.

Right now, I am totally thrilled with a specific school in our district. We had a wonderful team meeting about Inez earlier this week. This team and school administration DOES get traumainformed education, and specifically, what that looks like for Inez. I entered the meeting with a lot of trepidation. I have loved Inez’s teacher and support all year, but at our last meeting, there was mention of changing schools. Inez has grown so much this year that she no longer needs the self-contained classroom she has been in. BUT, they don’t have the next step-up program at her school, so if her level of needed support changes, she would have to go to a school that has the next program.

I was set for yet another round of advocating frenzy.

  • The materials I brought included a study about how much educational ground foster children lose every time they move placements (and schools).
  • I had a great article about how trauma affects the brain and language and memory and learning and that further loss (trauma related or not) activates the whole chain of trauma reactions again.
  • And I also had an argument set out that when we write IEP’s for children who need learning help, that we individualize it to them. You can’t just gather the information about the child and say, “OK. Now they don’t fit in this box anymore, so we will put them in this box. But we don’t have that box at this school, so let’s go find the box.” That is making the child fit into the educational system instead of having the educational system fit the child.

At the meeting this week, my anxiety level was sky high while we discussed the re-evaluation that had been done and the IEP (Individualized Education Plan) with the goals for Inez. When it came time to discuss the placement for next year, the principal said, “We love Inez and, while she is definitely ready to leave this level of placement, we feel very strongly that moving schools would be very detrimental to her, emotionally and educationally. We think that the risks of making her change schools again are far greater than any benefit she would get from the new program.” I’ll admit, I got a little emotional….. again. They get it!!!!!!!!

Inez’s Journey

Inez is 6 years old. She is my granddaughter and has a very large piece of my heart. Her mama is my very first foster child, Alice.

Alice is in prison and Inez’s father is an indifferent parent for the most part (there’s more, but that’s enough for today). He is in the military and lives about 40 miles away (an hour’s drive in metropolitan traffic) from me. Inez‘s dad has a minimal social circle. He also showed a clear lack of interest in interacting with his children before their mom went to prison, so I made an arrangement with him that the three little girls would stay with me during the week. He works long hours, then has the girls on the weekends. I presented it as a great idea that would let the girls have someone involved in their school stuff while he worked. It gave him a socially acceptable ‘out’ from full-time parenting. The children are now regularly with me on weekends, too, which suits us all just fine.

Inez was very traumatized by a violent night in their home when she was just 2 1/2 years old and was even more significantly traumatized by the sudden loss of her mother. Alice is not allowed contact with her children (yet). Inez and her mommy, were very bonded, like two peas in a pod, and Inez continues to grieve the loss of her mommy in significant ways.

Inez‘s behaviors reflect her trauma and her grief. She is fun and funny, very active and very creative, imaginative, and dramatic. She is also easily frustrated and lashes out physically and verbally. It has all gotten so much better over the years, but when she started Kindergarten last year, she was a frantic mess in the classroom. She had to leave her beloved preschool program and then enter the chaos of a classroom of 22 noisy children. The transition sent her poor neurological system back to a time of terror and grief. She was in constant fight or flight reaction for most of every day.

First school

Inez’s first school, of course, picked up on the disruptive behavior and verbalized understanding of why she was acting out, but everything was treated as a behavior issue (time outs, letters of apology, discussions on how to be kind) instead of a trauma issue (what can we do to lessen her triggers, let’s work with her and grandma to create a safe place for her to be when she is feeling triggered, etc). In other words, Inez was given consequences for her behavior instead of therapeutic intervention. I understand so much about the limitations of the schools in terms of resources, space and training, but no one listened to me or allowed me to provide help. They’d stand and nod their heads, then dream up a new “consequence” to help her reflect on the impacts of her behavior to those around her.

I finally asked for an evaluation that would qualify her for an individualized plan. And I enlisted the help of a dear friend who works within the school district to try to mediate our relationship (the school and me).

This friend has known me for years. She knows all of my kids and she knows that I know my stuff. I filled her in on everything and she told the school team the EXACT same things I had been saying, but this time, they listened to her. The evaluation was very difficult as Inez was too activated daily to participate in any type of assessments. But it served as a vehicle to get special education services set up for Isabelle and my dear, wonderful friend searched out the program that Johanna is in now.

Second school

Inez was moved last year, mid-school year (in the middle of Kindergarten), to the new school and from the first day, it was a fantastic fit. She came into a small, self contained classroom with a teacher who immediately picked my brain about what Inez’s triggers are, how to intervene early, how to avoid triggers and what constitutes a safe space for the little 5-year-old to re-regulate after a meltdown.

Except there were no meltdowns. They saw no physical acting out, nor screaming. They found a curious, active Kindergartner who quickly learned the lay of the land and took responsibility for what was expected of her. In other words, her environment was set to make her feel as safe as possible and her trigger points and escalations were not necessary tools to protect herself from perceived danger.

Do you see why I love Inez’s teacher and team? She is nearing the end of 1st grade now and has finally been able to access a brain that is ready to learn, that is not constantly being flooded with fight or flight responses and she is starting to gain academic ground. She is obviously ready to start to try to access more time in general education with safe consistent supports.

And that is why, after this week’s meeting, I am still flying high with gratitude and love that we have a team to help Inez heal while she is learning. They have found a way to create a hybrid plan in the coming year or two that will allow Inez to officially remain in the self-contained class, but gradually push her into the regular classroom, a little bit at a time. The goal is to see if we can transition her to a general education program with pull out support by the time she has reached 5th grade (at which point, she will need to transition to middle school anyway). I love these people!

Inez wins!


If you want to read more about any of the kids’ journeys, click on their name under categories to the right –>
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May 1, 2019


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