Transitioning to Primary School: Jake’s Story

This case study provides valuable insight into the collective commitment that can be involved in supporting the educational needs of children in care:

Jake did not cope with the transition into a formal education setting. Having entered foster care at 3 months of age due to non-accidental injuries, he had been in a stable long-term foster placement and done relatively well at preschool. Kindergarten however proved to be another story, with Jake experiencing high levels of anxiety. He was simply not socially ready for school.

The challenge

Due to Jake’s age, there was no option to hold him back from commencing school.

Starting at his local primary school last year, he quickly gained a reputation as the ‘bad boy’. He subsequently made attempts to ‘own’ this reputation by telling people he was bad, squealing and crawling beneath tables.

Jake was often sent to sit outside the classroom. While initially compliant, over time he began leaving the vicinity of the classroom and running around the school. His foster carer was often asked to pick him up and keep him at home for the remainder of the day. This pattern of being sent home continued to escalate and eventually the school suggested a partial enrolment, which involved Jake attending school each morning and going home at lunchtime.

Jake moved to a new primary school when he was in Year One. This new school operated support classes for students with special needs, which also benefited children like Jake who have experienced trauma. He was in a composite class of Kindergarten and Year One students, which was a positive because the school was funded for a fulltime teacher’s aide for Kindergarten classes and Jake’s development was more en par with the Kindergarten aged children.

When recurrent episodes of behaviour incidents led to a series of suspensions, Jake was referred for therapy sessions as well as mental health assessment and treatment. At this time, Jake also started partial enrolment of two days per week for one hour a day.

What worked?

Although Jake is still partially enrolled, a number of positive steps has helped keep Jake in school and engaged in education.

Holding a transition meeting soon after Jake’s enrolment assisted in arranging funding and prompted early discussion between the school and foster agency around general strategies that are often helpful with children who have experienced trauma and broken attachments. For Jake, this involved a trusted adult greeting him every morning before school as a ‘check in’ to aid his own sense of belonging and for the school to obtain a sense of whether he may have additional attention needs that morning. Communication across Jake’s entire support network, via regular meetings, meant everyone could share ideas and stay up to date with his progress.

A number of professionals were also brought into the school by the non-government foster care agency to support Jake’s learning. This included occupational therapy, speech therapy, a psychological behavioural assessment, a paediatric assessment, and several play therapy sessions. The speech therapist sat in the classroom to observe and make suggestions about adjustments to the classroom that may be helpful, and attended school meetings to discuss Jake’s progress.

Jake’s behavioural escalation was a signal that he was fearful and needed reassurance. In response to this, the school adjusted its approach to managing Jake’s behaviour. This meant avoiding consequences that involved shaming, such as facing the wall in the classroom, and moving towards a more therapeutic approach from trusted teachers. Recognising when Jake was slightly unsettled or in the ‘orange zone’, the teachers would often suggest he go for a run (within their line of sight) before re-entering the classroom. Ensuring that regulation activities were done as an inclusionary activity involving the whole class meant Jake didn’t feel excluded. For example, the whole class would stand and shake out their arms and legs or sit for some quiet meditation time when they returned from lunch.

One of the schools that Jake attended also had the invaluable resource of a sensory gym on site. So when Jake experienced sensory overload, staff had a ‘chill out’ space where they could take him for a break. This was either a dark room where he could have time out from all sensory stimulation, or a space created within the classroom with sequined pillows to touch and wobble cushions to sit on.

What lessons can we take from Jake’s story?

Jake’s story highlights the level of attention needed to support children who have suffered trauma to engage in school. As part of the Let Them Learn advocacy initiative, ACWA and our members are calling for holistic educational planning for every child in care with input from teachers, health worker, the child, caseworkers and carers. We are also calling for supports for school staff at a local level to offer alternatives to suspension.