When Adoption UK asked nearly 2,000 adopted young people about their experiences of school in 2018, eight out of ten told us that they feel confused and worried at school. 81% of secondary-aged children agreed with the statement “Other children seem to enjoy school more than me” (Bridging the Gap 2018).

Education has long been a top priority for adoptive families. Year after year, Department for Education statistics in England show that adopted children fare considerably less well than their peers in statutory examinations. They are more likely to have special educational needs and disabilities, more likely to be excluded and less likely to move to positive destinations on leaving school.

Adoptive parents are in no doubt about the underlying causes of these difficulties. More than three quarters of respondents to Adoption UK’s Adoption Barometer survey (2019) agreed that their child’s adverse early experiences had impacted negatively on their ability to cope in school academically, socially and emotionally. While respondents were generally positive about teachers’ willingness to work with them, they expressed concerns about the level of training and resourcing that was available to education staff.

“School were as supportive as they could be, but they had very little understanding of the impact [of moving to a new family] on my child and how to support my child”.
School Parent Response

Trauma experienced by children, even before they have any conscious memory of it, can have severe and long-lasting impacts. The development that takes place in a child’s early months and years will form the foundation of all that is to come and, if it is unstable, the whole building will be affected.

Early neglect may impact physical development. Poorly-developed core strength will have a negative effect on fine and gross motor skills development. Lack of interaction inhibits the development of speech and language. Repeated traumatic experiences overload a child’s natural stress response mechanisms, leaving them unable to regulate their emotional state, and prone to flight-fight-freeze responses as cortisol floods their system.

The emotional impact of abuse and neglect, of moves through the care system and the eventual transition to a permanent family cannot be over-stated. Insecure early attachments can affect speech and language development, and lead to increased risk for problems such as anxiety, aggression, hyper-activity and poor executive functioning skills. Insecurely attached children are more likely to bully and be bullied, more likely to have behavioural difficulties at school, and less likely to be curious, self-confident and resilient.

The Trauma and Attachment-Aware Classroom’ published in 2019 by Jessica Kingsley Publishers is part of Adoption UK’s response to the concerns of parents and professionals about the challenges faced in education by children who have often had the worst possible start. Written by a former teacher and adoptive parent, the book provides a solid theoretical underpinning to the impact of trauma on a developing child, as well as hundreds of practical strategies for the classroom.

Firmly rooted in classroom practice, the book covers a range of common school situations, including managing transitions, school trips and theme days, unstructured times, and exams. Common behavioural challenges such as defiance, low-level disruptive behaviour, aggression, passivity, missing equipment and homework, are discussed within the context of trauma, with the possible causes, and practical strategies described for each scenario. The response to its publication has been positive both from parents and teachers.

Adoption UK continues to support parents and education professionals, and is committed to campaigning for better futures for adopted children and children previously looked-after. It is sadly the case that not all children have an equal start in life. It will take courage, commitment, training and resourcing to ensure that they all have an equal chance at school.

Rebecca Brooks
Adoption UK – rebecca.brooks@adoptionuk.org.uk


Adoption UK. 2018. Bridging the Gap. Available at https://www.basw.co.uk/system/files/resources/bridging-the-gap.pdf

Adoption UK. 2019. Adoption Barometer. Available at https://www.adoptionuk.org/the-adoption-barometer

Brooks, R. 2019. The Trauma and Attachment-Aware Classroom. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.