A Safe Transition

I have just been re-reading documents about children in Scotland being received into poorhouses or being boarded out, and putting these accounts alongside the considerable amount of data describing the feelings and experiences of child evacuees during World War Two. Whatever the relative merits or conditions of the home from which, and the place to which, they moved, there is no doubt that the move itself was, for many of them, deeply traumatic. They were leaving the familiar and the known, for that which was strange and foreign. This led me to reflect on a very successful transition that I witnessed last week. Perhaps it will provide some useful and practical insights for those involved in facilitating such moves in the future.This transition was from a family house in Walthamstow to Mill Grove, which is three to four miles away in South Woodford. The child was 18 months old. She was brought in a car by her father and spent the whole day at Mill Grove before he came to collect her. It was the first time that she had come to stay here by herself, and so we were understandably alert to how she might feel about the separation from her home and family for six to seven hours. She showed no trace of anxiety, and certainly none of the distressing symptoms that we recognise from the pioneering work of Bowlby, Spitz and Goldfarb. In fact she settled in comfortably and easily, played, slept, had a meal and was in no hurry to return home, although she did enjoy resting in her father’s arms at the end of her stay.

So what might have been the factors contributing to this safe transition for one as young as this?

First, she had come to our home many times with her older brother and sister, and so she knew the place pretty much inside out: it was familiar to her. These siblings had been transitional supports (if not transitional objects in the sense that Winnicott describes).

Next, she had known my wife and me from her earliest days, and so she was welcomed by familiar and well known figures. She greeted us both with a very broad smile.

Third, we had often been with her, my wife particularly, in her own home and family. So we were not only known to her, but helped to provide continuity between one home and the other.

Fourth, it was her father who brought her, not a stranger, and he had often come with her and her siblings before. They came in a vehicle that she knew and that had her very own seat in it.

Fifth, she brought some significant items or objects with her including the buggy for her doll, spare clothes, and bottle.

Sixth, she had often played here before inside, but particularly outside, and she happened to come on a very fine day, and was very quickly making her way (with buggy and doll) into the garden. The grass, trees, climbing frame, boat, and little Wendy house were obviously very attractive to her.

Seventh, we knew what she was used to eating, and how she usually took her meals. Lunch was a very relaxed affair indeed.

Eighth, her parents had prepared her (in so far as it was possible to do so), and her father was careful to remain with her until it was obvious that she was comfortable with the arrangement.

Ninth, we were looking forward to seeing her and had made space in our home as well as our hearts. (And by the way neither of us had a mobile on, and so we were present for her throughout her stay.)

Tenth, my wife is one of the most empathetic and caring people possible in such situations.

No doubt there were other factors, but ten is a good enough list to be going on with, especially so, if we are thinking about good enough transitions!

It is unlikely, when a child is removed from her home and taken to stay somewhere else, that all ten factors will ever be present. But the point is that organisations, systems and professionals need to have something to aim for in such potentially traumatic and distressing situations.

Just to put you out of your misery: the child in question was, as some readers will already have guessed, our grand-daughter. Otherwise you might have been wondering why on earth a child so young was being separated from home and family.

We need to be reminded, however, that it was common for children that age to be placed in residential nurseries until the 1970s: I know, because I visited such places during the course of my research at Edinburgh University. And such places are common in many parts of the world today.

In some ways we have moved on in the UK, and we now understand a lot more about attachment and bonding. But this does not guarantee sensitivity towards the child’s needs at critical points in their lives.

Ruth and I have lived at Mill Grove for most of our lives, and during that time we have welcomed many children and young people into our home for visits, short stays, holidays, respite, and also for longer periods. Some have spent the whole of their childhood living with us. Whenever there is the possibility of a child moving home and coming to us, we always have in mind a list like the one above. Getting to know and even to trust each other is the key to the whole process, and that is best done in the child’s familiar surroundings and in step with her taken for granted rhythms.

What I am suggesting is perhaps rather radical in the UK. Much of our social policy is a response to things that go (usually very badly) wrong. We then set up a commission to recommend ways of improving the service(s) that will prevent a recurrence of the event (s) that precipitated the enquiry. Professionals are then trained with the recommendations of such commissions high on their priority lists. Rarely do we seem to be able to base what we do in the care system on what might be thought of as good enough parenting, common sense, empathy and love.

It may have occurred to you too that these principles are not divorced from the way we live our everyday lives. We are not dealing with a set of guidelines that apply only to transition from home to a new place. Rather these insights help us to see into the nature of who we are, what we believe, and how we seek to relate to and care for children.

Hopefully that says it all.

1 thought on “A Safe Transition”

  1. What a wonderful uplifting tale by Keith White of transitioning a young child into a new care situation!

    I work in America in a very affluent and expensive, small Montessori school/daycare. Working with babies and young children has been my passion since my first son was born 34 years ago. I home educated both our sons and cared for other people’s babies along the way, some for as long as 4 years. I have to keep working at 65; my husband was disabled in 1999.

    My special age group and strength is working with infants from 6 weeks to 18 months with a 2:6 ratio, staff to babies, increased temporarily to 3:6 when phasing in new babies. I am technically an ‘assistant’ in our classroom despite my 1972 British Nursery/Infant teacher training certificate, U.S. Pikler style training (based on Magda Gerber’s work with the Hungarian pediatrician Emmi Pikler, called RIE here ‘Resources for Infant Educarers’) and 34 years experience – the most of any staff member. My Lead infant teacher took a 6-week residential American Montessori Society training course, has worked unsupervised and unmentored since then and has still not completed her final paperwork for ‘certification’. I wouldn’t want the Lead teacher job even if I had Montessori training!

    I have worked with every age group in our three classrooms: Infants, Toddlers 18 months to 3 years, and Primary, mostly 3 and 4 year olds right now, and know all but the newest toddlers.

    In the past 4 years there have really been too many awful transitions to recount. They include phasing-in two children adopted into the same family, one from China the other a year or so later from Korea. Those phase-ins took place within the first year of adoption for each child when they were each no more than 2 years old! So much trauma in such a short life span.

    The amount of sobbing that goes on in these cases is painful to see. Watching an unskilled school owner (a lawyer) and teachers try and cope is heart rending – I just wanted to tell the parents to take their babies home, but most don’t want to, some can’t because they’re working.

    These children eventually seem to function but I’m certain that their souls are broken! (As if they weren’t already broken, in the cases of the adopted children)

    The most stable developmental trajectories and transitions only (ONLY!) happen when a child belongs to a warm and loving family and has gently grown up in our care or has grown up at home with a ‘good enough’ mother (that’s rare). Those from our infant programme transition slowly over several weeks into our toddler programme and with the knowledge that their infant staff are still around.

    Children 18 months and older frequently arrive ‘cold’ into our toddler and primary programmes with such a complexity of developmentally delayed behaviours that it is impossible to know where they came from. Some are the children of working parents, some have been through other facilities (we get no true feedback on those situations), some have made a poor transition into our earlier programme as infants (poor attachment to mother in every case I’ve observed), been removed from our facility for parental convenience, expelled from their next facility and back into ours – all before they are 3 years old! Oh, the screaming – the stories I could tell.

    Some children even arrive at our US English-speaking programme without a foundation in English. There are many Spanish only speaking families here in South Florida who enroll their children with us under the impression (the owner’s sales pitch I suspect) that they will learn English. A friend who is a speech and language specialist tells me that those children should be taught English as a second language (called ESOL in the US). No one on our staff has enough experience to trust my judgement and her opinion so we continue to try and educate unresponsive children.

    We currently have in the range of 75% of toddlers with developmental, emotional, speech and behavioural delays, no matter if they were adopted, from birth families only or from other facilities, and close to that percentage in our primary classroom.

    There is something seriously amiss with the US daycare situation. My impression is that everything lies at home with parents. Our school is relatively small and friendly but there has been a tremendous turnover of staff due to the nature of our work. Just two of us have stayed for 4 years since the school opened. Six other staff members have been with us for a year or less! So much for continuity of care!

    Apart from the nature of the work – challenging with developmentally delayed children and unqualified staff (only one staff member has any experience with children with autism, she is highly qualified and experienced but from Brazil and still struggling with her English) – I haven’t received a pay increase in 4 years and there are no benefits (living in the US, I had to depend on my husband working to have health insurance), the hours are long and the holidays few and unpaid.

    I work every day from 12-6.30 or 7 p.m. without a break – I am what’s called ‘a closer’: once all the children have left I clean up our infant rooms and toys, set it up for the next day, take out the rubbish and close down the school for the day – I also make sure the washing machine and dryer have done their jobs, put on the dishwasher, brought in the heavy gym mats we use outside, greased the track of the patio door, vacuumed and mopped the floors, sanitised tables and changing table, the list goes on! On occasion I start at 9 a.m., get a paid one-hour lunch break and work through until my usual closing time – that’s a 10 hour day!

    Some of the challenges of ever changing staff are: they are young (in their 20’s), it takes a while to learn the routine of the school and where you fit in, the work is really hard (and most degree owning 20-somethings aren’t given to working as hard as my generation!), and for the most part only one or two staff members really understand how destructive childcare can be to a child’s long term development.

    I originally stayed to ensure a little 9 month old would be well cared for – he used to spend his days lying quietly under a fan, flapping his hands with his tongue hanging out! No one on staff at that time thought it was strange! I immediately thought ‘autism?’ He is 4 now and because he comes from a loving family he is doing fine. I feel I protected him, but I am sure he would have made even better progress in a kinder care situation.

    Now his sister is due to join our infants in January and I feel I must stay and ensure her safety too!

    Many thanks to Dr. White for an important reminder of keeping up our high standards for the youngest in every population! It is very sad for me to feel that I must look to the UK and newsletters like Children Webmag for support and reinforcement of good work!


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