"This is the best 90 minutes of my week – I always learn masses," Martin confides as we sit in the Peeple Centre before the group starts. Matthew wriggles on and off his knee, then round behind his chair, as adults begin to arrive through the open door with babies and toddlers, buggies and bags. Matthew is two years old. "This is our 61st day together, and, yes, I’m the main carer," he continues. "I’ve never cried so much. I now understand so much more about my own feelings too."
Martin is one of seven foster carers who have been meeting every fortnight over the past three months. Today there are also five babies in the group ranging in age from six to seventeen months old. It is 1.30 in the afternoon, and sun streams in through the windows.
Helen is running the group, and places some topic hand outs and other information for the foster carers on the table. At the other end, co-facilitator Sue has arranged a wide basket on a rug, strewn with picture books, sensory objects and things for babies to shake and roll. The older children move back and forth between their carer and Sue who sits on the floor chatting and playing with them; sometimes they are on a knee, sometimes exploring the room, sometimes tussling over an interesting object in the basket. The adults evidently know each other at this stage in the term, and the children are at ease with both Helen and Sue so there is a fluidity in the children’s attention and focus of interest.
There is a general buzz of conversation between the foster carers, who realise they can joke and confide safely. Helen asks them how things are going. She has focussed all the material for the course on the Personal, Social and Emotional Development (PSED) strand in the Peep Learning Together Programme. The course content covered the following topics:
The importance of names
The importance of relationships
An introduction to ORIM
Making the most of routines
Helping children understand and manage their feelings
Helping children feel good about themselves
The importance of support and encouragement
Today’s session focus is on helping children understand and manage their feelings. There are ideas on the topic handout that act as starting points and information to be explored:
‘The wide range and mixture of feelings can be very confusing for young children. Younger children can generally recognise basic emotions, such as happy or sad, but they may confuse fear with anger. By the age of four years, children learn that it is possible to feel mixed emotions.’
This rings so true with these carers. What emerges through the conversation and shared experiences is how the older children in their care have a real need to control their situations and their relationships. When things can be so unpredictable for them, they show their need to control through everyday things, like insisting on what to wear and when to dress. These are some of the little but regular challenges that it seems helpful to talk about today because they are interdependent with how the children feel about where they are and who they are with. Where children are up for adoption, the coming and going between different households affects their emotional behaviour.
Sarah is sensing this strongly about the child in her care but speaks generally about children in this situation and as an experienced foster carer: "They have a sense of loyalty to their parent which is difficult to manage, so they’re often dealing with massive emotions."
"What do you do?" asks Helen.
"Reassure them; show them I’m there for them."
Similarly Martin says how much being a foster carer and coming to the group has helped him become aware of and articulate his own feelings. This is again emphasised in the topic handout:
‘Talk about your own feelings… tell them when something makes you happy or upset, and explain why you feel that way. This will help your child to understand that changes in how we are feeling are a natural part of being who we are.’
Here foster carers are given the opportunity to reflect on their own experiences and relationships with their children; what it means emotionally to welcome them into their homes and to have to say goodbye, and all the times in between. Finding the words is important - as they recognise their own emotions and help their children talk about how they feel. Coming together and sharing the challenges and successes of their role – and having these acknowledged - supports them both individually and also in their joint perspectives on their children’s learning and behaviour. They become positive models in their children’s lives, even where their time together may be brief.
We can see some real achievements through running this group for foster carers.
adult learning - peep progression pathway
Over this year, all fourteen foster carers have completed their NOCN Level 2 qualification unit (part of the Peep Progression Pathway): 'Supporting Babies' and Young Children's Personal, Social and Emotional Development as part of Everyday Life'. They have kept records of what they have noticed as the children in their care learn and develop. Frank and his partner have between them fostered several children over the years. This afternoon he proudly displays his portfolio, full of their drawings and marks and his own reflections. Their smiles say it all.
The course was funded by Oxfordshire’s Virtual School, Early Years team and Foster Care Team. This team has an overview of all those Looked After Children attending settings. It was really rewarding to see the interaction between Christine Grandison (the Virtual School’s Early Years lead) and the foster carers in the Peep group as they talked together about their role and as they proudly showed off their portfolios.
Helen had recruited foster carers for this group via the County Fostering Team and the social workers with whom the foster carers regularly have contact.
The foster carers who attended this course evidently felt a sense of group cohesion, participating in conversations about challenging and emotionally moving situations, where they could see their voices were heard, and their relationships valued in a non-judgemental way. This led to an openness about sharing and honesty about admitting feelings both in themselves and at home or with partners and with their looked after children. By having a safe place to discuss emotions and behaviour and how to manage these, the foster carers helped each other to gain a sense of perspective on their children’s learning and behaviour.
Written by Alison Street, Peeple trustee, Sept 2019. Foster carer names have been changed.