Episode 10
One Reason Why Foster and Adoptive Children Struggle to Learn

Children who have experienced trauma WILL typically struggle to learn. This can create a lot of frustration when we try to to teach them. Obviously there are many factors that can make learning difficult, but there is one thing we know for sure that makes learning impossible. When children do not feel safe, they can not learn.

Children who have experienced trauma, and trauma includes ANY type of relational loss, will struggle to feel safe. Feeling safe, or “felt safety”, is essential for healthy development, building new attachments, and of course, learning. I don’t think any of us would argue with that statement and we’re all pretty clear on physical safety and what that looks like, but what about emotional safety? That’s where things get a bit more subjective. What is emotionally safe to one, may not be emotionally safe to another. So while there are commonalities to most of our ideas around safety, let’s dive a little deeper into the term – felt safety.

Felt safety is unique to each individual and it’s our job as parents to figure out what that looks like for each one of our children. I first discovered this phrase from Karyn Purvis in the TBRI training we received to become foster certified. Felt safety, as defined by Dr. Purvis, is “when you arrange the environment and adjust your behavior so your children can feel in a profound and basic way that they are truly safe in their home with you. Until your child experiences safety for himself or herself, trust can’t develop, and healing and learning won’t progress” (p.48, The Connected Child).

For some reason this was easy for me to understand in the training room, and when I was reading about it in a book, but I struggled, and still do at times, to recognize my child’s fears (especially emotional fears) in real life scenarios. The most important thing for us to understand is that we do not need to judge whether the fear is rational, or irrational. It’s possible that all their fears may all seem irrational to us, but we must remember that we have not experienced what they have experienced. Our job is to recognize their fear and move towards creating emotional safety. There can not, and will not be constructive teaching or learning without it.

Have you ever been alone at night and been startled by a noise? Maybe you are trying to watch TV or read a book, but your attention is drawn to an unfamiliar noise you hear in another room. This happens to me from time to time, especially when Kyle is out of town. My first instinct is to freeze and try and listen for the sound again… maybe I’m gathering the courage to go investigate…and typically I find the sound to be the dishwasher or dryer or some other appliance. Once I’ve confirmed there is no real threat, I find my way back to the couch or bed, turn back on the TV or pick up my book only to find myself reading the same line again and again, or find myself completely distracted from the show I was interested in moments earlier… I know I’m safe, but I don’t feel safe. My brain and my body must be in agreement for me to feel safe, before I can continue on with my book or show.

That’s why we can’t expect our children to learn when they don’t feel safe. And creating felt safety takes time. We have to practice becoming aware of the emotional vulnerability and fears that show up for our children around learning. Have you ever tried to learn something new? I took some vocal lessons once. This vocal teacher had a beautiful voice and a very specific technique she was trying to teach me. Talk about vulnerability… Singing in front of vocal coach, and then listening to correction and feedback…are you kidding me? I didn’t last long…It leaves me wondering if this is how my daughter feels when I am instructing her on reading? No wonder, at times, she throws her pencil, crawls under the table and screams she’s not doing anymore! She’s a lot like me and wants to do everything right on the first try. She doesn’t want to feel the emotional exposure of not being able to perform the way she thinks I need her or want her to perform. And when I don’t recognize this, our school days can go sideways really fast.

In today’s podcast I talk about the importance of being aware of the fears and vulnerabilities that surround learning, teaching and schooling at home, both the child’s, and ours…yup, ours. The first step in creating felt safety is our own awareness of the fears running around in our heads! Be sure to identify these BEFORE moving on in helping our children identify theirs.

And most importantly. Let’s all take a deep belly breath and remember that yes, we are in a difficult season and we are being asked to do hard things, but the good news is…we can do hard things, & together, we got this!

Audio only


To read more from Karyn Purvis, check out her book The Connected Child along with many other great reads on my resource page
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