Little People, Big Feelings: in conversation with Grace Tohl
Grace Tohl’s life changing moment came at a market, where she met with someone from Anglicare and was invited along to an information night about being a foster parent. Three years and fourteen children later, Grace is a wealth of knowledge about children and trauma, and has branched out to develop a range of aromatherapy balms, designed to help make a tricky time in a child’s life a little bit easier. Grace joined The Sector Assistant Editor Freya Lucas to talk about what children in care need most from their educators.
Interviewee: Grace Tohl
Organisation: Little People, Big Feelings
Topic: Wellbeing, children in care, navigating the foster care system, children and trauma
Freya : How did you get started on the path to foster care?
Grace: As a child I’d always enjoyed looking after younger children and having grown up with two younger brothers the nurturing role came very naturally to me. As a young adult I travelled to Ethiopia to work in an orphanage for three months and gain some more experience caring for children. About three years ago, I was at a market. I came across an AnglicareSA stall promoting foster care, took an information booklet and signed up for an information night the next week. Three years and 14 children later, finding that AnglicareSA stall was the best thing I ever did! Today I am a mum of three children and have recently started a small business selling the balm range I created to assist the children I’ve cared for with their big feelings.
Freya: What are some tips you’ve learned along the way, which educators and leaders could support you (as the foster parent) with?
Grace: There’s been a lot of things I’ve learned along the way! There are many things educators can do to support foster children and families, and to make the environment more secure and accepting for us:
- Meet with us prior to meeting with the child to discuss the child’s history and future goals in private: as a foster carer it is difficult to quickly speak with an educator before/after class when the information may be confidential or when it is in the best interest of the child for other families not to overhear. Understand children in care are often extremely alert to their surroundings so any discussions taking place in front of them will most likely be listened to, and could cause a reaction.
- Give us some information about what the child can expect on their first day so we can prepare the child at home. I once had a teacher send home a welcome letter with a photo of themselves with their children and a short paragraph about their favourite things. It worked magically to help this little girl feel calmer on her first day.
- Have patience with foster carers when handling accounts, enrollments and permission slips. This is not something we have total control over. We often have to seek permissions from agencies and other parties for things like account payments and excursions, and the people involved are busy with a lot of cases.
- Duplicate copies of important documents, milestones and celebrations, like reports, art work, photos, parent christmas gifts – these are really valuable to give copies to biological family members, and give to social workers so a record is kept of the important moments in a child’s life.
- Understand that some children in foster care have excellent “acting skills” They have learnt over time to keep themselves safe in past environments, and a lot of the time children can appear fine but become “undone” once they’re at home and in their safe place. If a foster carer is asking for a change in education routine because of what they are noticing at home after being in an education and care service, please support us even if the behaviour seems unimaginable for the child you see in school time.
- Share frequently, in detail, about how the child is going in the classroom. In some situations the educator will get to know the child better than what we as foster carers do. Information from a child’s past can be unknown to all involved and if a child exhibits a certain behaviour or shares information it may be something vital that we are not aware of yet.
Freya: What are some tips you’ve learned along the way, which educators and leaders could support the child with?
Grace: I’ve learned a few things along the way. Some of the most important are:
- Take note of the important people in the child’s life. Children in care can have unique family trees and when an educator is aware of this they can support the child in discussions with friends or when they choose to share information. This also helps to keep children safe in the instance that they disclose any information that may be important to keep a child out of harm.
- Take the time to be aware of what the child calls the foster carer. Assuming the child calls us mum or by our first name can upset and embarrass children in care.
- Reframe the term “foster child” to “child in care”. Labelling children this way can be damaging. A child in care’s identity should not be determined by the fact they are in care so to label them as a “foster child” assumes they are different to other children. The same can be said for using the terms foster mum or foster dad. Using these terms in front of a child who recognises their foster carer as their mum in the same way the other children in class recognise their parent gives a constant reminder that their life is different to others.
- Teachers being familiar of hypervigilance and how this presents. Some children in foster care are constantly wondering where they will live next, when they will move next, who will leave them next, where will they be taken next. Trying to take new information in and concentrate when all these (survival) thoughts are running through your mind is very difficult. Because of this children in foster care achieve better when things are simplified, in a routine, predictable and repeated.
- Be aware of the potential triggers for the child in care. Ask foster carers how they handle these triggers, how to avoid these triggers, what kinds of behaviours they see when child is triggered and how to best support child.
- Be patient and understanding of children in care, they have been through a lot!
- Be aware that discipline strategies used for the other children in the group may not work or be appropriate with children in care.
Freya: What are some of the signs of trauma educators may miss, and how can they support?
Grace: Some of the common trauma signs I’ve observed, and worked through with educators are:
- Children trying to control the dynamics of the room to keep themself safe – being bossy, making lots of noise, fidgeting, distracting others, being overly affectionate.
- Children not settling – short attention spans, not taking in information can be due to the child being hyper alert to their own safety. If they concentrate on their work and learning how can they still make sure they are safe in their environment at the same time?
- Food issues – over or under eating can be a result of past traumas.
- Extreme reactions when they do something they feel is wrong – children in care may have been “punished” in extreme ways in the past and can assume this punishment will happen again – even if the mistake or wrongdoing seems minor to the educators and other children.
- Issues with affection, touching, getting changed, toilet – this is dependant on the past trauma for the child, and aspects of this type of care should always be discussed with foster carer or behaviour reported back to foster carers.
- Delayed emotional regulation and empathy – a child in care may have not experienced any healthy role models yet, and may still be learning the behaviours other children display “naturally” like care and concern for others, empathy, patience etc.
- Non age appropriate independence – a child in care may have experienced a lifestyle of taking care of themselves, and may therefore be quite comfortable in preparing their own food, using scissors independently, dressing independently etc. The reverse can also be true, and some children have not been taught to eat with utensils, dress themselves, or use the toilet.
Freya: If you could design the ideal care environment to support children who were navigating trauma, what might this look, sound, smell and feel like?
Grace: There are a lot of small, inexpensive changes that educators and services can make to create an environment which feels welcoming and safe to all children, but especially children in care. In a perfect world, I’d like to see:
- A classroom with natural light, soft calming music, calming essential oils diffusing
calm down corner children can access themselves with sensory, present moment toys, the Little People Big Feelings balm range, weighted blankets and pillows, ear muffs.
- An accessible “i am feeling…” chart so children who do not feel comfortable verbalising their feelings can show the educator a card/image instead.
- Routine reminder charts around the room so the children have a visual reminder they can be directed to when they are wondering what is coming next in their day.
- Visual reminders of what is acceptable behaviour.
- Clear and outlined consequences and their progressions so children aren’t fearful of what will happen if they make a mistake.
- Smaller class sizes so children can be supported and educators can take the time to be aware of a child in foster cares history, triggers, behaviours and goals.
- Lots of positive reinforcement!
- Fidget toys and different seating options available.
- A different room or different teacher children can visit and talk to when feeling overwhelmed.
- Children involved in decision making about their day and the classroom.
- A special spot in the class or office for “special items” – some children in foster care are very attached to a personal item as this has not left them like people have and it often becomes their safety mechanism.
Freya: What do we in the ECEC sector not understand about the reality for families and children, when children are in care?
Grace: Foster carers often live in the unknown with a child in our care. There is so much of the past that is unknown to us and so much that is out of out control with future decision making. We can only focus on one day at a time and doing our best with the situation we are presented with.
We are faced with challenges on a daily basis, so many simple tasks are more challenging for foster carers. Imagine spending your week with a child you’ve just met and have very little information about. Day-to-day tasks like going to the supermarket, visiting a friend, going to a dentist appointment, serving dinner all become a guessing game of how the child in your care will feel and behave. As foster carers we are always aware of the environment and in constant look out for any signs of negative feelings that the child may be showing.
Visits with biological family are out of our control and can sometimes leave the children with an “emotional hangover” for a number of days after. We are doing our best to support children in care through this.
Educators play a valuable role as part of the “care team” for children in care and as foster carers we are extremely grateful for the support.
Freya: What are some of the myths and misconceptions about foster care, and children who are in care?
Grace: There are many myths out there. Some of those that I’ve come across are:
- All children in care are naughty – some children in care are quite the opposite and can be very introverted and shy.
- All children in care have suffered extreme trauma – children are removed from their biological family for all different reasons.
- Children in care are happy to be in care – some children can be very upset and angry that they have been moved away from the family they know, even when the home has been unsafe. Other children can be relieved and happy to be out of an environment which was not suitable for them. There’s no one rule for every child, and children can have mixed feelings, feel strongly one way or another, or change from time to time, depending on their circumstances.
- Children in care are lucky and should be grateful for their life and foster carers – children in foster care have suffered a great loss. It is us as foster carers who are lucky to have been blessed with them in our lives.
- Foster carers get paid lots of money – being a foster carer is a volunteer role, we do this because we want to help children in need and are donating our own time, finances and lifestyle for the cause.
Freya: Can you explain the differences between kinship care and foster care?
Grace: Kinship care is when a relative or a known person close to the family takes care of the child. Foster care is when a child is matched with a foster carer. Children placed with foster carers or kinship carers can be on a respite, emergency, short term or long term placement.
Freya: Thanks Grace, is there anything else you’d like to share?
Grace: Being a foster carer is the most rewarding experience of my life, yes there are many challenges but the happy, love filled moments far outweigh these! Foster care can fit into your life in many shapes/forms and for anyone who feels called to the idea please find out more. There are many children in Australia who still need loving and stable homes.
For more information about Grace’s story, and the Little People, Big Feelings balm range, visit www.littlepeoplebigfeelings.com.au