The Issue - Stop children in care falling through the net

27th September 2013 at 01:00
Schools can help looked-after students to develop appropriate relationships with adults in a structured, nurturing environment

More children are in care than you might think. In England, 67,050 children were in the care of local authorities in 2012, according to the British Association for Adoption and Fostering. In the US, statistics from the US Department of Health show that 400,540 children were in foster care in 2011. As a teacher, at some point you will almost certainly teach a child who is in care.

Children can be in care for a variety of reasons. If a single parent goes into hospital, their child will have to stay with relatives, friends or foster carers. But according to the UK Department for Education's 2012 policy paper An Action Plan for Adoption: tackling delay, in more than 60 per cent of cases children are placed in care after being abused or neglected by their parents or by those who have primary responsibility for them.

Many studies have shown that when children have experienced trauma before being taken into care, they are more likely to be permanently excluded from school because of challenging behaviour. Even when children who have experienced disrupted attachments have found stability in permanent placements or after being adopted, research has shown that they still present poorer levels of academic attainment.

It is, of course, important not to assume that all children in care will experience difficulties. Likewise, children can still struggle if they are in care for only a short period. Teachers should assess each individual on a case-by-case basis.

There are, however, some general rules that schools should follow for all children who are or have been in care. It is imperative that schools offer healthy relationships and a nurturing, structured environment to meet the social, emotional and behavioural needs of these children. It is likely that these elements were missing in the early life experiences of the child, so it is important for them to learn that adults - including those in school - are able to provide support, order and appropriate, stable relationships.

Schools should consider appointing a key worker for the child. It can be any staff member: a teacher, a support worker or someone in a pastoral role. Their main task is to form a positive relationship with the child and be there to provide comfort and reassurance if they become distressed.

Schools should also offer a variety of nurturing activities. Staff could, for example, sit with the child at lunchtimes and playtimes, as if in a family group, or lead games and activities. These strategies need to be balanced with appropriate levels of structure, so the child learns that adults are reliable and that the school day has some predictability. When considering structures that help children to feel safe, the following points may be useful.

Provide clear boundaries and time limits. Boundaries and limits may need to be physically indicated. For example, always give younger children the same place to sit on the carpet, or place older children at a workstation near the teacher's desk. Be clear about expectations and set time limits for activities, providing visual reminders such as a sand timer.

Provide order and predictability. Visual timetables for younger children can help to give structure to the day. Refer to the timetable frequently and use a "surprise card" for special visits and assemblies. Think about using pieces of music to indicate different activities, or a change in activity, and count down the time.

Provide clear consequences and help to make amends. Children need to know that their behaviour has consequences, but, perhaps more importantly, they need help to realise that relationships can be maintained even when there are difficulties. Thus, they will need help to repair and rebuild friendships if things go wrong. For example, they may need help to write a note of apology to a student they have been unkind to, or encouragement to tidy up a classroom after it has been left in a mess.

Even once a nurturing, structured environment and appropriate relationships have been established using these strategies, the job of schools is not over. They should then begin to work on specific skills with children, according to their individual needs.

Julia Clements is a schools trainer at PAC (formerly the Post Adoption Centre) and author of the guide Understanding and Meeting the Needs of Children Who Are Looked After, Fostered, Adopted or Otherwise Permanently Placed, which is available from

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