Where’s Josh?” I called out.
“He’s in the box,” came the reply.
I was running a music club, my Thursday evening Rockschool, for children in care. We were putting a band together. I’d lost Josh.
My eyes darted across the room to find that my newest pupil, and potential bassist, was indeed hiding inside a plastic crate with the lid closed in the corner of the room.
Perhaps not the most promising start.
I fought the urge to panic or to raise my voice, satisfied myself that Josh was conscious and able to breathe, and returned to teaching drumming. Josh stayed in the box for the entire session.
The funny thing was, he came back the following week…and every week thereafter. He was in and out of the box a few times, but, eventually, he stayed out. Instead of reading Josh the riot act, we let him join in when he was ready, gently introduced praise and encouragement, and focused on the one thing that might engage him – music – rather than any perceived shortcomings.
Fast-forward several months and Josh was performing on a theatre stage in front of 300 people. He played bass, if I remember rightly, to Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana. There were only four notes involved, but it had been quite a journey for him and for the staff.
As the City of Wolverhampton Council virtual school head (VSH) for looked-after children (LAC), I lead on the education of pupils in the care of the local authority – those like Josh. The VSH is a statutory role for all local authorities and we have been working with schools for several years to develop “attachment awareness”, helping teachers to understand the behaviours of their most disengaged or “difficult” pupils.
While the training is ostensibly about LAC, teachers always point out that this understanding is equally applicable to many of their pupils who are not in care.
Through the lens of working with LAC, we’ve found that an understanding of the effects of early trauma and neglect can shift the way that teachers approach behaviour management. So, below is the benefit of that experience, along with some recent research and writing on the subject.
Attachment was described by psychologist John Bowlby as the “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings”.
The quality of the earliest relationship – usually between mother and baby – creates connections in the brain that have a profound effect in later years. If a child has not had that deep experience of love and empathy, because the main carer was unable to give it, that child may not be able to feel those things themselves in the usual way. If they did not have their emotions regulated, or soothed, as an infant, then they might not be able to control their own feelings and actions in later life.
Such children can come to view themselves as undeserving, adults as untrustworthy and the world as a dangerous place. So, they kick off whenever they’re challenged to protect themselves – a survival mechanism against a perceived threat. When that internal working model of themselves and the world around them becomes twisted, children can become overwhelmed. This can affect their ability to process information and often leads to difficulties in forming healthy relationships.
Understandably, learning takes a distant back seat in a life that, to the primitive brain, is always a struggle for survival.
A quick warning: it can be a mistake to assume that attachment is always the reason, or the only reason, for disruptive behaviour. There may be undiagnosed learning difficulties, especially if attendance hasn’t been good, and it should be remembered that attachment theory doesn’t consider other possible factors, such as socioeconomic or cultural issues.
There can also be similarities between attachment-related behaviours and those associated with, for example, autism spectrum disorder. Indeed, sometimes we’re talking about a cocktail of difficulties requiring a diversity of approaches.
It is critical, however, to understand the effects of attachment and early trauma. The usual supportive strategies for struggling children – modified curriculum, changes to groupings, additional adult support, targeted use of feedback or reward – are of little use to a dysregulated child. Rewards tend to have limited efficacy and sanctions ultimately fail because there is nothing you can do to that child that can compete with the discomfort that they’re probably already feeling. An exclusion will only leave them angrier and more isolated, confirming their assumption that they were going to be rejected – again.
The good news is that brains are very plastic. They are constantly changing and developing, especially during childhood. So, as teachers, we can do a lot to help children become happier, better adjusted and more resilient, and therefore ready to learn.
Resilience is essentially the ability to cope with stress or challenge, and capacity to bounce back from adversity. But it’s also about having the skills to cope with stress in a socially acceptable way.
Imagine that you’ve been standing in the queue at Tesco for quite some time and someone casually inserts themselves in front of you. Being emotionally resilient, you will hopefully resist the temptation to grab the bottle of wine out of your basket (it’s a Friday after work) and whack them over the head with it. If a person lacks emotional resilience, they might not be able to control that impulse.
If a child in school has a physical difficulty, we will rightly make sure that measures are in place to allow them to access their right to an education. Yet if a pupil lacks emotional resilience because of trauma or attachment-related issues, and this of course affects their ability to learn, how often do schools genuinely make additional provision for them?
Real learning occurs when the brain is challenged, so how can we give vulnerable children the tools to cope with the demands of education?
Give them a ‘key’ person
The brain is shaped by social experience, and those social functions are what helps the brain to learn. It can be crucial to have a key adult in school that the child can go to when they are struggling. If that adult can build a trusting relationship, the child realises they don’t need to be completely self-dependant anymore. They learn that it’s okay to trust others. They develop epistemic trust, and this drives learning.
Hopefully the key adult can then help them to extend that trust to others.
However, you may also need to be very clear about boundaries. Let them know how you will connect with them before you do it – give them time to process – but also teach them not to be overfamiliar. When working with LAC, I have found that many of them struggle to trust or accept the help of others. Yet conversely, some will take to adults all too quickly – they seem to have no filter or understanding of safe boundaries.
Be patient and offer guidance
Asking for help, accepting that help, relaxing, resolving conflict, accepting approval or affection and having fun – these skills might be very new to some children, so they’ll need time and support to master them. Remember that we’re challenging negative assumptions that have been hardwired into the child’s brain. Give them regular opportunities to experience success and show them concrete evidence of it (but be wary of giving too much praise too soon).
Adjust behaviour strategies
You must absolutely avoid shaming the child as a behavioural strategy, because such feelings can be unbearable for someone with unusually low levels of resilience. Anne Daka, senior educational psychologist for Wolverhampton Council, explains how shame can be so toxic to these children: “Relentless experience of criticism and shame early in life damages the core of the young person, limiting their inner joy, peace, humour and spontaneity. Even in low-stress situations, they may experience fear and panic. We need to be skilful in the way we deal with conflict; we need to try to understand why those young people engage in battles for control.”
Think about how you can make the school environment less threatening to them. There are many ways of doing this, but transitional times, such as moving between lessons, can be difficult for some children to handle, so they need to be given extra preparation for this. Go through the timetable with them at the start of each day, explain and reiterate timings, give support when rooms or staff change and keep to routines as much as possible.
Preparation for major transitions, such as a change of school, should ideally be started several months before the event. Identify a safe place, a breakout area, for the child to go when things get too tough. This could contain some distracting activities and/or an object that they find comforting, such as a photo of a trusted carer. The child could put together a “time-out box” or a “calm-down jar”, with the help of school support staff.
Invest in training
Wolverhampton Virtual School has invested in training for teachers in emotion coaching, an approach developed by US psychologist John Gottman, which enables young people to manage their own behaviour by helping them to understand the emotions they experience, why they occur, and how to handle them.
- Firstly, recognise and validate the child’s feelings, and empathise with what they are experiencing: “I can see you’re frowning and kicking the wall and you’re angry. I would be angry, too, if I didn’t want to do something.” The adult sets a calm emotional tone (known as co-regulation)
- The second stage is containment and the setting of appropriate boundaries: “Doing that is not okay. We can’t behave like that, even if we’re annoyed, because it’s not safe.”
- Finally, we problem-solve, scaffolding a different course of action with them: “Next time you’re feeling like this, what could you do? How do you think you will react if this happens again?”
This approach aims to develop intrinsic factors, self-awareness and internal regulation rather than external motivators such as rewards or sanctions. As such, it is likely to be more effective in the long term. Emotionally literate approaches, such as emotion coaching and restorative practice, are effective de-escalation techniques, and also support preparedness for learning, and so should raise attainment and progress, as well as reduce exclusions.
Look after yourself, too
Learn to recognise and regulate your own feelings. Traumatised children often have a way of making those around them feel the same state of hyperarousal. It is a powerful, embodied sense of stress or panic that will be detrimental to a person’s health if not properly managed. This is known as “secondary trauma”, and headteachers must understand that staff need ongoing training, support and supervision to help them to manage these challenges.
Schools should develop opportunities for peer support and a space in which staff can discuss and reflect without feeling judged. And this doesn’t just apply to teachers. Lunchtime supervisors, office staff etc are all likely to have regular contact with the most vulnerable pupils.
Given that it’s often during unstructured times, such as a lunchbreaks, that the more extreme behaviours manifest themselves, it’s clear that anyone on the staff team can be left extremely vulnerable without some of the skills described above.
No magic wand
There is no magic wand that works on every child, every time. You’ll need to be flexible, creative and able to improvise. All behaviour is communication, so try to ask what it is that they’re trying to communicate with you.
An emotionally intelligent approach to behaviour management will help a lot of children to become more resilient, more responsive and, yes, higher achievers. It can help to prevent exclusion, which has a disproportionate effect on children who are already disadvantaged, and you might just be able to coax a traumatised child, figuratively if not literally, out of their box.
The ARC (Attachment Research Community) is a new charity, driven by virtual heads and ex-virtual heads, dedicated to improving the understanding of how young people with attachment-related difficulties can be supported in school. See the-arc.org.uk for information about how to become involved
Darren Martindale is virtual school head for looked-after children for the City of Wolverhampton Council
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