Best Practice

Attachment-aware schools

Attachment-aware and trauma-informed practice can help to support some of the most vulnerable pupils in our schools, including those who are looked after. Virtual school head Darren Martindale advises

As a virtual school head for looked after children, I have been working with schools for several years to develop “attachment-aware” and “trauma-informed” practice.

This helps schools to understand the behaviours of their most disengaged or “difficult” pupils, particularly where those pupils have experienced abuse, neglect or other trauma which inhibits their learning within the school.

Teachers always point out that the training is equally applicable to many pupils who are not in care. Indeed, such understanding can really shift the way that teachers approach behaviour management and improve the engagement of their most vulnerable children.

What is attachment awareness?

Attachment was described by the psychologist John Bowlby as the “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (Bowlby 1969). The quality of the earliest and most fundamental relationship – usually between mother and baby – creates connections in the brain which affect the way that we view ourselves, and the world, in later years.

If we have not had that deep, early experience of love and empathy (because the mother or main carer was unable to give it to us) we may not be able to feel it ourselves in the usual way. If we did not have our emotions regulated, or soothed, when we were very young, then we might not be able to control our own feelings and actions in later life.

Such children can come to view themselves as worthless or undeserving, and adults as threatening or untrustworthy. The world can seem like a treacherous place. So, when they’re challenged, they may revert back to that earliest stage, where they felt that their very survival was threatened – because their emotional needs weren’t being met. As a result, they dysregulate (or lash out or “kick off”) just to protect themselves.

Attachment theory calls this our “internal working model” and it serves as a filter for all our experiences and perceptions. When their interpretation of themselves and the world around them becomes distorted, children can easily become overwhelmed. This can affect their ability to regulate their emotions, and to process information. It often leads to difficulties in forming healthy relationships. You may have observed this in some pupils’ inability to “gel” with their peers or with adults.

Needless to say, this can present huge challenges in school. In addition to the more extreme behaviour highlighted above, these pupils might appear unfocused, withdrawn, controlling, manipulative, dishonest or self-destructive. It is hardly surprising that learning takes a back seat when the “primitive” brain – the parts that govern our instant reactions to threat, such as fight, flight and freeze – is always in survival mode.

A quick disclaimer – we shouldn’t assume that attachment is always the reason, or the only reason, for very disruptive behaviour. Research suggests that we need a diversity of approaches to supporting good mental health in schools (Luke et al, 2014). There may be undiagnosed learning difficulties, for example, and presenting behaviours can easily be confused or misread. Another criticism is that attachment theory doesn’t consider other possible issues, such as socio-economic or cultural factors.

It is critical, however, that education professionals understand the effects of attachment and early trauma. Even the more supportive behavioural strategies – modified timetables, changes to groupings or seating arrangements, use of feedback or reward – will not work with a dysregulated child.

Detentions and other traditional sanctions will certainly fail because there is nothing you can do to that child that can compare with the discomfort that they are already feeling. An exclusion will only increase their sense of anger and isolation, confirming their negative expectations (of yet another rejection).

Fortunately, brains are very plastic. They are constantly developing, especially during childhood. Schools can play a crucial part in improving the resilience and emotional wellbeing of children who have experienced trauma, neglect or loss.

Resilience, essentially, is the ability to cope with stress or challenge and to bounce back from adversity. However, it is also about having the skills to cope with stress in a socially acceptable way. If a person lacks emotional resilience, they might not be able to control destructive impulses. So, a pupil who has been challenged by the teacher, or is in conflict with a peer, suddenly upends their chair and sends their desk crashing – we all know how that story ends.

Consider this: if a pupil in school has a physical difficulty, we will rightly make sure that additional measures are in place to allow them to access their education. Yet if a pupil lacks emotional resilience because of trauma or attachment-related issues, and this affects their ability to learn, how often do schools genuinely make additional provision for them?

In some cases, we need to take them back through the developmental stages they have missed, and improve their readiness to learn, and we do that through relational approaches and by carefully considering their learning environment.

The ‘key’ adult

Children with attachment difficulties who struggle in school will need a key adult to be allocated to them – to act as an “additional attachment figure”. If that adult can build a trusting relationship with them, and the child knows they can go to them for support, that can be a lifeline. They learn that it is okay to trust others. This is epistemic trust, and it is a powerful driver for learning. The key adult can then help them to extend that trust to others.

They can also help to ensure that support packages are joined-up and integrated within the child’s overall provision map, avoiding further disintegration.

Clearly, this is sensitive and often challenging work. Therefore, it is vital that the key adult is adequately trained, resourced and supported to fulfil that role.

Relational strategies

The additional attachment figure, along with other school staff, should learn to:

  • Attune to the pupil – meet the child’s emotional intensity (positive or negative) with tone, appropriate touch, facial expressions and other empathic techniques to show understanding or connection with their experience.
  • Provide emotional holding/containing – have clear rules and boundaries and be strong, calm and reflective enough to stay with the child’s (intense) feelings, without breaking down in any way.

Asking for help, accepting that help, relaxing, resolving differences, accepting approval, even having fun – we might take these things for granted but they are skills that could be very new to some children, so they will need time and support to master them.

Give them regular opportunities to experience success and show them concrete evidence of it. At the same time, however, be wary of giving too much praise, too soon. They may find it very difficult to accept at first.

Identify how the child communicates those overwhelming feelings. Look for anxiety triggers for them in school. Then, try to find ways to actively intervene to reduce their anxiety.

A golden rule: never use shaming as a behavioural strategy. Such feelings can be unbearable for a child with unusually low levels of resilience.

Anne Daka, a senior educational psychologist, explains how shame can be so toxic: “Relentless experiences 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.”

She outlines some strategies that can be particularly helpful in this regard: “Give children a range of choices to allow them an element of control; be explicit (but also) empathetic in asserting instructions; help children to practise following our lead through creative games and activities in a fun way at times of calm, in preparation for possible conflicts. Set up a ‘Book of Success’ to remind children how far they have travelled.

“Avoid using sarcasm – keep communication clear, direct and warm. Stay connected to the child in some way when there is conflict. Always offer reparation activities as soon as possible – regardless of how shocking the behaviour may have been. These children need the opportunity to make amends.”

The school environment

Think about how you can make their environment less threatening to them. There are many ways of doing this but transitional times, such as moving between lessons, can be particularly difficult for some children to deal with so they should be given extra preparation for this. Go through the timetable with them at the start of each day, explain and reiterate timings and keep to routines as much as possible. Use diaries, visual aids and other reminders.

When there are staff changes, it is always helpful to place these children with familiar adults (again, the key adult) as anxiety will increase much more for them than for their peers. Preparation for major transitions, such as a change of school, should ideally be started several months before the event.

Noisy, chaotic surroundings can be particularly difficult. Identify a safe place, a breakout area, for them to go when things get too tough. This could contain some distracting activities or puzzles, and/or an object that the child finds comforting – an “attachment object”. For younger children this could be a favourite toy, or it might be a photo of a trusted carer. The child could put together a “time-out box” or a “calm-down jar” containing such things, with the help of their key adult.

Training and support for staff

School leaders should invest in training for staff in attachment/trauma awareness and in emotionally intelligent approaches such as THRIVE, Restorative Practice or “emotion coaching”. These strategies aim to develop self-awareness, internal regulation and other intrinsic factors, rather than external motivators such as rewards or sanctions. As such, they are likely to be more effective in the long-term.

Staff will also need to be able to recognise and manage their own feelings. Traumatised children often have a way of making those around them feel the same state of hyper-arousal. Many teachers will be all-too familiar with the powerful, embodied feelings of stress or panic that seem to arise on occasion, despite our best efforts to resist them, and these can be detrimental to a person’s health if not managed properly. This is known as “secondary trauma” or “toxic stress”. Suffice to say that staff need on-going training and support, including regular quality supervision, to help them to manage these challenges.

I use the general term “staff”, because this doesn’t just apply to teachers. Lunchtime supervisors, office staff etc are all likely to have regular contact with the most disadvantaged pupils. Given that pupils with attachment difficulties often struggle with unstructured times, such as lunch breaks, it is clear that anyone on the staff team can be left vulnerable unless they are equipped with the right skills.

Within that lexicon of CPD, we must also remember that there are no magic wands and no strategy will work in every difficult situation. Staff need to be able to make, own and learn from their mistakes, making calculated risks where necessary; that’s a key factor of resilience.

A whole-school approach

One of the underlying principles informing these models is “social learning theory”, which posits that people learn from each other via observation, modelling and imitation. It is vital, therefore, that staff communicate a clear and consistent message. For an approach such as emotion coaching to work, in other words, all staff need to be practising it all of the time. School leaders need to consider how this can become ingrained through whole-school training, staff meetings, induction of new colleagues, the involvement of parents/carers and the on-going monitoring and evaluation of pedagogical approaches.

Some schools may also need to look again at their behaviour policies. Research has indicated that relational (rather than behavioural) frameworks are more effective, particularly with children who have difficulties related to attachment or early trauma (Bergin & Bergin 2009, Riley 2010 & Cozolino 2013).

A relational framework acknowledges that all behaviour is a form of communication. So, “bad” or unacceptable behaviour is often a communication of an unmet need. The trick is to learn to “read” that behaviour, to better understand what the child is trying to communicate. Does your school’s behaviour or exclusions policy promote that principle?

It is also worth remembering that an understanding of attachment and emotional literacy should ultimately help all students to succeed – vulnerable pupils aren’t the only ones who sometimes struggle with attachment. Indeed, emotions and learning are inextricably linked (see, for example Siegel 2012). By applying flexibility and creativity – alongside consistency – to an understanding of attachment and trauma, schools can significantly reduce exclusions and improve behaviour. However, they can also raise attainment, particularly (though not exclusively) for their most vulnerable students.

  • Darren Martindale is virtual school head for looked-after children at City of Wolverhampton Council.

Pupil Premium keynote

Darren Martindale will be leading a best practice workshop entitled Supporting the Most Vulnerable Pupil Premium and Pupil Premium Plus Children at SecEd’s 10th National Pupil Premium Conference on September 28 in Birmingham:

References & reading