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Creating a Child Centred School for Children with Significant Trauma and Attachment Difficulties: An interview with Joanna McCreadie, CEO of Seamab
In the following interview, Joanna McCreadie, CEO of Seamab, speaks about how schools can support children and young people who have suffered significant relational trauma and disrupted attachments. Themes emerging from the interview may well resonate with those teaching and working with children and young people who have had an adverse start in life.
1. Tell us about what you do and how you got where you are now.
I am the chief executive of Seamab with overall responsibility for the workings of the charity. The most important aspect of my job is overseeing the day-to-day work with the children both in education and in care and their recovery from trauma.
I started out at the beginning of my career as a volunteer working with children with disabilities and I found out I love working with kids. I began working in residential childcare in both secure and open settings. At the age of 22, I was working with some of the most challenging young people in Scotland. I found that residential care offers a unique opportunity to engage with children and young people and make a difference. By coming alongside, I could become part of their lives. I think it can be a powerful way to change children’s lives for the better.
I then became a children and family’s social worker. I also worked as an inspector of social work services and then I came back into residential care. I have been at Seamab for seven years. My previous experiences prepared me for my current role, where I need to think strategically and at the same time be focussed on what makes a difference to children and what helps them recover from some of their horrific experiences.
“My previous experiences prepared me for my current role in which I need to think strategically and at the same time be focussed on what makes a difference to children and helps them recover from some of their horrific experiences.”
“I found that residential care offers a unique opportunity to engage with children and young people and make a difference. By coming alongside, I could become part of their lives.”
2. What kind of school is Seamab?
I think it is a really happy place to be for the children. It is a place where we care about their lives and experiences. It is about being alongside them, nurturing and supporting them to make up for some of those pieces they have missed.
We have a school and a care service; they work together so the children get an integrated experience of care and education. We also have a few children that come on day placements. These are children who have really struggled in mainstream and specialist school settings, but are still living at home. In that way, we can support their staying at home.
We see ourselves as a charity that understands the impact of trauma and completely accepts what our children present to us on a day-to-day basis. The work is how to help them move forward. We understand it takes a long time to do this work and we recognise that we have to be persistent.
“We see ourselves as a charity that understands the impact of trauma and completely accepts what our children present to us on a day-to-day basis. The work is how to help them move forward.”
3. In your role at Seamab what are you most passionate about?
I get most joy from seeing the children playing outside, being happy and just being kids. Giving them what every child should have, the opportunity to be calm, safe and in the company of adults who care about them deeply. I am passionate about creating childhood for children who haven’t had it yet. We recognise that for children who have experienced significant trauma you can’t just do something once or twice, you are probably going to have to do it a hundred times and then you are going to have to amp it up a bit after that.
“I am passionate about creating childhood for children who haven’t had it yet. We recognise that for children who have experienced significant trauma you can’t just do something once or twice, you are probably going to have to do it a hundred times and then you are going to have to amp it up a bit after that.”
4. You are working with children who have suffered relational trauma, disrupted attachments and separations and losses. These are children who have struggled in mainstream settings. Your staff must have a lot of training. How do you ensure that knowledge transfers into practice?
There is research that shows that training doesn’t necessarily change practice. When I started here, the staff already had training, but it hadn’t created a child-centred and trauma-responsive way of working with children. Yes, we provide training, for example on dyadic developmental practice, DDP, but it is more about the engagement of individuals in a reflective process. Everyone who works with children here has to recognise that they are on a learning journey. The reflective work helps people think about the impact, about what has worked that day and hasn’t, and about what they might do differently tomorrow. We need to teach staff to accept that things will go wrong, that’s part of the learning process.
When a child comes to us we accept them unconditionally for who are and what they present. Our job is to work out how to support them effectively. It is not that child’s job to tell us, and it is not that child’s job to sort that out. It is our job to reflect on, try things out and see what works and makes a difference. This approach requires practitioners who are able to reflect and prepared to keep trying things.
One of the staff compares working here to solving a Rubik’s Cube. You have to turn the colours around a lot of times before you find the combination that works, and the next day you may have to do that differently again.
The other way we have ensured that the knowledge gained in training is transferred into practice is by creating a culture that is strongly focused on the needs of children. That means valuing what every child brings and being a bit gritty about that. Many of the children that come to us are very challenging, and they push adults to the brink of their resilience and tolerance. As a team with have to have a grittiness about seeing that through and keeping that going.
“When a child comes to us we accept them unconditionally for who are and what they present. Our job is to work out how to support them effectively. It is not that child’s job to tell us, and it is not that child’s job to sort that out. It is our job to reflect, try things out and see what works and makes a difference. This approach requires practitioners who are able to reflect and prepared to keep trying things.”
“The other way we have ensured that the knowledge gained in training is transferred into practice is by creating a culture that is strongly focused on the needs of children. That means valuing what every child brings and being a bit gritty about that. Many of the children that come to us are very challenging, and they push adults to the brink of their resilience and tolerance. As a team with have to have a grittiness about seeing that through and keeping that going.”
5. What happens when adults use an attachment-aware and trauma-informed framework in order to understand behaviours?
Adults start to see past the behaviour. They don’t see the child who is being challenging or resistant as being awkward and difficult. They see the child as someone who is struggling emotionally, and so you can have a very different response to that child. They can see the behaviour as a symptom of the child’s trauma experience. It is a behaviour that is adapted to some previous trauma; it has worked for them at some point, but it is not terribly effective now. That allows adults to accept that behaviour and begin to work on it in different ways.
It allows the adults to be really flexible. You might have a child who says, “I’m not doing that piece of work.”
The adult can look differently at this and think, “Maybe it’s not that important that I control this situation. Maybe what’s more important is that I get at what’s behind that behaviour and help the child engage with me. Maybe I need to address issues of trust and help this child feel safer with me and we can come back later and look at the work. I know that if I sit you down at the desk that you are ‘allergic’ to the pencil. What about if I do the maths outside using stones?”
Understanding the impact of trauma gives permission to adults to work more creatively and imaginatively. This allows the adult to get over this bit we tend to get stuck in: “I am the adult and I expect you to follow my instructions.” We know that children who have suffered trauma don’t trust in adult instruction and they are naturally resistant to that. That child is much better at seeing that conflict through than you, so it is better if the adult walks around that conflict and works with it in a different way.
“They can see the behaviour as a symptom of the child’s trauma experience. It is a behaviour that is adapted to some previous trauma; it has worked for them at some point, but it is not terribly effective now. That allows adults to accept that behaviour and begin to work on it in different ways.”
“Understanding the impact of trauma gives permission to adults to work more creatively and imaginatively. This allows the adult to get over this bit we tend to get stuck in: ‘I am the adult and I expect you to follow my instructions.’”
6. Children may be used to adults standing back and reacting when something is wrong. How is the approach different at Seamab?
Our approach of coming alongside a child is quite different to that kind of reactive approach that you often see in other settings.
The team will try to understand the child, what they like to do and don’t like to do, and what their interests are. We focus on their strengths and think about their future. We hold hope for them in terms of what their lives might mean for them and other people. In coming alongside a child, we try offer things that will be exciting and engaging and focus on developing key support through attachment relationships in school and in the care setting. We know the child needs secure attachment relationships. Once children start to develop those secure attachments, they can have a sense of safety. But that can be quite frightening for children, if they have not had that before. So that can take a lot of working through, persistence and patience.
Once children settle into those more secure attachment relationships, we see them start to learn in the classroom and relax in the care setting. We would then be encouraging children to be involved in things in the community like playing American Football or in Cubs. We don’t mind what the activity is, we follow the child’s interest.
One of the things people see and comment on when they come to Seamab is all these activities that are going on. A couple of months ago, outside the front of the building, we had a big pile of enormous tyres and a trampette, and we made an obstacle course. The children were out playing on that every day and feeling good about mastering different techniques of going up and down the tyres. There are kids who are able physically and they were taking pride in being able to master a tumble and land on their feet. There were others who were not so confident but were proud of themselves for climbing to the top of the tyre stack and waving down to their trusted adult. It is about creating activities in which the child and adult are together, both participating and enjoying each other. It is almost back to those experiences of very small children and babies where there is joy and pleasure in just being together. We will do these kinds of things routinely here because we see it as an important part of the work.
“Our approach of coming alongside a child is quite different to that kind of reactive approach that you often see in other settings.”
“In coming alongside a child, we try offer things that will be exciting and engaging and focus on developing key support through attachment relationships in school and in the care setting. We know the child needs secure attachment relationships. Once children start to develop those secure attachments, they can have a sense of safety.”
“It is about creating activities in which the child and adult are together, both participating and enjoying each other. It is almost back to those experiences of very small children and babies where there is joy and pleasure in just being together. We will do these kinds of things routinely here because we see it as an important part of the work.”
7. Consistency of approach must be really important. What does that look like? Can you give an example of how you use a shared language when it comes to talking about children’s needs?
That is really difficult. We have about 70 adults here, and we all have contact with the children. We will have different approaches as adults. We accept here that consistency doesn’t mean everyone being exactly the same and having the same reaction to a particular behaviour.
I think consistency in practice, across care and education, is the stance we take and the approach we have. The children here can be confident that when they are approached by an adult there will be a welcoming smile, and “I’m interested in what you have to say.”
Where we try to achieve consistency is in planning for progress. We use ‘Outcomes Star’ when the care and education team come together. We look at what the child has achieved so far and they look at how they plan to make progress towards outcomes for the child. If there have been particular issues or an incident, teams come together and work.
It is a challenge to get that agreement and consistency of approach because we have a lot of people with strong opinions that want to get it right for the child. I think that it is quite healthy for the adults to have those debates and then come to a conclusion that allows us to take a consistent approach. For example, if a child requests a mobile phone, we have to agree as a team what are approach is, because it is unhelpful for a child to get inconsistency around that.
If a child is telling different adults that they are having a bad day and adults are responding in different ways, that is okay to have slightly different approaches because the child is in different relationships with people. That is how you work out sometimes who the best person is to be with that child at that point. There is tolerance around a certain amount of inconsistency but we try to be consistent around the big issues.
“It is a challenge to get that agreement and consistency of approach, because we have a lot of people with strong opinions that want to get it right for the child. I think that it is quite healthy for the adults to have those debates and then come to a conclusion that allows us to take a consistent approach.”
“If a child is telling different adults that they are having a bad day and adults are responding in different ways, that is okay to have slightly different approaches because the child is in different relationships with people. There is tolerance around a certain amount of inconsistency but we try to be consistent around the big issues.”
8. It must be difficult to have consensus around how sanctions are used. As a teacher, I would probably rely on rewards and sanctions to help manage behaviour. How would it be different, if I was a teacher at Seamab?
For children who have grown up in their families, have secure attachments and are making good developmental progress, reward and sanctions can work for them because they understand that it is about their behaviour it has not been about them. The difficulty for children who have experienced significant trauma is that they carry with them significant shame. It is very easy to trigger children into those powerful feelings that can be very difficult for them to manage. Our children often carry a very strong sense that what has happened in their lives is their fault because they are bad kids and unlovable. The difficulty is that if we say, “We don’t approve of what happened there. You should go and stand outside for ten minutes because you did that,” they are very likely to feel that shame and self-disgust that will undermine the relationship with them that we are trying to develop.
We work hard not to use sanctions and not to use rewards for good behaviour. It is all about being in the relationship space with the child and building secure attachments between the child and their teacher or care worker. We want to build that secure attachment base with those key adults around the child. We do that by understanding their behaviour, being with them in the moment and being curious about what is happening for them when they are distressed and doing something we would prefer they wouldn’t.
We are really clear about boundaries: ‘Some of the things you want to do are not okay. But we want to work out why that happened and see if we can do it a different way next time.’ In terms in DDP, PACE is critical in our stance as practitioners. In that moment when you might be tempted to as an adult revert back to: “You have been really naughty so what’s going to happen is this,” that has to be set aside so that you can be in the moment with the child in their distress or naughtiness and work through that with them.
There are times when we use natural consequences. When a child has damaged something, or made a mess, we would say, ‘There is a big mess here, let’s get that tidied up together and then we can move on to the next thing’. If a child has assaulted an adult, “How are we going to make that okay? You have hurt someone and we want to get that sorted out.” It is not saying to the child, “What are you going to do about that?” Rather, we would ask, “What can we do about that? How can we work it out together?” That can be quite challenging at the end of a difficult day. It is really important to stay emotionally regulated as an adult in order to help the child be emotionally regulated.
“We work hard not to use sanctions and not to use rewards for good behaviour. It is all about being in the relationship space with the child and building secure attachments between the child and their teacher or care worker. We do that by understanding their behaviour, being with them in the moment and being curious about what is happening for them when they are distressed and doing something we would prefer they wouldn’t.”
“For children who have grown up in their families, have secure attachments and are making good developmental progress, reward and sanctions can work for them because they understand that it is about their behaviour and not about them. The difficulty for children who have experienced trauma is that they carry with them significant shame. Our children often carry a very strong sense that what has happened in their lives is their fault because they are bad kids and unlovable. It is very easy to trigger children into those very powerful feelings that can be very difficult for them to manage.”
“We are really clear about boundaries: ‘Some of the things you want to do are not okay, but we want to work out why that happened and see if we can do it a different way next time.’”
“There are times when we use natural consequences. When a child has damaged something, or made a mess, we would say, ‘There is a big mess here, let’s get that tidied up together and then we can move on to the next thing’. If a child has assaulted an adult, ‘How are we going to make that okay? You have hurt someone and we want to get that sorted out.’ It is not saying to the child, ‘What are you going to do about that?’ Rather, we would ask, ‘What can we do about that? How can we work it out together?’ That can be quite challenging at the end of a difficult day. It is really important to stay emotionally regulated as an adult in order to help the child be emotionally regulated.“
9. When children are able to build those secure attachments, what differences do you see in the way they engage in learning?
Often when children are referred to Seamab, they are described as uneducable. Sometimes they have not been in education for years. That makes me sad. Once you focus on engaging the child in a trusted and secure relationship, learning can happen. As the adult, you have to be conscious that although you think the trust is there, the child might still be finding that quite difficult.
We have seen children going from refusing to do any school work to sitting down and producing lovely pieces of work. We have seen children make rapid progress in literacy and numeracy. We had a child here who had no literacy skills but by the time they left they were fluent readers.
We see children enjoying their learning and that is key. Children start to shift their thinking: ‘I can maybe do this and this might be quite fun. It makes my teacher happy when I do this and I like that because I like my teacher a lot.’
When we see children get it in terms of learning, we can calibrate that learning and teaching so that it fits that child’s needs, and we can be focused and flexible around what they are interested in.
I have seen children go from spending the whole day being dysregulated, being abusive and violent to six months later they are sitting quite happily in a classroom working away.
We sometimes see progress in children’s movement. Children who come here often have difficulty because of trauma with their fine and gross motor skills. We often see progress in the way they move more fluently. They play football confidently. They take on more physical challenges.
“I have seen children go from spending the whole day being dysregulated, being abusive and violent to six months later they are sitting quite happily in a classroom working away.”
“Once you focus on engaging the child in a trusted and secure relationship, learning can happen. As the adult, you have to be conscious that although you think the trust is there, the child might still be finding that quite difficult.”
“We see children enjoy their learning and that is key. Children start to shift their thinking: ‘I can maybe do this and this might be quite fun. It makes my teacher happy when I do this and I like that because I like my teacher a lot.”
10. What does that process of change look like in a school that moves away from relying on rewards and sanctions? What does change look like when a school moves away from control and containment towards a trauma-informed and attachment-sensitive way of working? What were the obstacles in making that change at Seamab?
It is really tough because I was asking the team to shift from control and containment to opportunities, relationship and activity. That was an enormous ask, because the team had been trained and managed to work in the control and containment way and they felt they were keeping the children safe. They had built their skills and approaches around that. I came along as the new CEO and said ‘If we are serious about helping children recover from significant trauma we need to do that in a very different way.’ That is challenging for people because they felt they were doing a good job and someone comes along and says something different.
There were obstacles in our way: people not seeing that you can do this in any other way, just not getting it and people not having the skill set to work in an attachment-focussed way. A lot of people decided this wasn’t for them and we had a lot of staff leave. That created its own difficulties because we are running a 24/7 service. When we lost significant numbers of staff we went through operational problems. Some of that gave us real opportunity to make that change process happen because we brought in people who were new, people who were willing to work in a relational and attachment-focussed way. That helped shift some of the change in culture.
Another obstacle was that the people who were here thought they had it all sorted. think you want a team that is confident but also reflective. And when you go down the road where you think you have it all sorted, you have probably not, because you have lost the bit about your reflection on this particular child who is having a difficult day or you have lost the bit where you have not seen this before or this child needs something totally different or you need to work together differently. When you have lost that reflection piece, it is difficult to work with children in a meaningful way. That was a key challenge: developing reflective ability across the team.
A lot of the team had already been trained in DDP but there was not a lot of evidence to support that in practice. We had to redo all the training; we put every single member of staff through the training and we adapted the training so it fit with our context.
As a manager, it is quite easy to have your go-to positions, but this has required looking at how things are actually working, understanding them and thinking through what we might try to get it to the next stage. We have had lots of missteps along the way. For example, we did a review of the rota. However, the way we went about making the change was not helpful. If I could do that again I would probably do it in different way. As a manager, you can do things with the best of intentions but when you find out you have not got it right, you need to be prepared to change it again.
“It is really tough because I was asking the team to shift from control and containment to opportunities, relationship and activity. That was an enormous ask because the team had been trained and managed to work in the control and containment way. They felt they were keeping the children safe.”
“There were obstacles in our way: people not seeing that you can do this in any other way and people not having the skill set to work in an attachment-focussed way. A lot of people decided this wasn’t for them and we had a lot of staff leave.”
“When you have lost that reflection piece, it is difficult to work with children in a meaningful way. That was a key challenge: developing that reflective ability across the team.”
“We put every single member of staff through the DDP training and we adapted the training so it fit with our context.”
“As a manager, you can do things with the best of intentions but when you find out you have not got it right, you need to be prepared to change it again.”
11. Have you seen positive impact from these changes? Have you seen improvement in attainment, attendance and reduced numbers of exclusions?
Massive impact. The adults here are much happier and have a much more satisfying and enjoyable experience. That is a critical thing for me because without happy adult role models, how can you tell children there is happiness in their lives. Adults are also quite chilled and relaxed. Seamab is a calm place. People are ready and alert for what might happen but they are also calm and confident about it. That has been a huge shift. It matters for the children because they can feel confident that these are adults who can support them.
The change for the children has been phenomenal because they have a really rich experience of life and education at Seamab that we did not offer them before. They come here and do fun things and lots of great activities; they find out things they are talented at and other things they are not so good at but they learn to put up with. They can make progress in all aspects of their lives. We took a group of children to Florida. It was the first time any of those children had been out of Scotland. They had a fabulous time. That is a life-time memory for those children. If I had proposed to the team that was here a few years ago that we would take trip to Florida, they would have looked at me like I was off my head. Whereas the team now said, ‘That’s a good idea and how do we manage that?’
Every year we do a sailing trip for five children with five adults. The first time we planned that there we a lot of concern among the team. It was seen as a high-risk thing to do. I had a sleepless night before the trip. When the five children came back it had been a transformative experience. One of the children came back and said, “I learned to sail a boat, I can do anything.” This is a child who had a really negative view of himself and he came back and was able to see himself in a different way. When I see that kind of impact, I can see the difference that the approach we have now makes for children.
“Massive impact. The adults here are much happier and have a much more satisfying and enjoyable experience. That is a critical thing for me because without happy adult role models, how can you tell children there is happiness in their lives.”
“People are ready and alert for what might happen but they are also calm and confident about it. That has been a huge shift. It matters for the children because they can feel confident that these are adults who can support them.”
“Every year we do a sailing trip for five children. The first time we made this trip, there we a lot of concern among the team. It was seen as a high-risk thing to do. One of the children came back from the trip and said, ‘I learned to sail a boat, I can do anything.’ This is a child who had a really negative view of himself and he came back and was able to see himself in a different way. When I see that kind of impact, I can see the difference that the approach we have now makes for children.”
12. Can you summarise why relationships are important in education?
Relationships are often the place where our children have experienced the most hurt and most betrayal. Relationships have got to be the place where people recover. Relationships are where they rediscover themselves as human beings and where they rediscover trust and confidence in others. We know that as you go through life relationships are the most important aspect of everything. Relationships you might have with your partner or with your family or your own children. The capacity to form loving, safe relationships is incredibly important. We have got to build that capacity in children here. We have to got to be able to show them what love feels like and it is safe. We have to give them that experience of being loved and cared for and having an adult who is crazy about them. Relationships build that capacity in the child to have a happy and fulfilling life. If we don’t do that we are failing them.
“Relationships are often the place where our children have experienced the most hurt and most betrayal. Relationships have got to be the place where people recover. Relationships are where they rediscover themselves as human beings and where they rediscover trust and confidence in others.”
“The capacity to form loving, safe relationships is incredibly important. We have got to build that capacity in children here. We have to got to be able to show them what love feels like and it is safe. We have to give them that experience of being loved and cared for and having an adult who is crazy about them. Relationships build that capacity in the child to have a happy and fulfilling life. If we don’t do that we are failing them.”
© 20189 Joanna McCreadie and David Woodier. Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact.
Understanding Attachment Helps Teachers Build Resilience in Young People
Resilience can be one of those buzz words in education. It is easy to talk about but trying to help vulnerable young people become more resilient can be more difficult than we imagine.
You present a young person with a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity, for example, an outward-bound course. However, when the day comes and the bus is ready to leave, he is nowhere to be found.
You worked all year to prepare your class for the transition to high school. One of your pupils, from a difficult home situation, refuses to attend the new school after the first week.
Is it possible that we underestimate the vulnerability of some children because we don’t get how profoundly trauma* impacts young people? In addition, our view of resilience is so culturally conditioned that we think of resilience too much in terms of an individual’s strengths, rather than recognizing the importance of the relationships that surround a young person. A ‘stand on your own two feet,’ individualistic notion of resilience may be very unhelpful.
A recent phone call to a foster parent reminded me that in many cases building resilience in young people does not go to plan. Several years ago, I began a piece of work with a high schooler, David (not his real name). I carefully planned the activities based on what I understood about resilience, but I missed the importance of long term relationships.
David’s teachers in high school were pulling their hair out. He was restless in class, found it difficult to focus, and often acted like a clown. During my first meeting with him, I quickly realized here was a young man who wasn’t going to sit and listen to me. We needed to do something active together. After playing badminton with him several times, I could see another side to him. Behind his constant fidgeting and impish grin, he was kind, gentle, and eager to please. I began to think about how I could use my relationship with him to help him reintegrate in to his school. He needed an opportunity to experience real success in something that he saw as being worthwhile. He needed a challenge; I needed to stop losing at badminton.
Risk, resilience, and attachment
Education can have a positive impact on resiliency. For example, schools provide opportunities for children to achieve a sense of mastery, the feeling that comes from doing something well. Young people also have the opportunity to explore different social roles that can help them build a more pro-social identity (7). However, for young people like David school often reminds them of failure, and they too easily become cast in the role of a trouble-maker.
David was at risk long before he started school. He was probably exposed to alcohol while in his mother’s womb. When we add up all of the risk factors in a young person’s life things may look pretty bleak, but even then we can underestimate a young person’s vulnerability. We don’t realize that risk factors interact in a way that is not just a simple one plus one. A risk factor, such as an insecure attachment, can have a disproportionate influence on how a child is impacted by other traumatic experiences (1, 2).
To some degree, all children are vulnerable; they all need adults that can help restore a sense of safety and control in a sometimes chaotic world. In this way, a secure attachment between child and caregiver mitigates the effects of trauma. However, the opposite is also true. A child who is insecurely attached may be more easily overwhelmed and unable to develop some of the core competencies, such as the capacity to self-regulate emotional states, that will help protect him against future adversity (3).
The cascading effects of a child’s early attachment experiences may explain why some young people are knocked back so hard by the stress, for example, of moving to a new school. They are like the house built on sand.
Resilience can be defined as “reduced vulnerability to environmental risk experiences, the overcoming of stress or adversity, or a relatively good outcome despite risk experiences” (4). However, it is a relative not absolute quality, for some children, like David, even partial recovery of wellbeing and resilience is important (5).
Finally, in planning my work with David I was aware that building resilience is accomplished not by the removal of all risk and stress, but in the careful managing of these within a supportive relationship (6). In addition, the path to resiliency can begin in one small part of a person’s life, even from a single opportunity or turning point.
Building resiliency: David’s story
David looked nervous as we waited outside the office. The door opened and I introduced him to the head teacher of a local primary school. “David is good at sports and he likes children. Could he volunteer once a week in one of your PE classes?”
Over the next couple of months, I watched a slow transformation take place. David was more focused and ready to listen to correction when things were not going so well. I think it was something about how the younger children showed their delight in having David volunteer in class that helped him change. He was doing something that he could see other people appreciated and valued. He wanted it to work. At the end of his 15 weeks, David planned a dance competition for the children.
The turning point
As the day approached, I sensed David’s increasing anxiety. I noticed small changes in his mood and behaviour; he became increasingly restless when meeting with me. On the day of the competition, David disappeared. Finally, I found him sitting at the back of a room in his high school, slouched all the way under the desk, in a class that he wasn’t even enrolled in.
“David, listen to me. I won’t let you fail. If you get up in front of the kids today and you forget what to say. I will be right there and help you.”
This was the “turning point” and success at this moment depended on my ability to reassure him and whether he could trust me. Most children learn when they are very young that adults can be trusted to help them when they are anxious and fearful. They grow up experiencing, not perfect, but good enough, sensitive, attuned caregiving. Many vulnerable young people haven’t developed this basic kind of confidence. As teachers, it is where we can provide what Louise Bomber calls second chance learning (8). If we have done the work of building a relationship, a young person has the opportunity to learn something they missed earlier in their development.
The dance competition was a great success, and the pupils gave David a thank-you card. As he took the card, I watched the expression on his face. He laughed at the drawing the children had made of him, and read each of their names printed on the back of the card.
Later as we talked about his volunteer work, David could see how his decisions had contributed to its success. He found a sense of his own agency; he was able to bring about something positive in his life. His foster carer remarked, “He is taking more responsibility for himself. He was getting excluded and was depressed. He’s happier and is in school full-time.” David went on to apply to a local college to study sport’s coaching.
I wish I could end the story there. A few weeks ago, I spoke to David’s foster mum. She told me that after leaving school, he had gone back to his birth family, and he was now living as a drug addict.
It breaks my heart to think of David, now in his early twenties, alone and struggling with addiction. I prefer to remember him as the energetic 15-year old that wouldn’t sit still and beat me almost every time at badminton.
We must stop thinking about resilience as something we do to fix young people; it is not an event or an activity alone that makes the difference. In addition, the onus should not be on the young person to change but on the school, family, and community. Perhaps we should stop thinking about resilience in terms of the individual. We should be asking how resilient-building is our school? How do the relationships in a family that is fostering or adopting contribute to the child’s resilience?
We are only ever as resilient as we are connected to those who love and nurture us and that is as true for adults as it is for children.
* Relational trauma describes the experience of chronic and prolonged traumatic events, usually of an interpersonal nature, beginning in early childhood. These experiences usually occur within the child’s caregiving system and have profound developmental effects on a child (3). Typically, children feel overwhelmed and powerless, and often remain confused as to the role of adults more generally.
1. Luthar SS, Sawyer JA, Brown PJ. Conceptual issues in studies of resilience: past, present, and future research. Annals of New your Academy of Sciences. 2006;1094: 105-115.
2. Masten AS, Cicchetti D. Developmental cascades. Development and Psychopathology. 2010; 22: 491-495.
3. Van der Kolk BA. Developmental trauma disorder: towards a rational diagnosis for children with complex trauma histories. Available from: http://www.traumacenter.org/products/pdf_files/preprint_dev_trauma_disorder.pdf [Accessed December 2016].
4. Rutter M. (2006). Implications of resilience concepts for scientific understanding. Annals of New York Academy of Sciences. 2006; 1094: 1-12.
5. Shofield G, Beek M. Risk and resilience in long term foster care. British Journal of Social Work. 2005; 35: 1-19.
6. Woodier D. Building resilience in looked after young people: a moral values approach. British Journal of Guidance and Counseling. 2011; 39; 259-282.
7. Gilligan R. Promoting Resilience: Supporting Children and Young People who are in Care, Adopted or in Need. London: BAAF; 2009.
8. Bomber L. Inside I’m Hurting: Practical Strategies for Supporting Children With Attachment Difficulties in Schools. London: Worth Publishing; 2007.
First published within ‘Understanding attachment helps teachers build resilience in young people’ www.saia.org.uk/blog January 2017
© 2017 David Woodier, Support Teacher, Inclusion Base, North Lanarkshire. Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact.
🔊 Why Attachment Matters [click to listen to audio file of this interview]
In the following interview between Professor Helen Minnis from the University of Glasgow and David Woodier a teacher, adoptive parent and blogger for Scottish Attachment in Action, Helen speaks about 'Why Attachment Matters' to her. Themes emerging from the interview may well resonate with those living and working with children and young people who’ve had an adverse start in life.
How do we give children the gift of a safe haven?
… I can’t help feel I have been gifted,
Lifted out of darkness,
Carried by angels to a safe place,
A haven with four windows,
And a single door,
The most beautiful place in all the world,
With the most beautiful people to welcome me, … 1
How do we create a world that is safe for children who have suffered abuse and neglect? How do we help them thrive in relationships? The words above are from a poem of a child who was adopted. The question for those of us who live and work with children who have suffered maltreatment is, how to put what we know about attachment into action. In the following interview, Professor Helen Minnis talks about her passion for helping children and young people. She discusses a range of issues, from teenagers to new therapeutic approaches, and from brain development to helping children cope with separation and loss.
When did your interest in attachment begin?
I wanted to do psychiatry, but before I wanted to do psychiatry, I wanted to travel. I spoke to the head of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital. I said, “I am going to Guatemala for a year to work in an orphanage. What would you suggest I think about?” He said, “You should think about attachment and attachment disorders,” and he gave me the draft of the psychiatric classification system for attachment disorders. That was where my interest was born. That draft talked about children who had been abused and neglected being indiscriminately friendly on the one hand, and on the other hand, some of them being withdrawn and failing to seek comfort. I arrived at the orphanage and saw that right in front of my face. I was literally covered in children under five. I couldn’t walk forward until I peeled their little hands off. I became passionately interested in attachment.
Is Scotland a nurturing place to grow up? Are children able to build healthy attachments here?
It is all relative. In terms of encouraging the public to think about attachment the Scottish Government is quite far ahead. I remember a few years ago there were billboards, paid for by the Scottish Government, of a big sponge and the words: This is Your Baby’s Brain. I also think we realize we have some really big problems, and one of the big problems is the way we treat our teenagers. I think we ignore them; we don't give them eye contact; and we don’t give them a role in society. There are some major things we could do to make Scotland a more nurturing place, but it is great to live and work in a country where that’s what we are aiming for.
When did you first become involved with the work of Scottish Attachment in Action and why does an organization like Scottish Attachment in Action need to exist?
I was involved from day one. We had the Attachment Reference Group in Glasgow for colleagues from different disciplines to come along and discuss attachment. Edwina Grant heard about what we were doing, and we organized a day when we brainstormed about what Scottish Attachment in Action should look like. It was an incredibly exciting day, because we discovered that although we were from such different disciplines, we were really talking the same language. We realized was there was a need for a common language about attachment particularly across front line services that work with children including police, teachers, and nursery nurses. There was a role for both training and advocacy. I think Scottish Attachment in Action tries to sit in that space. It is always going to be needed, because getting people to think about young children is tricky. It is very hard for adults to put themselves in the mind of a child, because it is a long time since we were children. I think it is something that needs to be a daily struggle.
A number of years ago, you looked at the mental health of a group of adopted children living in Scotland. What effect does nurturing care and a stable family life have on children who were maltreated early in life?
It makes all the difference. Adopted parents have known that. I remember being sharply told off many years ago because I used the term “natural parents” which was an old term people used to use for birth parents, and someone said, “Adopted parents are natural parents, because they have done the nurturing.” That is so true. A child comes into the world with their genetic hand of cards, and what happens to that genetic hand of cards depends so much on the nurturing they receive from their family. From the study of epigenetics, for example, we know that the environment that surrounds the child can modify the DNA. Nurturing from parents is so crucial.
If we were to look inside a child’s brain, that of a child who suffered maltreatment early in life. What are some of differences nurturing care can make?
We don’t know more than we do know. The brain is like an unexplored landscape. One of the reasons I am in child and adolescent mental health is because we know less about the brain than we know about the universe. We know that the frontal temporal lobe of the brain, the sticky-out bit at the forehead, is bigger in humans. That’s because we need more in terms of planning and social interaction. Children who suffered early neglect and maltreatment sometimes have problems with some of the functions particularly associated with that part of the brain. Nurturing care can help children inhibit some of their emotional responses. Learning to plug into other special people by being part of a family and having the world interpreted for you by your parents, older siblings, and gran etc. is really important.
There are some children who seem to resist connecting with that nurturing care. Is there anything to understand about how children build attachments that could help us reach out to these children?
One of the things we have become more interested in is faulty signaling. This is when neglected children, because of their early experience of neglect, have learned to manage their own world so they habitually don't reach out to parents and carers. They fundamentally don’t understand that parents and carers are there to help you, support you, and comfort you when you are stressed. John Bowlby, who developed attachment theory, described how right across species it is a profound instinct to reach out to your carers when you are, for example, stressed, frightened, or have a tummy ache. It is actually a really small minority of abused and neglected children who don’t reach out. These children are then missing out on huge swathes of normal development. One of the really fantastic things is that in about ninety-nine times out of a hundred if neglected children are placed in loving families early in life that lack of signaling disappears quite quickly. However, there is a tiny minority of children in which it doesn’t melt away. I don’t know if that has something to do with the constitution of the children themselves or whether it has to do with not having the opportunity to be placed in a loving family soon enough. There is a tiny minority of children who, even in teenage years and adulthood, just don’t get that they should be reaching out.
I have noticed that some children with difficult starts in life -- children who don’t seem to respond well to the nurturing care of a foster carer or adoptive parent -- appear to ‘sort things out’ during adolescence. Is there something going on developmentally, a kind of re-wiring of the brain, that allows a young person to see things in a different way?
We know there are two rapid periods of brain development in life, the first few months and years of life and then again in adolescence. In adolescence the axons of the brain -- the long connections between your brain cells -- are being ‘cladded’ with myelin sheaths. It is a bit like cavity wall insulation. This is not something I am an expert on, but I have heard it used to explain why a child who is quite articulate at nine years old seems to almost lose the power of speech when they reach twelve. There is a lot going on in the brain that they are concentrating on. It is recognized that it is a time of opportunity because there is so much plasticity, so much of an opportunity for change and new development in the brain. One of the things that always gives me hope is that we now know you can develop new brain cells even in old age. The brain is different than other organs in the body. When you are born, your heart looks like it looks when you are an adult; it is just a small version of what it will be when you grow up. That is not true of the brain. When you are born and then again in adolescence, the brain has a huge amount of sculpting to be done. It is also worth remembering that some people heal and recover even later than that. I have personal stories of adoptive children who have left home at the age of sixteen and said, “I am never going to darken your door again.” Then they turn up later. I have a family friend whose son came back at his adoptive mum’s seventieth birthday party. He had been in prison and was covered in tattoos from head to toe. Now he is a loved member of the family again. So, although you are right that there are opportunities in teenager years, there are later opportunities as well.
You have been piloting something called the New Orleans Intervention Model in Glasgow. Could you say something about what makes this model different to services-as-usual for children and families?
There are two big differences. One, it is an infant mental health model. The other difference is that it offers treatment to birth families so that it is not just an assessment model. It was developed by Professors Charles Zeanah and Julie Larrieu from Tulane University in New Orleans. For a long time in New Orleans, every child who came into foster care under the age of five was offered this model. It offers standardized, attachment-based assessments in each of their caregiving relationships. They also do interviews and questionnaires with the birth parents about their own experience of attachment and caregiving, and refer the birth parents for help. For example, if they have problems with substance misuse or domestic violence. That process takes about three months, and then there is a period of intensive treatment with the aim of changing the birth family’s relationships so they can get the child home. But if it doesn’t work within a time limit, then the child is recommended for adoption.
Has any aspect of the study surprised you?
We have learned a lot about the nature of our systems here in Glasgow and about the ways in which we inadvertently cause delays for children. I think it has a lot to do with our difficulties as adults in putting ourselves in the mind of a child. There are so many places through a child’s journey where adults from all sorts of professional backgrounds could have thought, ‘This is not right for this child, and we need to move this forward,’ but we don’t. It has been a surprise at what kind of a perennial, entrenched problem that is.
Would there be a benefit in Scotland if we follow the example of some parts of the US where foster carers are also recruited to become prospective adopters?
One of the things we have become interested in through this project is the nature of foster care. Mary Dozier from Delaware has talked about commitment in foster care and whether the commitment comes from the length of a foster placement or from the freedom foster carers are given by their manager to fall in love with the child. In the United States, foster carers usually join the register as adopters. The philosophy behind that is that foster carers are supposed to be totally child centered, to love and commit to the child and potentially be the child’s forever parent. But if the birth parents get their life back on track, then the foster carers will have to relinquish that child. Some people say to me that it must be awful for the foster carer, but can you imagine that is generally what we do to children. The system in the United States allows the adult to take the hit rather than the child, and it seems to work well. Certainly in New Orleans it reduces delays. It means you are also not building in a loss for the child.
It is still a reality in the UK and in Scotland that children who are looked after are often moved around. They experience new foster parents, new schools, and new social workers. How do we help children who form multiple attachments? For example, should a child who is adopted visit their previous foster carers? Should a young person who is unexpectedly moved to a new school over the summer holidays have an opportunity to say goodbye to his teacher at his old school?
Those are examples of attachment in action. They are examples of being child centered. In a family where there has not been disruption through abuse and neglect and placement moves, that is what you would do for your child. For various reasons at the age of four, my daughter had to move, and we made a goodbye cake and we visited everyone. That is what you do because you nurture your children’s attachments. It is about nurturing children’s attachments and recognizing that secure attachments can come from surprising places. A child who has had a difficult early start may have a secure attachment with someone like their teacher, and that has got to be recognized.
Some people are concerned that contact, for example, with a previous foster carer, will prolong a child’s sense of loss and that it might make it more difficult for a child to form an attachment to a new family.
Probably the most important thing is to try and tune into the child. Try and understand that a child is likely to be grieving. Children go through bereavement processes in the same way that adults do. Relationships shift for children, and that is not a reason to pretend they don’t exist. Once a child is placed with a forever family, and the child understands that they are in a family who are committing to them for the rest of their lives, contact with a previous foster family can be very positive. This is very different than the situation where you have, for example, quite a damaged birth parent. I am not suggesting all birth parents are damaged. But if, for example, you had a birth parent where the experience for the child visiting the birth parent is really traumatic, then that needs to be thought about in a child-centered way. Difficult decisions have to be made. Children should not be allowed to see people who may have a negative effect on the child’s development.
Children with attachment difficulties often struggle to get the right kind of support in their schools. Can you talk about some of the reasons for this? Is it because children with attachment issues often present a variety of difficulties, and that makes it harder to identify that there may be an underlying attachment issue?
I think there is a lot in that. Identification is a problem. Particularly if they have attachment disorders, children with attachment issues nearly always have other problems. That is confusing, not just for teachers, but also for parents and clinicians as well. We know something we didn’t know fifteen years ago, if children or adolescents have one mental health problem, they are more likely to have others. We used to say, for example, if you have ADHD, then it can’t be anxiety. We know now that wasn’t sensible at all. Children with ADHD are at higher risk, for example, of having problems with autism or vice versa. Children who experienced early neglect and abuse are at higher risk than the general population of having other neurodevelopmental problems. This is some data we have found, and other people have found this, too: children who have had early neglect and abuse and have mental health problems often have complex neurodevelopmental problems. How these problems can be identified in school is really difficult. On the plus side, educational psychologists in Scotland are on the ball with this. I think they have led the way in thinking about attachment in schools and helping teaching staff think about attachment.
We are in the process of trying to develop something called the School Attachment Monitor, SAM. In the last six months, I have been working with Stephen Brewster and Allessandro Vinciarelli from Glasgow University School of Computing Science. SAM will be like a computerized version of the Manchester Child Attachment Story Task. If it works it will be automatically rated which means that it can be used in schools and we can look at the profile of attachment in children in the classroom.
I have heard carers, adoptive parents, and social workers express frustration with the mental health services available for young people in Scotland. Is there a mismatch between the needs of our children and what is offered to families? Is there something we can do about that?
Sometimes it is a problem of not recognizing the complexity of problems children experience when they have been maltreated. I have a lot of sympathy for my colleagues. Many do recognize the complexity, but I think we have all been on a really steep learning curve. We have done some research recently that suggested the direction of travel may not be what we thought it was. We know that a lot of ADHD has genetic causes, but I had always thought another route into ADHD was maltreatment. From some of the data we got recently, it is starting to look as though it might be the other way round. Children with some of these neurodevelopmental problems, in families that are already struggling, might be more likely to be maltreated. Therefore, in a sense, many maltreated children have a double whammy. This is new information for child and adolescent mental health services. In the past, we used to see children who had been maltreated and think that it is no wonder they have conduct problems, problems with behaviour. In fact, we should be thinking we really need to assess these children carefully. They may have genetic loading towards some neurodevelopmental problems that are going to make them more difficult to look after in the first place, not that there is ever an excuse to maltreat a child. The understanding of the complexity of these children hasn’t been there in our profession, but we are getting there. The other big issue is there are not enough of us. There are far too few child and adolescent mental health clinicians. Something parents could do is lobby. My clinical colleagues are genuinely overwhelmed.
You have been looking at the feasibility of DDP -- dyadic developmental psychotherapy2-- as a treatment for maltreated children in the UK. What is it about DDP compared to other approaches that makes it worthwhile considering the relatively high financial cost?
I think it’s worth considering, because it is different to existing psychotherapeutic interventions for children who have experienced abuse and neglect in that it promotes what Mary Dozier calls ‘a gentle challenge.’ Old-fashioned psychotherapy is very much led by the child; the child leads what happens in the room and the psychotherapist follows. That is sensible for the great majority of children, but if you have children that don’t signal their needs, that kind of child-centred approach is maybe not going to be successful. What I like about DDP and what gives it potential is the idea of PACE: playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy. The PACE stance is a bit more gently challenging; you are not letting the child get away with hiding under the table and not engaging in therapy. In a playful, accepting and curious way, you are going to be saying, “The things that happened to you in the past are probably what’s making you sit under the table, but you have these good parents here who are ready to give you a good snuggle, so come and experience the love that’s available for you.” It's more directive in a gentle way. We also know from our research that therapists who are using it are very enthusiastic. So I think it has a lot of potential and needs a trial.
What are the barriers to seeing a wider availability of DDP in the UK?
One of the things the NHS should be proud of is that we carefully review the evidence base for those interventions. We haven’t yet got a robust evidence base for DDP. We need randomized, controlled trials if it is going to be commissioned.
Over the last ten years, there has been a resurgence of interest in attachment. Training on attachment is popular; it has almost become a buzzword. But are we really putting attachment into action?
I think so. It is a bit of a double-edged sword. I was at a meeting in England a couple of years ago with lots of social workers and academics. I think I was the only child and adolescent psychiatrist. People were saying, “All this early years stuff and attachment stuff; it is kind of flavor of the month.” I was thinking “Sorry!” So there are, in some circles, people who don’t see the importance of it. But again, that is one of the reasons I am happy to be living and working in Scotland because we have developed a shared language. Scottish Attachment in Action has to be patted on the back for that. There are other groups working towards a much more nurturing place to live. For example, it is wonderful that in education we now have this idea of, ‘How Nurturing is Our School?’ This is not some kind of soft option or some wishy-washy place. If we are nurturing children, they can thrive, and they can do well emotionally, behaviourally, and in their attainment.
But isn’t there a problem that attachment can remain too theoretical and abstract? Our understanding of attachment still does not make enough of a difference in how we make decisions; for example, in the way we work with a child who is being disruptive in school and being threatened with exclusion. Are we underestimating the difficulty of how to put what we know about attachment into practice?
There is a problem: attachment has been very laboratory based. The measures recommended for use in clinics are too cumbersome. For example, the gold standard measure for attachment in young infants is the Strange Situation Procedure3. I think that is probably the most important scientific advance in the twentieth century. However, it takes two or three people about twenty minutes to actually do it, and that is not including the set-up time and the hour and half to rate it. It is not feasible in the NHS. That is one of the reasons we are trying to develop better tools like SAM. We want to develop things that are quick and easy. In terms of intervening with children in schools and families, it is about trying to translate the learning from research into practice. Things like ‘How Nurturing is Our School’ are phenomenally important because teachers who understand the roots of children’s behaviours are going to change the ethos of the classroom. I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of talking about attachment. We have to keep harping on about it. This is not flavour of the month. Attachment is a fundamental instinct that allows children and young people to plug into what they need for their development, and there is a reciprocal caregiving instinct in adults to respond to that. That is the glue that holds our society together.
We welcome responses to the kinds of issues Helen raises in the interview. We plan to edit these responses and put them on the Scottish Attachment in Action website to give us a bigger picture of how we are putting attachment into action.
Following on from this interview, the next recording will be David speaking with our Chair of Trustee's, Edwina Grant.
1. Ruairi, Life Story Collection: Poems after Adoption About Life Before Foster Care. Leicester UK: Ruairi; 2012. A link is available from http://drawingtheidealself.co.uk/drawingtheidealself/Downloads.html
2. DDP stands for Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy. It is a therapy and parenting approach that uses what we know about attachment and trauma to help children and families with their relationships. Further information is available from http://ddpnetwork.org/uk/
3. The Strange Situation Procedure was developed by Mary Ainsworth and is used to assess the attachment relationships between young children and their caregivers. The child is observed while strangers and caregivers.
“Many of the most intense emotions arise during the formation of attachment relationships. The formation of a bond is described as falling in love … ”
John Bowlby in The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds.
I had been standing in the kitchen nervously wiping down already clean counters, when my son shouted from the living room to tell me they had arrived. For me It was a huge occasion, I was about to meet the child I hoped would become my new daughter, but for her it was just a visit to another foster family who would be looking after her for a few days. Even as I anticipated her arrival, the roots of the love a mother has for a daughter were forming, but it wasn’t straightforward.
Social workers had been telling Katie since she was six that they were looking to find her a family. Five years later, after living with temporary foster carers, they were still looking. This visit would give us an opportunity to meet Katie and begin the process of becoming her permanent foster family.
As I reached the front door a small figure jumped out of the car looked up at me over the top of her glasses and with an expression I would come to know so well, shouted, ‘Hiya, I’m here!’ My heart melted and I just wanted to scoop her up and give her a huge hug but I restrained myself. With an overly formal handshake, I introduced myself.
‘I’m Katie,’ she said cheerfully, ‘and I saw a house with lions just before we got here.’ I couldn’t think where there was a house with lions nearby, but I didn’t get a chance to ask any more questions as Katie’s foster family was just behind her and there was a flurry of introductions.
The rest of the visit passed with our children, their children, and Katie running in and out the garden playing and the adults drinking coffee. I managed to prize Katie away from the fun to take her upstairs and show her the room she would be using. I was planning to give it a fresh coat of paint, and I wanted to find out her favourite colour. I couldn’t tell her but I wanted this room to be hers.
❝While we all know that simply loving a child is not enough, it is certainly the best place to begin. Without it a child simply cannot thrive.❞
Anyone who has ever given birth will tell you that one of the many worries that comes along with pregnancy is the fear, ‘Will I love my baby when I see him or her?’ Fortunately, most new parents fall in love instantly when they meet the wee one or at the very least over the first few hectic sleep deprived days and weeks of life. What is much less understood is the process of starting to love a child who is not part of your family by birth. Very little is written about falling in love with an adopted child and even less about loving a fostered child. It sometimes feels like that word is taboo and does not usually figure in the children’s reports given to the potential adopter or carer. Perhaps every report should have a section asking ‘Who loves this child and whom does the child love?’ While we all know that simply loving a child is not enough, it is certainly the best place to begin. Without it a child simply cannot thrive.
Looking back on my initial dealings with Katie, I am sure that the process of starting to love her began with that first ‘Hiya’ and grew stronger even while I was decorating her room. My husband could see what was happening and reminded me several times that this was early days and many things might still prevent her joining our family. Despite all his warnings, I couldn’t help myself. I was falling in love with her.
She has now lived with us for several months, she is very much part of the family and I love her wholeheartedly. I do not begin to understand all the biological and psychological processes that have made this happen but I am grateful for them. Over the last few months, this determined, stoical, and immensely practical child has taught me many things. Most importantly, she has taught me the value of allowing myself to love, and how to be aware of my surroundings. I now know that the house at the top of our road has large stone lions in the garden and I had never noticed them. She saw them on her first visit. I saw a little girl that needed the love of a family.
Our thanks to foster carer Jane for her guest blog this month - 'Keeping it real' with the ending of an attachment.
I was sitting at the edge of the hall watching the toddlers playing when it happened. A small child ran up to my boy, grabbed the car he was playing with and gave him a hefty shove that left him sprawled on the floor. As he let out a long wail and his eyes searched for me among the ranks of adults at the edge of the room I had an overwhelming urge to retaliate and make the other child suffer and feel as badly as my wee one did at that point. However being a rational woman in my early forties with all my inhibitions intact I contented myself with giving the offending child a filthy look as I scooped up my wee one and sat him on my knee to comfort him and his wounded pride. Less than a minute passed before he wriggled off my knee and headed back into the fray while I was aware that my heart was still racing and I needed to calm the mother tiger that was raging inside. Anyone who has ever spent any amount of time with groups of toddlers will know they are a tough unforgiving bunch where survival of the fittest is the name of the game and the adults are merely there to act as referees and mop the tears but even so I was surprised by the strength of my reaction and the level of distress I had just experienced.
❝...by then the damage had been done and our family was completely smitten with him.❞
All of this is a very normal reaction for a securely attached mother and child but I was not Andrew’s mum and he was never going to be my son. Although I had first brought him home from the hospital as a tiny, scrawny week old baby, I had always known he was not my own and I was going to be sharing the parenting with his biological parents until they reached a point where they could have him home for good. However by the day of the toddler group incident he had lived with our family for nearly 18 months and despite having contact with his parents at least 3 times every week we weren’t anywhere closer to him going home. On the other hand, he had spent a busy 18 months making himself very much at home in our family, our lives and our hearts.
It would be a full year later before his future would be decided and he would move to live with his new adoptive family but by then the damage had been done and our family was, to the last gran, completely smitten with him.
I have four birth children and the youngest was just 4 years old and still at nursery when we were approved as foster carers and Andrew made his noisy appearance in our lives. My older children were used to having younger ones around and Robbie, my youngest was more than happy not to be the baby of the family any longer as he was now a big boy who would be going to school after the summer. The kids were happy that I was now working from home and could pick them and whatever friends were available to play after school. I loved looking after him and my own brood without the pressures of work and deadlines and the morning commute. It was a win win for all of us.
But two and a half years in I really wasn’t sure we were doing the right thing. By then Andrew had not seen his birth parents for nearly a year and it had been our family who had been there for the birthdays, the Christmases, and the holidays. We had been the ones who had cheered the first steps and it was us who had sat at his cot side through long, scary nights in hospital with a respiratory infection. He called me 'mum' and my husband 'dad', not because we used those terms with him, but because the others in the house did and he was one of the group. Given all this, you won't be surprised to know that we were all dreading the day when we would say goodbye and he would start his new life with his new family. The week of introduction went really well and everyone hit it off from the beginning. Andrew seemed to accept what was happening and all the preparatory talk about meeting mummy and daddy and the cat all seemed to be paying off and he coped really well with all the changes of that week. It is fair to say that he coped better than I did but I hid my tears until after the kids were in bed and tried to keep the tone positive. The adoptive couple were great and could see how much we loved him and how much we would miss him and there was plenty of talk about meeting up after the summer holidays and continuing to play a peripheral but significant part in his life. It was exactly what we needed to hear and we clung to those words in the days and weeks after he left.
❝we all experienced grief, but without any of the space or understanding that normally accompanies a significant loss.❞
Sadly, as often happens we did not meet up after the summer and when I met his new mum for a prearranged coffee she told me that he never talked about us and that she was sure that he had forgotten us. This was hard to hear and would have been more devastating if I had not spoken to a social worker who had visited Andrew in his new house the week before and been told that he had been using our names when playing with some of his new toys. That was a difficult summer for us as a family, we all experienced grief but without any of the space or understanding that normally accompanies a significant loss. For my children it was the first time they had experienced a loss on this scale and they all grieved in their own ways but suffice to say it took a huge toll on us. I've often wondered how both Andrew and his adoptive parents were feeling over this time, and how he was making sense of what had happened to him.
The most frustrating part of the business however was the lack of understanding from the new supervising social worker who had been assigned to us that summer. She couldn’t understand why we were still talking about Andrew weeks after he had left, she told us to move on it, was our role as foster carers to hand children on. This might be true but I have talked to many foster carers who have prepared children for adoption and all have struggled to say goodbye. I know one foster carer who has seen over 30 wee ones leave her care and she describes it as as painful now as it always has been. Foster carers are taught about the importance of attachment, they work hard to help children and young people form positive warmly attached relationships but sadly no one tells us how to turn off those feelings at the end of a placement.
The system spends a lot of time and effort keeping children in touch with family who have let them down. My question is why do we put so little energy into keeping them in touch with those who have picked them up and helped them back onto their feet? Children who been brought up in a loving and caring families are then told that they are no longer allowed contact with everyone they know as it is will upset them or destabilise the new placement. We no longer keep children in hospital with very limited visits from their parents and I cannot imagine that the government would arrange to evacuate children to the country to live with strangers in these more enlightened times as was done during World War II. Wouldn't it be more helpful if we acknowledged the grief and loss experienced by everyone when it comes to moving children to their new families?
As parents of teenagers with attachment difficulties, we may need an extraordinary sensitivity and resilience to stay connected and engaged with our children. It is something we can’t do on our own, and yet finding help for adopted teenagers and for those who are in foster care can be difficult. We see our children struggling, but we can’t get others to recognize they need help. Sometimes help comes in an unusual form, even from a couple of rabbits.
Have you ever had an experience like this? “Mr. Woodier, what you are describing about your daughter* sounds like any other fifteen-year old.”
I feel a wave of despair wash over me. Perhaps this teacher is just trying to reassure me, but it has the opposite effect. My daughter is struggling. Why can’t the teachers hear what I am trying to say? I have been trying to get them to understand for years.
In my experience, parenting an adopted teenager is different. I have four children, and my youngest is adopted. All four of them experienced the teen years differently. Although they all faced challenges growing up, my adopted daughter’s struggles are more intense. She gets knocked back harder by failure and rejection.
One of the most important things I learned as a youth worker, teacher, and parent is the importance of staying connected, of not letting my children become alienated during those turbulent years.
But that’s not so easy because good parenting is a two-way thing. Dan Hughes and Jonathan Baylin, authors of Brain Based Parenting, describe this as a kind of reciprocal relationship, “When a mother and her infant feel mutual joy in each other’s presence, the infant experiences herself as capable of eliciting Mom’s joy, and the mother experiences herself as capable of eliciting her infant’s joy1.” Feeling I have helped my son with a problem or shared a joke with my daughter helps me stay positive, open, and engaged with my children especially when they are struggling. But too often, with my daughter, I am drawn into a conflict, and I am made to feel that I have nothing to offer.
In addition, when I was going through a difficult time with my sons, I could go back and remember what they were like before they became teenagers, the cute and cuddly years. But that is not so easy with my adopted daughter. It has never been easy for her to show love. There isn’t so much of a good ‘before teenager’ time to refer back to.
I try to imagine what life is like from my daughter’s perspective. She wants her friends to accept her, but she doesn’t want to stand out at school. She wants her parents to respect her as an adult, but she still hugs a teddy bear. She worries what the future will look like and whether she will pass her exams. She can’t stop thinking about a boy at school, but she lives in dread that he will find out she likes him. No wonder she seems stressed when she gets home from school.
So as a parent I have to work even harder to stay connected to my daughter. I don’t want her to feel alienated or alone. In order to do this, my daughter and I recently became bunny rabbit foster parents. (Yes, there is a charity in Scotland for homeless rabbits). The rabbits also come with strange names. I remember one particularly difficult day, and we were both upset. I said, “Come on. You hold Hey Diddle and I will hold Nuts in May.” We sat there in silence for a few minutes. As our stress levels dropped, we began to talk about the rabbits. The angry words were quickly forgotten and life looked more hopeful again.
Parenting my daughter takes every ounce of creativity, patience, and hopefulness I have and then some more. I hold on to every good moment because I know that somewhere in there is a young person who may just need a bit longer to sort out her life. When I get little back that helps me feel like I am a doing a good job as a parent, I need affirmation from friends and family.
So, on behalf of all those parents of troubled teenagers, we know you can’t fix everything, but don’t minimize what we are going through. We need as much help as we can get during this really important time in our children’s lives. Finally, I love my garden but if it helps me stay connected to a very special daughter, I am willing to share it with a couple of rabbits.
*My daughter has given me permission to publish these details. “Dad, none of my friends read your blog anyway.”
I am taking a break over the summer, but look for future blogs on why inclusion matters, how understanding attachment helps build resilience in young people, and an interview with Helen Minnis, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Glasgow University.
1. J. Baylin, and D. A. Hughes, Brain Based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010).
Support teacher, North Lanarkshire
Helping children build secure attachments in the classroom can be lot harder than it looks. Attachment theory draws from many disciplines, and it is not easy to know where to start. In addition, teachers may wonder if all of this relationship stuff is part of their job description. Attunement is probably the best place to begin, but it takes know-how, time, and effort.
One of the key bits of work that allowed the theory of attachment to take off was the research of Mary Ainsworth. From her detailed observations of mothers and infants, she showed that infants become securely attached when their caregivers are in sync with them both physically and emotionally. This gives the child the experience of being met and understood. 
❝As a new teacher, I didn’t know where to start.❞
I learned the importance of attunement almost by chance in my first teaching job in Scotland. I wasn’t that anxious about meeting my new pupils, but maybe I should have been. I quickly found out that one ten-year-old boy in my class, David*, was in the midst of an emotional crisis. He had been placed recently with a foster carer, having suffered years of neglect and abuse from his mum.
I remember walking David back to class one day when he suddenly collapsed to the ground. It was as if his legs had been taken out from under him; he lay there sobbing. He had been looking forward to seeing his mum, but she hadn’t shown up again.
David’s difficulties in class were extremely challenging, and the only strategy I was given to help him was a point system in which he could earn or lose Golden Time (the Scottish equivalent of free time) each Friday. By Monday afternoon, David had already lost all of his Golden Time. When presented with work, he would tear it up and swear at me. When challenged, he would sometimes bite deeply into his arm or tear everything off the walls of the classroom. As a new teacher, I didn’t know where to start.
I remembered something from one of my lectures at university. Over the next two weeks, I wrote down descriptions of all of David’s challenging behaviours. I described his behaviours as if I was giving it to someone who had never met him. I focused on the detail of what each behaviour looked liked. For example, rather than saying, “He was disrespectful to adults,” I wrote, “He pointed his bum at me and smacked it!”
Little by little, David’s behaviour in school began to change. The meltdowns still came, but they didn’t last as long. I noticed when he was really upset, he didn’t want me to leave. After a couple of months, the head teacher came to me, “I am changing David’s risk assessment so he can go out of the school and play football with the team, as long as you go with him.”
What caused the improvement? Upon reflection, I realized that the only thing that had changed was something in me. I noticed that I could tell what kind of day David would have just by watching him walk into school in the morning. This awareness allowed me to fine-tune the work I was giving him. I made sure there was no mental maths on a day when he was anticipating a visit with his mum. I could tell when he was anxious or frightened.
❝Simply making observations was not enough.
I also had to learn to 'read' the behaviours
as cues in order to respond appropriately.❞
One day he came to me and said that the sink was broken in the toilets. Previously I would have ignored this and got on with the lesson, but I could see that it was causing him distress. He was pacing restlessly. He was worried that someone might get hurt. After that, each morning, before we began class, I would take him to look out the window, and reassure him that the plumbers that worked for Glasgow City Council were very good and would come soon. I also found myself feeling empathy towards him instead of being afraid of his anger and violent behaviour.
What made the difference in my classroom? David experienced what it was like to have an adult attuned to him. Mary Ainsworth defined this kind of sensitivity in the mothers she observed as, “the ability to perceive and to interpret accurately the signals and communications implicit in her infant’s behaviour, and given this understanding, to respond to them appropriately.” 
Simply making observations was not enough. I also had to learn to “read” the behaviours as cues in order to respond appropriately. I developed an awareness of David’s inner state, his thoughts and feelings, a mind-mindedness.
Attunement builds secure attachments when the supporting adult:
• Builds an extensive knowledge of a child through observation
• Is capable of perceiving things from the child’s point of view
• Responds in way that shows the adult is reading the behaviour as a “cue”
• Monitors the child’s response to ensure that the adult is reading the cue correctly
• Voices out loud what is going on in the child’s mind 
This isn’t something that only primary school teachers can learn to do. I remember when I was training to be a teacher, observing a teenager who looked like she was about to explode with anger. As the class approached the art room, the teacher was standing at the doorway. She was an older lady and small in stature. I remember thinking this could go badly. I held my breath.
As the rest of the class settled to work, the teacher, as if able to read some tell-tale signs, honed in on the one, angry teenager. She sat next to her and said in a quiet, chatty tone, “I was thinking about you and what you would need to finish your work. I have been saving these pens for you.” It was like watching a parent of a much younger child, arranging the materials on the desk and all the while chatting away. There was an almost palpable drop in the tension. I breathed again.
Becoming attuned is foundational in supporting a child with attachment difficulties. Many other kinds of support depend on at least one adult being able to “read” the young person. Attunement allows us to act quickly to help a child who is not coping, and to offer just the right kind of reassurance. Once we can read his or her cues, we can begin the work of helping a child become more self-aware and emotionally regulated. (This will be covered in more depth in a future blog.)
It is inevitable that there will be times when we get it wrong. We may miss a cue and leave the child feeling disconnected. However, having the sensitivity to repair the relationship is important; it is a vital part of the process of building secure attachments.
Over the years, I lost touch with David. However, seven years later, I was in a meeting with senior social workers and politicians from across Scotland. A group of young people presented a drama about the lives of looked after children. I couldn’t believe my eyes; there was David. Much taller and more confident, he performed flawlessly. Seeing David brought back some of my favourite memories of teaching: the look of surprise on his face and the sound of his laughter when I came into the classroom dressed up as a character from a story we were reading. I am grateful for David and all that he taught me.
* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Better Practice by Building Attunement
1. Observe the young person and write detailed descriptions of their behaviours. Descriptions like, “He was disrespectful,” don't help us notice what the young person looks like. Our goal is to train ourselves to be able to recognize subtle differences in things like facial expression and tone of voice.
2. Don’t just observe behaviours that are challenging or distressed. Try to identify behaviours that show when he is settled, concentrating, happy, and relaxed. These are harder to notice because they may occur only infrequently.
3. Observe your own and others’ reactions to the young person. These can also be clues to how the child is feeling. As we become attuned to the young person, we will probably pick up on their feelings of rejection, shame, and hopelessness.
4. Prioritize those behaviours. Rather than which ones cause you most difficulty as a teacher, think about which behaviours make the young person more vulnerable. When I do this it helps me to have more empathy. I am not trying to change the young person because his behaviours make my life more difficult; rather, I need to think about how his behaviours are causing him to become isolated and cutting him off from the kinds of things that kids ought to be able to enjoy.
5. Use the questions in Louise Bomber’s book, Inside I’m Hurting. 
What makes his eyes sparkle?
What makes him fidget?
What makes him feel uncomfortable?
Which feelings does he try and avoid?
How does he cope with failure?
How does he respond to help?
What happens when there is tension of conflict in the room?
Edward Tronick’s ‘Still Face Experiment’ shows how sensitive children are to the loss of attunement: http://scienceblogs.com/thoughtfulanimal/2010/10/18/ed-tronick-and-the-still-face/
B.A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin, 2014), p. 107-124. In chapter seven, he explains the importance of emotional attunement and the benefits of secure attachments.
 B.A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin, 2014), p. 113.
 M. D. S. Ainsworth, S. M. Bell, and D. J. Stayton, “Infant–mother attachment and social development: Socialization as a product of reciprocal responsiveness to signals,” in The Introduction of the Child Into a Social World, ed. M. P. M. Richards. (London: Cambridge University Press,1974), 99-135.
 E. Meins, “Sensitive Attunement to Infants’ Internal States: Operationalizing the Construct of Mind-Mindedness,” Attachment & Human Development, 15:5-6, (2013): 524-544.
 L. M. Bomber, Inside I’m Hurting, Practical Strategies for Supporting Children with Attachment Difficulties in Schools. (London: Worth Publishing, 2007), p. 87.
(C) 2016, David Woodier. Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact.
Support teacher, North Lanarkshire
How not to begin a lesson: understanding the behaviours of children with attachment difficulties
Sean* had been excluded from school and was sitting around in the children’s house. Although a bright kid, I was his only link to any formal education. Each week when we met, he had shown himself to be resourceful at finding something to control. Once when I read to him, I missed a word. Sean insisted that I re-read it from the beginning.
Sean showed signs of being traumatized by the chaotic experiences of growing up in a family in which there was domestic violence and drug abuse. I found it hard to imagine what it must have been like.
From an early age, Sean’s only survival strategy was probably his ability to predict what others were about to do and to manipulate the adults around him.
This time I had come prepared with what I thought would be an engaging activity. We would build a model eyeball and conduct some simple experiments.
Sean was hyper-vigilant. As I walked into the room, I felt his gaze scanning me from head to toe.
Right away he saw I was carrying something in my bag. As I took out the pieces of the model eyeball, he brought out his phone. “Here listen to this. There aren’t that many swear words.”
I tried to reengage him in the activity. “Haven’t you ever wondered how your eye works? I’ll help you build a model eyeball.”
❝Recognising what we don’t understand allows us to
take a different stance, one in which curiosity about
what underlies their behaviour replaces frustration.❞
Sean, who was already squirming on his chair, without warning threw up his arms and roared.
Sean was telling me that he could not tolerate the uncertainty of not knowing and not being in control.
My approach to introducing this activity was to assume that Sean, like most kids, would be motivated by curiosity, the thrill of discovering what makes something work. What I forgot was that Sean had never experienced the presence of a parent, a secure base who could moderate his anxiety when he was learning to explore his world as an infant. Sean’s roar was an expression of a primal defensive mechanism in the face of what felt like an overwhelming threat.
This example underlines several important principles for those of us who teach young people with attachment difficulties. First, we can’t always trust our own intuition about how children view learning.
Being able to recognize that some children’s beliefs, attitudes, and feelings are hard to discern sounds too obvious, but it is often overlooked. Recognizing what we don’t understand allows us to take a different stance, one in which curiosity about what underlies their behaviour replaces frustration.
Deep down, I believe Sean could discover that kind of inquisitiveness that propels most children to learn, but I needed to approach him differently. If I had realized that the underlying issues were more about trust and the need for control, then I could have allowed him some measure of control in the activity. “Sean, you have a choice today. You decide which to do the first, the maths quiz or a science project.”
In addition, we need to become intentional about 'learning' the child. For example, we should learn what the tell-tale signs are that he or she is not coping. We need to learn what works for each child, what helps them connect to or tolerate the presence of another human being. Sean enjoyed completing mental maths quizzes. The fact that the questions had straightforward answers and the quiz was timed probably gave him a sense of something predictable and controlled, and therefore safe.
Is part of our problem as teachers that we make too many assumptions about young people?
We make assumptions about their behaviour based on our own experience of life. Children with attachment difficulties need teachers who are more open-minded, who accept that there may be unexpected explanations for their behaviour. It is not a quick fix, but the curiosity and acceptance we give may be a starting point for some young people.
❝When I maintain that kind of curious stance,
I am better able to think about alternative
explanations for a young person’s behaviour.❞
Why it works:
Researchers know relatively little about the characteristics of teachers who are able to maintain supportive relationships with young people who have very challenging behaviours . However, we can learn some things from the research on parenting and attachment.
Parents who are able to raise kids who are securely attached tend to be better at mentalization.
This is the imaginative capacity to understand the kinds of beliefs, attitudes, and emotions that underlie one’s own and another person’s behaviour . Such parents are deeply interested in the thoughts and feelings of their children; they also recognize that their ability to truly know what is in their child’s mind is limited. They are good at perspective taking, understanding that their child may perceive shared experiences differently. As a result of this such parents, and maybe some teachers, are able to maintain what is called a curious stance. They resist the temptation of making assumptions about a young person’s behaviours.
Why this works for young people who have attachment difficulties is still, I think, a mystery.
Do young people feel less anxious? Do they sense a deeper commitment from such teachers?
Are teachers able to ‘learn’ the child and offer support before a young person becomes more agitated?
I know that when I maintain that kind of curious stance, I am better able to think about alternative explanations for a young person’s behaviour. That allows me to maintain empathy towards a child and reassure them when they feel overwhelmed and vulnerable.
* names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Building Better Practice by Understanding Attachment
1. What kinds of behaviours in the classroom might be due to attachment difficulties and/or a history of abuse and neglect?
2. If you are teaching a young person with challenging behaviours, what assumptions are you making about what motivates their behaviour?
3. If you think about behaviour as a form of communication, what is he or she actually telling you?
4. How would an understanding of attachment and trauma change your practice? How would it change your priorities in the classroom?
1. Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland. “Unit 06c: Understanding attachment, Helen Minnis: Mental health.” wecanandmustdobetter.org
This short video gives a succinct explanation of attachment
2. Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland. “Unit 07a: Understanding trauma and loss, Helen Minnis: Trauma and neglect.” wecanandmustdobetter.org
This short video gives a succinct explanation of the trauma of neglect and abuse.
3. Geddes, H. (2006). Attachment in the Classroom: the links between children’s early experience, emotional well-being and performance in school. London: Worth Publishing.
Chapter 3 gives an outline of attachment theory and pages 76, 96, 114 include a summary of the impact insecure attachments can have on learning.
4. Geddes, H. & Hanko G. (2006) Behaviour and the Learning of Looked-After and Other Vulnerable Children. www.familieslink.co.uk/download/july07/Behaviour,%20attachment%20and%20communication.pdf
This paper looks at behaviour as a communication, attachment history and implications for behaviour and learning.
5. Golding, K. (2013). Observing Children with Attachment Difficulties in School: a Tool for Identifying and Supporting Emotional and Social Difficulities in Children Aged 5-11. London: Jessica Kingsley
Appendix 2 describes attachment theory and how children with insecure attachments may present in school.
6. Hertfordshire County Council. (2007). Working with Looked after or Adopted Children in School. CSF Publication 0046, Issue 1. www.hertsdirect.org/infobase/docs/pdfstore/csf0046.pdf
Check out the two-page poster that can help staff think about what might underly behaviours.
 Stacks, M. A., Wong, K., Dykehouse T. (2013). Teacher reflective functioning: a preliminary study of measurement and self-reported teaching behaviour. Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 14: 1-19.
 Ordway, M. R., Sadler, L. S., Dixon J., & Slade A. (2014). Parental reflective functioning: analysis and promotion of the concept for paediatric nursing. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 23: 3490-3500.
In my next article, I plan to share more about how understanding attachment helped me change my approach as a teacher...
(C) 2016, David Woodier. Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact.
The latest post from David Woodier our chief blogger.