Is it really a problem of self-esteem? Looking inside may not be the answer to how children can flourish.
Is it really a problem of self-esteem? Looking inside may not be the answer to how children can flourish
“A sign of health is the ability to enter imaginatively and accurately into the thoughts and feelings and hopes and fears of another person; also to allow the other person to do the same” Donald Winnicott
Reminding myself to see children for who they can be
When I first meet a young person in school, I like to set myself a challenge. I ask the teacher, “Don’t point her out. Let me observe for a while and see if I can spot who she is.” Usually I can tell by a child’s dishevelled appearance, by an argument between two children, or when I see the child who tries relentlessly to get her teacher’s attention. However, this simple exercise also helps me think about what a child looks like when he or she is settled and happy. I borrow a metaphor from the garden, flourishing, to describe this kind of happiness in children. A quick search on the internet reveals I am not the first to use this term. The idea of human flourishing has been around at least since the time of Aristotle. However, if we think of flourishing simply in terms of boosting a young person’s self-esteem, we may do more harm than good.
Notice me! Rather than low self-esteem, attention seeking may be a cry for mutuality
Nathan’s teacher made a discovery and she wanted to share it. “I know what it looks like when he is settled. He isn’t looking at me.” She must have recognized my slightly puzzled expression and so she added, “I realized that whenever I look at the class, he is already looking at me, but when he is really into something he isn’t constantly watching me.” Nathan’s teacher had nailed it on the head. (I must have metaphors on the brain.) This little boy was usually in a state of constant vigilance. I remember observing him once responding to conversations happening on the other side of the room.
It wasn’t just his hypervigilance that worried his teacher. He constantly sought her attention. He interrupted her lessons, and if that didn’t work, he was expert in creating mini-disasters. I have seen water bottles, pencils, and jotters spilled to the floor in a whirl of activity. It would have been easy to think this little boy’s problems were all about attention seeking and low self-esteem.
Nathan’s teacher came to me one day quite distressed. “Nathan is telling me he is bad. How do I help him have a better self-esteem?” She paused and then added, “I keep telling him he is not bad and that no one is bad, but he told me again, ‘Miss, I am bad.’”
I wondered if Nathan wasn’t trying to communicate a sense of, “Don’t forget me! I can’t bear the thought that you don’t notice me.” Boosting Nathan’s self-esteem wasn’t going to fix this. He needed empathy; someone who would hear how hurt he was and not reject him. I tried to model a response for his teacher. “Oh, Nathan, if you believe you are bad that must be so hard for you.” Rather than attention seeking, a child may be operating from a profound sense of loss, unable to share their grief with others for fear of being abandoned (1).
I have been in many meetings in which a teacher talks about a child who is afraid of failure, lacks friends, has poor personal hygiene, seeks attention, or lacks confidence. It is often thought of as a problem of low self-esteem. What concerns me about thinking in terms of self-esteem is that we may miss not only a child’s deeper needs but also become blinded to what true flourishing looks like.
Shouldn’t we boost young people’s self-esteem?
Not so long ago, the idea of boosting self-esteem was presented as a cure-all for a wide range of social ills such as teenage pregnancy, drug misuse, and other anti-social behaviours (2). I once interviewed a group of African-American boys growing up in the inner city of Chicago. Naively I assumed they would all have low self-esteem. By the end of the interview, I realized that I was the one with a self-esteem problem. My informal survey surprisingly corresponded to the findings of much larger and more scientific studies. Young people’s perceptions of themselves improved significantly during the 1980’s and 90’s. However, according to some even more rigorous studies that tracked young people over several decades, improving self-esteem did not reduce drug misuse or risky sexual behaviours. It seems that Bowlby was right to hold self-esteem ideology in contempt for its simplistic reductionism (2).
The wounded self may mask its true needs
I don’t want to minimize the depth of harm caused to a child who suffers maltreatment or the devastating impact that neglect and abuse can have on a child’s developing sense of self. An infant’s earliest experience of intimacy with another human being should be one of safety and security. It is in that state of dependence that the infant should be able to experience a sense of rightness and wholeness about themselves. When safety, security, and continuity of care are lacking, a child may suffer a primal, narcissistic wound (1).
Put simply, we were not built to flourish as separated beings, so recovery shouldn’t be thought of as boosting self-esteem. Rather, a young person needs to experience relationships in which he or she can be free from a preoccupation with self. Donald Winnicott warned that a child may develop a ‘false self’ as a way of masking their true need for mutuality* (3,4). I think children and young people are happier when they experience the freedom of self-forgetfulness; instead of using a false self to protect themselves, they are able to experience an integrity of self. Again, put simply, they can enjoy other people enjoying being with them.
Not being preoccupied with self allowed him to enjoy being with his classmates
Several years later, in another school and with another teacher, I walked in to Nathan’s classroom and for a moment I couldn’t see him. He was reading a book with two other children. They were peering down at the pages, each with his or her chin cupped in hands. Nathan seemed totally absorbed in the moment. So much so that even his posture was a mirror image of the two other children. I am not being unrealistic; I didn’t think for one moment that Nathan would never struggle again. However, this little glimpse of Nathan being able to relate to others in a way in which he could express his comfort with just being himself helped me think of him not just as an injured, traumatised little boy.
Human flourishing as having the freedom to forget self
For the past thirty years, I have taken young people to summer camp. This year was no exception. Driving back from a day trip, my car was packed with teenagers. Someone asked to play music from Les Miserables. The young people sang along at the top of their lungs, but one voice stood out to me, not because it was louder but because I had never heard that young person singing before. A young man, one of my pupils, who has lived in fourteen different homes and suffered relentless rejection and loss. He wasn’t trying to draw attention to himself; he was just enjoying being part of the group. For a few moments, I was reminded of what it looks like when young people are flourishing. I find that I never stop needing to be reminded of what that looks like.
* Mutuality can be defined as an empathetic exchange between a child and an adult that communicates a sense of being understood. The child’s thoughts and feelings are matched in intensity of involvement and interest (4). Donald Winnicott gave this example: ‘“Settled in for a feed, the baby looks at the mother’s face and his or her hand reaches up so that in play the baby is feeding the mother by means of a finger in the mouth.” The baby whose mother is involved in this intense identification with him benefits from the experience of feeling understood’ (4, p82).
Keeping It Real
1. What do we really mean when we say a child has low self-esteem?
2. What other needs might the child be trying to communicate?
3. How do I refresh my vision of what it looks like when children are truly flourishing?
1. Newton Verrier, N. The primal wound: understanding the adopted child. CoramBAAF; 2009.
2. Harrison, G. The Big ego trip: finding true significance in a culture of self-esteem. Nottingham: Intervarsity Press; 2013.
3. Phillips, A. Winnicott. London: Fontana Press;1988.
4. V Jordan, Judith. The meaning of mutuality. work in progress. Wellesley Centres for Women; 1986. Available from: https://www.wcwonline.org/vmfiles/23sc.pdf [Accessed 2/10/2017].
5. Abram, J. The language of Winnicott: a dictionary of Winnicott’s use of words. 2nd edition. London: Karnac; 2007.
© 2018 David Woodier. Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact. Illustrations by Tom Donaldson https://www.etsy.com/shop/tomdonaldsonart
Handout for teachers
I am teaching a young person with attachment difficulties.
What do I do?
These suggestions are not intended to be a substitute for a more thorough process of assessing a young person’s needs and level of additional support.
© 2017 David Woodier, Support Teacher, Inclusion Base, North Lanarkshire.
Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact.
David Woodier is Chief Blogger for Scottish Attachment In Action. www.saia.org.uk/blog
The Gentle Challenge
For the first two years of primary school, one little girl I know would not talk to her teachers. Even when close friends of the family greeted her, she looked down and said nothing. Although she couldn’t explain what was wrong, her dad sensed her overwhelming anxiety. He needed a way to help her change her behaviour, but more importantly, he needed a way to help her realize that being noticed by people doesn’t have to be scary. One day he had a small brain wave.
“Here’s the deal. People like to see you smile, but you don’t like doing the talking. How about when someone greets you, you do the smiling, and I’ll do the talking?”
“Hi Sarah*. How are you?”
“Hello Mr. Duncan,” Her dad said. He looked down at the little girl and gently squeezed her hand. She flashed just the briefest of smiles.
Mr. Duncan smiled back.
I didn’t know at the time, but this was an example of what Mary Dozier from the University of Delaware calls the gentle challenge. Since then, I have come to realize this is one of the most important goals in building a relationship with a child who has been maltreated. As Dozier says, it is about gently challenging their worldview (1). In terms of attachment, it is a way of helping children revise their internal working model.
Children who have been maltreated often have distorted expectations and beliefs about self and others. Bowlby observed that these models are established in the first few years of life. As children get older, they become increasingly resistant to change. “The necessary revisions of model are not always easy to achieve. Usually they are completed but only slowly, often they are done imperfectly, and sometimes not done at all” (2). In addition, adults are too easily pulled towards responding in a way that confirms their existing worldview.
The gentle challenge can only take place in the context of a trusting relationship. This, in and of itself, is a complicated task and one that challenges the young person’s worldview. It is important that the adult can empathize with the young person and has some ideas of what kinds of beliefs and expectations a young person is communicating through their behaviour. The gentle challenge is often used in response to a young person who is showing some kind of resistance to relating to others.
Harry had been moved to a new high school, but the honeymoon hadn’t lasted long. He was suspended, and as I drove him home, my mind went back over the years to the little, angry boy I first met in primary school. Harry had fixed ideas about himself and others. When his head teacher retired, Harry told me with all sincerity that he had ruined his head teacher’s life. I tried not to smile, but in my imagination I pictured his head teacher sitting in the sun on a cruise ship sipping a glass of something fizzy. Harry was convinced that teachers disliked him, because he believed he was a bad kid.
“Harry how long have we known each other?”
“For years, Mr. Woodier.”
“Harry, do you trust me?”
“I need to ask you do something. Can you give some of the trust you have in me to your new teacher? Maybe she doesn’t hate you.”
Harry said nothing, he just looked at me. I wondered if he could accept that there might be more than one teacher in the world that didn’t dislike him.
The gentle challenge is often counterintuitive. Sometimes it means joining with the young person in their resistance. We accept that the behaviour allowed the child to survive and cope in an adverse situation, but once a child is safe, we want them to experience relationships in a different way.
“I know its important for you that I know you are a smart kid. You can keep shouting out the right answers until we work out some other way for you to be sure that I know you are smart.”
“I can see you want to be in control of this. I think you are right. I don’t think you know me well enough yet. When you get to know me better, perhaps you can trust me.”
Children who have been maltreated sometimes give up signalling their needs. Dozier says it is really important that the parent or caregiver find a way to indicate their availability even when the child acts as if he or she does not need it. In a recent email, Dozier stated, “For example, if a child banged his head and sat alone rubbing his head, the parent might say, ‘Oh honey, I’ll bet that hurts’ while she strokes him on the back.”
The gentle challenge is not a clever script; it is a way of building trust and a new way of relating. It often works better when the adult finds a way to do some of the heavy lifting.
“It isn’t easy to say sorry to someone you think is angry with you. What about if I do the talking and you just come along with me?”
“You told me when you are in your class, you need to use that kind of language because you feel threatened. But you are not in class today; you are on holiday, so why not give that kind of language a holiday?”
The gentle challenge often comes as the culmination of months or even years of building a relationship with a child or young person. It is based on an assumption that young people, despite being maltreated, have an underlying need for connectedness and coherence (1). I see it as a gift, a way of affirming a child as a human being. It asks children to re-imagine a world in which they can be loved and bring joy to others.
* The names of children used in this article have been changed.
1. Dozier M, Bates BC. Attachment state of mind and the treatment relationship. In Atkinson L, Goldberg S. (eds.) Attachment issues in psychopatholgy and intervention. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; 2004. P. 167-180.
2. Bowlby J. Attachment and Loss: Volume 1 Attachment. London: PIMLICO; 1997.
First published as ‘The Gentle Challenge’ www.saia.org.uk/blog 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.
Back to the Floor
The three visitors looked friendly, but what I thought would be an opportunity to showcase our work left us feeling we had been caught short.
Someone in headquarters decided it would be good for morale if the heads of education, social work, and health met with some of us who work directly with young people. The initiative was called ‘Back to the Floor.’
One of the three, dressed in a grey suit, asked me, “Why should my child’s education suffer because the teacher has to deal with the behaviour of a young person who is in foster care?”
I have heard the same kind of argument in many schools, sometimes expressed in different ways: “We can’t meet Johnny’s needs here.” In other words, Johnny ruins everyone else’s chance at a good education.
I tried to answer the man in the grey suit, “If I could take you to some of my schools, you would see that schools that are the most inclusive are best for all young people.” My words sounded unconvincing. I wasn’t prepared for his question, and I couldn’t back up my view with any evidence.
The inclusion of children who are looked after in mainstream education is often a contentious issue. Sometimes it is characterized by simplistic thinking1. “We can’t meet Johnny’s needs here” may be true, but is there really some magical other place where Johnny can be ‘fixed’?
Inclusion can also define and strengthen important values. When faced with the challenging behaviour of a looked after child in her school, one head teacher said, “I don’t want him to go to a special school. He needs the relationships he has with children here who don’t have attachment difficulties. He won’t have those role models in a special school. I am not going to exclude him.”
Inclusion can also create ambiguity. It can force teachers into an uncomfortable position, one in which we feel we have to chose between contradictory imperatives2:
Is my job to teach my subject or is teaching about helping children develop as individuals?
I am here to make sure the young person who wouldn’t say boo to a goose can learn, but what do I do when that young person is threatened by the child who acts out the effects of the neglect they have suffered at home?
Inclusion requires substantive change3; it challenges us to look at ourselves and to question the commitment to our values.
Can You Give Me One More Chance?
Successfully including young people who are looked after and who may have attachment difficulties in any kind of mainstream setting can be difficult. Paul was fourteen years old and had been signed up by his foster carer to go to summer camp. It soon became apparent that his carer was under a lot of stress. She said, “I told Paul if he gets sent home, the moment he comes through the door, I will put him in respite care. He has been excluded from school, and people have come to the house to say he is causing trouble in the community. His mum doesn’t even want to see him.” Paul probably felt being sent to camp was just another rejection. This looked far from promising.
I met Paul as he stepped off the bus and introduced him to his group. He seemed to take an almost instant liking to his group leader, an easygoing and energetic young man. I noticed after a couple of days they were rarely apart. However, Paul also mercilessly bullied another boy.
The head of the camp wanted to send Paul back home. “It's not fair on others in the group. He is ruining their week,” she said to me.
I pleaded for one more chance.
I took Paul aside. “We are going to do everything we can not to send you home, but you have to stop bullying. You are going to spend the rest of the day with me and help me clean the kitchens.”
After that Paul’s behaviour wasn’t perfect, but he stopped bullying. A couple of days before the end of the camp, I asked him about his birthday. “I see you have a birthday when you get home. Will you do anything special?”
“No one has ever done anything for my birthday,” he replied.
The next day, I was sitting at lunch on the table next to Paul. Without warning, the other young people came into the dinning room and sang “Happy Birthday” to him.
Paul looked like a deer caught in the brightness of a spotlight. I think he wanted to run away, but he couldn’t. About fifty young people surrounded him.
A year later, we had a call from his foster carer. She told us Paul had looked through the camp brochure until he found the same group of leaders and asked her to sign him up. She told us it had been a much better year at home.
Why did it work? It wasn’t just one thing that made a difference. His group leader had worked hard to build a relationship with Paul, and the head of the camp was willing to take a risk and give me one more chance to reach out to him. I believe Paul got the message that he was wanted there.
Paul contacted us again this year. He apologized and said he plans to spend the summer with the Army and cannot come to camp. Two years ago, when I first met Paul, he was an outcast, unclaimed and unwanted. Being included in that camp had transformed his life.
Excellent and Inclusive
Camp and school are very different, but some of the issues around inclusion are similar. Will other children suffer because of the behaviour of a child who is looked after? It is relationships that make the difference. Teachers who include children prioritize the importance of relationships in learning, and this benefits all the children in their class. In order to test my hypothesis, I interviewed a group of young people, a teacher, and a teaching assistant.
It had been a steep leading curve for Lewis’ teacher. The impulsive and often angry twelve year old, who had also struggled in his foster care placement was in trouble almost every week.
At the end of the year, I interviewed a group of Lewis’ peers. They all acknowledged their learning had been held back to some extent by their classmate’s challenging behaviours. However, they all had something positive to say about their school: “The work we produce is good and the staff are really friendly.” They also had no difficulty identifying the things they had accomplished. They all rated the relationships in their class as a 4 or 5 out of 5. One of the group commented on how her teacher had handled pupils’ behaviour problems: “She is good at it because she will sit down and have a calm chat with them and calm them down.”
The kinds of skills teachers and teaching assistants learn in order to support a young person with attachment difficulties seem to transfer readily to other children. Another teacher at the end of school year commented:
“I have been teaching for fourteen years. Callum has helped me more than any other child to think about my teaching.
“I have learned to make fewer assumptions about the behaviour of other children in my class. I used to think some behaviours were because a child was spoiled at home. I have learned they may have real issues and need my help.”
“One of my pupils was playing up for another teacher. I used Wondering Aloud, and I gave him some different options for what might be upsetting him. If I hadn’t used this approach, he would never have told me what was wrong.”
“We are rolling out some of these things across the school. Callum has raised the profile of how we handle emotions.”
A teaching assistant from another school wrote:
“I have been able to transfer the skills I have learned to help other children. For example, I noticed a change in another child's behaviour. He was getting upset and walking out of class. I asked the teacher if I could have some time with him. I used Wondering Aloud. I said I had noticed that he was spending a lot of time on his own and that he was distracted easily. I tentatively asked him if the class was too loud or maybe he had a lot on his mind. He said there was too much noise and that it was hard to concentrate. I tried to empathize with him. Later, this child told me he was worried about something happening at home.”
In these classrooms, the behaviour of the children who are looked after had some negative impact on the other children. However, the teachers and teaching assistant were able to use the skills they had learned to identify and respond with sensitivity to children who were struggling. It also seems that the other children in their classes recognize that despite some difficulties, the relationships in their class were very good. They were generally positive about their school and what they had learned.
Inclusion matters because young people who are looked after find the acceptance they need in order to overcome their sense of rejection and shame. And to answer the question from the man in the grey suit, I would be happy to see my own children in a classroom with the kind of teacher who values relationships, who understands young people’s needs, and who finds a way to support the learning of all young people.
* Under the provisions of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, 'Looked After Children' are defined as those in the care of their local authority.
Features of Inclusive Schools 4
Keeping it Real: Where are you on the inclusion spectrum?
1. Learning Teaching Scotland. Focusing on Inclusion and the Education (Additional Support for Learning Act) (Scotland) Act 2004. Dundee: Learning Teaching Scotland; 2006. Available from: http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/Images/FocusingOnInclusion_tcm4-342924.pdf [Accessed 16 August 2016].
2. Clark C, Dyson A, Millward A, Robson S. Theories of inclusion, theories of schools: deconstructing and reconstructing the 'inclusive school'. British Educational Research Journal. 1999; 25 (2): 157-177.
3. McLeskey J, Waldron N. Inclusive Schools in Action: Making Differences Ordinary. Alexandria VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development; 2000.
4. Martyn R. The journey to excellence. Available from: http://www.journeytoexcellence.org.uk/videos/martynrouseinclusiveexcellentschools.asp [Accessed 16 August 2016].
First published within ‘Inclusion Makes Better Teachers’ www.saia.org.uk/blog September 2016
© 2016 David Woodier, Support Teacher, Inclusion Base, North Lanarkshire. Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact.
Swearing at the head teacher is never a good idea. I was told that David needed anger management. How would I convince his head teacher that David’s problem was not his anger? In fact, anger was probably the appropriate response to all he was going through. There was something else that could help him, but it would take time and commitment. Louise Bomber in her book, Inside I’m Hurting, calls it Wondering Aloud. It is a powerful tool. However, it works better when we learn to use it first by noticing the emotions of children when they are more settled and well regulated.
Louise Bomber describes Wondering Aloud as the process by which a key adult uses observations of the child to think about what the child might be feeling and then comments on the meaning of those emotions (1). This can help children with attachment difficulties become more self-aware and learn to regulate their internal states. ‘The only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves’ (2).
Wondering Aloud is a process:
1. Notice a change in the child’s behaviour.
2. Describe this change to the child.
3. Make a tentative remark as to what this behaviour means or how it might relate to the child’s internal state.
When I am using Wondering Aloud with a child who is distressed, I add a fourth step. I try to remind him or her of someone who can be a secure base for them. “I have seen your teacher help other children. I am sure she could help sort this out.”
David had been in and out of care all his life; he was now living in a temporary foster placement. Even as a newborn, his birth mother had never been able to offer him sensitive and predictable care. David struggled with feelings of rejection, but also longed for a relationship with a mother. These conflicting emotions made it even harder for him to grieve his loss and at the same time left him longing for someone who would claim him. The unpredictability of his life left him extremely anxious and constantly vigilant. Most of his energy in class was used trying to say and do the right thing so that others would like him. The more he tried to get other children to like him, the more they seemed to reject him.
David’s teacher told me, “He is not coping with playtimes. He is aggressive towards the other children. He has also become much more attention seeking and I can see he is extremely anxious. Sadly, he doesn't know how to express or even recognize all the emotions he is feeling, and he deals with them through being angry with others.“
We decided to try Wondering Aloud, but it wasn’t a straightforward experience.
One morning, David asked the classroom assistant, “Why are my eyes flicking?” (David had been crying.)
“I can see you have tears in your eyes. I wonder if you are feeling sad. Perhaps you are missing your mum. Have I got that right?”
David raised his voice, “No!”
Thinking about his sadness probably reminded him of how vulnerable he felt. He was unable to accept the empathy of the adult.
A year later, David was still waiting for a permanent foster family. Tentatively, I peered through the door of his classroom. The pupils were working in groups of three. David was lying on his tummy on the floor. Next to him were two other pupils. His body language was almost a mirror image of theirs. Here was a rare moment of stillness in David’s otherwise restless day.
Here, also, was an opportunity for David’s teacher to Wonder Aloud in a different way. This time she could notice a more regulated emotion and tentatively give it meaning for David. “I noticed when you were working you looked just like the other two children, the way you were lying on your tummy and listening carefully. I wonder if you had a good feeling being so close to other children who were calm?”
Later, David’s teacher remarked, “If I notice this emotion for him, then he can begin to notice it for himself. If he can notice his emotions, it might just give him enough time to pause before allowing his anger to burst out.”
Louise Bomber says, “Once a child has a sense of what their experience might mean, they are then more in a position to take control over their states, sensations and feelings” (1).
However, being able to recognize what David looked like when he was not anxious, sad, or upset was challenging. With children like David, those moments are quite rare. They are easily missed and yet they were vital if his teacher was to show David that she was tuned in to him without making him feel more vulnerable. In addition, if David could learn to accept her interest in his inner life when he was settled, then he might also accept her support more readily when really distressed.
David’s life didn’t improve. His temporary foster placement broke down. Overnight he was moved to another foster carer. He came into school the next day and lined up his classmates. “Put your hand up if you are going to miss me!” Again, David was desperately looking for someone to affirm that he belonged somewhere.
I was concerned that David’s behaviours would escalate. Would all the work David’s teacher had put in over the months pay off at this moment of crisis in his life?
David’s teacher met me a couple of days after his move. She commented, “He wouldn't settle to work and was in everyone's face, quite aggressive and argumentative. I took him into the cloakroom and asked him if he knew what was bothering him. He replied calmly, ‘I don't know,’ and it dawned on me that he didn't know what he was feeling and couldn't put the emotions he was feeling into words.”
“I said to him, ‘I wonder if going though so much change has been hard for you. If it was me, I would find it very hard.’ He then nodded. I asked him if he went back into class would he like me to come and sit beside him for a little while to help him settle back into his work and he replied, ‘Yes.’”
Had the teacher’s work to notice David’s inner life worked? His behaviour was still challenging and yet at a moment of crisis in his life he had been able to accept help. Learning to accept the help and reassurance of a key adult is a hugely important step for many children with attachment difficulties.
Wondering Aloud is not just a gimmick; it works because of a teacher’s commitment to understand and empathize with a child. It works also because the young person learns that even his strongest emotions can be identified and understood by a caring adult.
We ought to work hard at learning how to use the Wondering Aloud tool. Despite all that has happened to some young people, it can still make a significant difference at the time when a child needs us most.
Keeping it Real
1. Wondering Aloud only works if you have invested the time to really become attuned to a young person. You have to be able to understand their behaviour as communication, and they have to have had to learn to trust you.
2. Expect some resistance from a young person. Don’t overuse it. When I was practicing at home, my sons would say to me sometimes, “Dad, you doing that Wondering Aloud thing again!”
3. When you try it, observe very carefully how a young person responds. Sometimes, all I am looking for is a pause. The young person for a split second doesn’t know what to say after I have Wondered Aloud, and I know it has worked just because I have helped the child be curious about himself.
4. It is very important that we don’t do this to manipulate a young person. We are not trying to solve their difficulties; we first want to show that we are curious and accepting of their inner lives.
1. L. M. Bomber, Inside I’m Hurting, Practical Strategies for Supporting Children with Attachment Difficulties in Schools (London: Worth Publishing, 2007).
2. B.A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin, 2014).
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.
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