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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.
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...
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