When we talk about putting theory into practice, there is a risk that we think of support as something we do to children. Using our knowledge of how children develop secure attachments can help us learn how to attune to them. Expressing curiosity and empathy can be more effective when we learn how to match their affect. In addition to helping children co-regulate, this way of relating can build a special trust between adult and child that may open a door to learning.
The link between trust and learning is often more visible in children and young people who have experienced maltreatment and disrupted attachments. The child who seems to assume the worst about our intentions towards them may also struggle to accept our help or advice. We often experience the young person who seems difficult to motivate or engage in learning as controlling or manipulative. The impression that these children are hard to reach and teach is probably linked to their difficulty feeling secure in relationships.
In the first year of an infant’s life, the parent’s or carer’s capacity to think about what is going on in the mind of the child allows curiosity and empathy about the child’s affect*. The carer provides the child with a kind of mirror image reflected in their parent’s or carer’s face and expression. The child manifests a mood or an emotion to a caregiver, who mirrors it in a display of understood affect. The infant who is crying and distressed sees sadness and distress in his caregiver’s face.
However, what adults usually do without even being aware of it, is mark or differentiate their display. For example, they may alternate a brief period of making a sad looking face with a soft smile, gentle voice, and rocking. This enables the child to recognise that the affect displayed by the caregiver is a representation of the child’s. This secondary representation allows a child to learn to calibrate and regulate his or her response rather than acting it out. 1,2
Many children who have been maltreated or who suffered disrupted attachments have not had enough experience with someone who can attune and connect with their affect. Yet, being able to experience a consistent, sensitive response from a parent or carer plays a vital role in helping children learn to regulate their emotions. How do we help children learn to regulate their emotions when they haven’t had these experiences early in life? How do we help them learn what it is like to have an adult who is trying to understand them and give meaning to their inner life and behaviour?
In order to reach out to these children, teachers, parents, and carers have sometimes been encouraged to try matching the affect of the child or young person. This isn’t always straightforward, and I have seen mixed results. One teacher said to me, “I try to match his affect when he is upset, but his voice goes up too high.”
Another asked, “How do I match his affect when his expression looks frozen or when he curls up in a ball?”
I have also seen teachers amazed at the results when they figure out how to do this. “When I said to him, ‘I understand you must be really upset,’ he got even more angry. But when I said in a more animated voice, ‘I get it! No wonder you are upset if you think you were going to get the wrong answer,’ he calmed right down.”
Success seems to depend on the child or young person being able to experience what it is like when an adult tries to understand him or her in a curious and empathetic way. It relies on an adult being able to notice the subtleties of a child’s expression and relate it to some underlying intention or meaning. This reflective capacity, often referred to as mentalizing, allows us to imagine the fears, desires, goals, hopes, and beliefs that underlies our own and others’ behaviours.
Someone who is mentalizing is curious, accepts that their assumptions about a child’s behaviour may be wrong but wants to try anyway, is aware of the impact of emotion, and is able to see a humorous side of things. However, mentalizing is also a fragile process. It develops naturally, for example, from the interactions between members of a family, but it can be easily switched off when a child or adult feels threatened or shamed. Similarly, when an adult becomes too rigid in interpreting a child’s intentions, when an adult lacks empathy for a child, or even when an adult has lost joy in relating to a child, it may be very difficult to recover that mentalizing stance.
What can we learn from the developmental processes, like mirroring, that can help us learn to match affect? The goal is not to present the child with a facsimile of their expression, but with a copy that is distinctive or marked. By matching the intensity and timing of a child’s affect -- for example, by matching the patterns of stress and intonation in the voice -- the adult demonstrates that understanding of the content of that emotion or mood. At the same time, the adult marks their display; for example, rather than shouting back at an angry child, the adult uses animated gestures. Sadness or disappointment can be matched by the tilt of the head or by an exaggerated sigh. Congruence but with a degree of differentiation allows the child to recognize the displayed affect as their own and not the adult’s.
One experienced practitioner explained some of these features in these examples: “So, if a child says to me, angrily, 'I am so stupid!' my verbal response to match affect would be to say in an animated tone: That's so hard for you when you think you are stupid!” I would also match the intensity and pattern in the child’s expression with my body language and facial expression. Likewise, if a child was sad and said: ‘I am so stupid,’ I would say the same words, but my non-verbals would be less animated in intensity in order to match the energy of the child's statement.”
The following steps may allow the child to get a sense of “you get me” and “you have understood me.” Although our goal is accurate mentalizing (giving the child the picture in my mind of what it is like to be them), we do not have to do this perfectly. It is important that the child experiences the process we use to correct our understanding.
I was in a meeting at a school and one of the teachers, in a light bulb moment, asked this question: “So you mean our job is to help him learn to relate to others rather than give him an education?”
If I could go back and answer that question now, I would say something like, “Actually our job is to learn to relate to him first before we can expect him to relate to us.” Yes, relationships are vital to learning. They go hand in hand. It is just that we are used to teaching kids who have learned before they get to school that the knowledge adults have about the world is valuable. For other children, we need to be intentional about helping them learn to trust by giving them opportunities to experience what it is like to have an adult who mentalizes them. That experience of being understood is a key that unlocks learning. 3,4
This is a true story. Harry (not his real name), ten years old, sits at his desk with his head down. His teacher recognises something is wrong. She knows that the question Harry has been asked may have upset him: “Write about a character in a story who feels rejected.” She gently asks Harry, “Come outside with me.”
The teacher has prepared herself for a moment like this. She says to Harry, “I can see that it is not easy for you to tell me what is wrong. I would like to do something a bit different. I am going to talk for you.”
The teacher continues as if talking for Harry: “‘If I don’t answer my teacher when she asks me what is wrong, I’ll get in trouble. But I don’t know what’s wrong, and I don’t know how to tell you.’” As the teacher speaks her voice become more animated and she moves her hands in front of her like the two sides of a closed gate. She is trying to communicate the sense of frustration, of not knowing, that she imagines Harry is struggling with.
Harry looks up and makes eye contact. Silent tears begin to spill down over his cheeks.
The teacher pauses and then begins to talk about a time when she kept getting something wrong and didn’t know how to fix it. She begins to lighten the tone of her voice and Harry smiles.
Later the teacher reflects on what happened. Was she able to match Harry’s affect? She can’t be sure, but she feels like there was a moment of recognition when Harry made eye contact with her. She thinks that Harry’s tears may have come from a sense of relief that someone could talk about him without making him feel ashamed. What is Harry learning? He is at the beginning; this is the first of many moments when his teacher can talk for him. Gradually, he will understand more about himself, he will see that the emotions that overwhelm him can be understood by his teacher and don’t overwhelm her. He can learn that it feels okay when another person helps you regulate your emotional response. The barriers and fears that cause him to back away from learning will seem less because he is learning to trust.
Relating to young people using skills like matching affect allows us to communicate a deeper kind of understanding that can signal to a child that what I have to share with you is relevant and helpful. “If you can get what is in my mind, then I might be interested in what else is in your mind. Now I am interested in what else you have to say about what might work for people in my world”. 4
Just in case you think that the reference to dogs in the title was simply to get you to read this, some experts say that mentalizing is perhaps the most human of traits, and that the animals closest to being able to mentalize humans are dogs. Dog lovers probably already knew this, but It shows what a powerful advantage dogs gain by being able to notice the subtleties in expression of their human owners. How can dogs do this? Try hanging out with humans for several millennia: mentalizing is a great way to build companionship and have someone throw a stick for you.
*Affect is often used as an umbrella term to include inner states that are relatively stable, such as an attitude toward a person and something shorter lived like a mood or an emotional response to a specific situation. It can also refer to something that child is not fully aware of and yet manifests in their expression or body language. If that doesn’t confuse you enough, try reading James Gross’ explanation in, “The future is so bright I gotta to wear shades” Emotion Review 2010: 2(3); 212-216
1. Fonagy, P. What is mentalization? Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHw2QumRPrQ
2. Fonagy P. Gergely G. Jurist E. Target M. Affect regulation, mentalization, and the development of the self. 2002.
3. Fonagy P. Alison E. The role of mentalizing and epistemic trust in the therapeutic relationships. Psychotherapy. 2014: 51 (3): 372-380.
4. Bevington D. Epistemic trust for AMBIT. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBeEOkwLToM
First published in www.saia.org.uk/blog 2019 © 2019 David Woodier, Inclusion Support Teacher.
Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact.
Illustrations by Tom Donaldson www.etsy.com/shop/tomdonaldsonart
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.
The latest posts from David Woodier our chief blogger, and the SAIA Team.