Looked-after children and Attachment Theory

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
Image: iStock

Looked-after children continue to struggle in our education system. Inclusion expert Daniel Sobel looks at why this is, including a focus on Attachment Theory and how we might reduce the high number of exclusions for this cohort

At the end of March, the National Association of Virtual Heads will meet to discuss best practice for looked-after children. It seems timely to reflect on what we do well, where we are going wrong and what we could do next.

In 2015, there were around 70,000 looked-after children in England, representing an increase of six per cent since 2011. Anyone who has anything to do with the management of looked-after children will be fully aware of just how dire the statistics are. It is common knowledge that:

  • Only half of these children reach expected levels at the end of key stage 2, with a disproportionately large percentage considered to have SEN.
  • Around 40 per cent go to non-mainstream schools such as special schools, pupil referral units and alternative provision at key stage 4.
  • Only six per cent will go to university compared with around 50 per cent of the population.
  • As a group, they have poorer employment prospects and health outcomes and are significantly over-represented in the homeless and prison populations.

The virtual school structure is limited in focusing its liaison and training on a key person within an educational establishment – the designated teacher.

In fairness, it makes sense from a distance to invest in one individual to trickle-down the skills and knowledge. But it leaves staff in school dependent on that actually happening, which, based my experience, seems to be extremely variable. This has to be a contributing factor to the forever high numbers of exclusions.

One has to question just how well the average teacher really is prepared to manage the wellbeing and attainment of looked-after children and how well the governors – who ultimately ratify permanent exclusions – really grasp both what is at stake and the causal relationships and dynamics that are so important.

What is often left unsaid is just how conflicted headteachers feel about their experience of looked-after children. They are one of the most vulnerable groups in society and are an example of why many of us went into education in the first place. Having said that, most experienced senior leaders can tell you at least one nightmare story about just how out of control, disruptive, violent and abusive a particular looked-after child has been. I have seen the most compassionate and empathic of teachers drawn to anger, frustration and exasperation.

There is no doubt that, as a cohort, they represent a real challenge and we, the school fraternity, are simply ill-equipped to not only cope but to actually drive forward their attainment to the extent that they actually have a chance.

The entire issue is mired in negativity – I am even guilty: throwing out the statistics of doom as I did above. We have a long way to go.

With this in mind, let’s consider what schools really need to learn, how they can go about this, and what our headteachers really need from our virtual heads. I have compiled the following advice in conjunction with my colleague Helen Worrall, an expert on looked-after children.

Attachment difficulties

Some of the key difficulties that face a large proportion of our looked-after learners and that greatly affect their wellbeing and achievement arise from the impact of their often disrupted and sometimes negative early experiences.

Attachment Theory is something that you study at every level of any type of psychology course nowadays; it is no longer niche or obscure. But attachment difficulties and how they affect the wellbeing and learning of the children in educational settings has not been a regular part of teacher training courses. I reckon most teachers have come across it but probably couldn’t tell you what the signs are in their classroom or, most importantly, what they can do about them.

Consider these examples of what children experiencing attachment difficulties may mean for your classroom teachers. In every school there may be a child who:

  • Is so alert and hypervigilant to everything around her that she does not hear the teacher’s instructions and then does not know what to do when she starts her task.
  • Finds it unbearable to be wrong or make mistakes – this tends to be especially obvious with answers in maths or spelling.
  • Finds relationships with adults difficult and sometimes frightening, and so finds it very hard to ask for or accept any help.
  • Appears to be happy, attentive and cooperative in class but produces the bare minimum of work or shows that he or she has misunderstood the instructions.
  • Explodes with anger when even small things go wrong – even the most kindly phrased constructive criticism.
  • Regularly steals items from peers, from small trivial items such as pencils to (more seriously) food from lunch boxes.
  • Continually interrupts teachers by asking lots of questions and making statements, often “silly” ones.
  • Has very low self-esteem and believes him or herself to be rubbish at everything, to the extent of not trying no matter the positive encouragement from teachers.
  • Often looks sad, sullen and sulky but has no words to describe how he or she is feeling and denies that anything is wrong.
  • Seems not to be making any progress despite being apparently positively behaved in school.
  • Tells constant and fantastical lies with seemingly no idea that they are unreal. Lies are especially prevalent when he or she has done something wrong, taking the form of total denial of any knowledge of what has happened.
  • Does not respond to any form of behaviour management strategy, appearing not to care or to be unable to improve.
  • Is a school refuser or truants from lessons.
  • Regularly has extreme behaviour difficulties at home after school, even though at school behaviour appears to be positive.
  • Students with attachment difficulties also expect to be “bad” people or not to be good at things and therefore may struggle to take risks in school.
  • Often they will be hypersensitive to things that appear to evidence their deeply negative self-image. Outbursts are also linked to the experience of high levels of shame, which stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and cause a fight/flight/freeze reaction. Students feel exposed and want to hide or react with rage, while also feeling profoundly alienated from others.

The above are common features of a student who may be experiencing attachment difficulties.

These students share a mistrust of adults and in a school setting this means that they don’t believe that adults are able to keep them safe. Most of the behaviours that we see in looked-after students are in fact manifestations of their attempts to feel safe, rather than a desire to challenge and annoy teachers. But from a teacher’s perspective, it certainly doesn’t feel that way.

However, simply saying “don’t do that behaviour” doesn’t solve the problem for the looked-after student. For teachers, it is extremely hard not to react and follow through the standard motions of dealing with behaviours that challenge the order of the class, including being firm, drawing careful boundary lines and using the usual consequences.

In fact, these “normal” behaviour procedures are actually only going to make things worse. They will be understood by the child as a sign that indeed this adult can’t trusted and their behaviour will spiral downwards, promoted by their enhanced anxiety.

This is a core reason why so many looked-after children end up in pupil referral units and outside of mainstream schooling. I hope it is clear from this way of articulating the problem that the real issue lies with the inability of the teacher to understand and perceive this situation as different from other standard behaviour management scenarios.

As an expert witness in tribunals, I see this scenario again and again: “We applied the school behaviour policy, gave a series of warnings and yet, despite the significant attention, time and effort we applied, the student did not respond positively to any of the school’s management. Therefore, it is our recommendation that the permanent exclusion is upheld and the student moved to a more specialist environment.”

Step back for a second. Remember that this student has been denied the basic human right of decent parenting. They have probably shifted schools and foster homes. They have arrived at the point that they have given up on adults and the education system because it has failed them.

None of this child’s inner narrative is heard. The governors leading the panel hearing do not understand that these behaviours are obvious and common expressions of Attachment Disorder and that with a few adjustments they could not only be managed but even prevented. Yet here is where the axe falls on the educational experience of this vulnerable child.

Exclusion, rather than teaching a child that he or she needs to change their behaviour, can actually provide proof to the child that the school cannot keep them safe and teachers cannot be trusted because they send them away and break relationships, leaving them in a highly anxious state, meaning that they are far more likely to repeat the behaviours that may have led to the exclusion initially.

The one issue we need to address more than anything else to help us avoid reaching the point of break-down, is to enable teachers and governors to understand the common looked-after children behaviours and what they can do about them. If this is not being dealt with at governor induction or teacher training level and if the designated looked-after children lead in each school is not actually facilitating this level of understanding then we must rethink our approach.

What do we need to do?

We must prioritise the emotional and attachment needs of our most vulnerable learners as the key to their academic success in terms of progress and attainment. In order to achieve this, the following steps need to be taken:

  • All teachers, and ideally all staff working with young people, need effective training, especially in recognising and knowing how to respond to common attachment behaviours. It is ideal if the trainer delivering the training has had experience of applying attachment knowledge to school life. The training cannot be all theory and no practice or practice which doesn’t take into account what real classrooms are like. Training, ideally, should be regularly reinforced with on-going coaching and support.
  • Real time and effort is needed to prioritise the emotional wellbeing of these children – to support and coach the individual student helping them to build secure attachments with one or a small number of staff so that they can then support them to feel safe across their experience at school.
  • Provide flexibility within behaviour policies to effectively support the needs of young people with attachment difficulties.
  • Recognise that particular times of the school day and calendar are especially difficult for these young people, such as transitions and school transfers. This can be mitigated by creating an effective transition pack that follows the student wherever they go, in order to minimise disturbance to their learning.
  • Governors need to become knowledgeable about the challenges facing looked-after learners, especially the impact of attachment difficulties. This is especially important when schools and governors are considering exclusion.

The old adage is that we can judge a society by how well it treats its most vulnerable citizens.

Currently, we are failing this group of students. I want to see teacher-led training and online training, regular looked-after children reviews in schools and an agreement by heads not to permanently exclude a looked-after child unless they can honestly say that their school understands the difficulties and the needs of this very vulnerable cohort. 

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked-after children reviews, training and support. Daniel and Helen Worrall are currently developing an online pack for schools to train staff. You can find all his articles for Headteacher Update on our website via http://bit.ly/20YDhq5


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