Vulnerable pupils: Creating safe spaces in the school environment

Written by: Paula Doleman & Kathie Skermer | Published:
A focus on wellbeing: Ripley Infant School has created a system of safe spaces and time-out for both pupils and staff, not least its blue cards that help protect teachers’ wellbeing

A growing concern for vulnerable pupils has led to the creation of safe spaces, or sanctuaries, at Ripley Infant School as well as a focus on Attachment Theory. Paula Doleman and Kathie Skermer explain

You know it is going to be “one of those days” when a pair of shoes is delivered to the office door at 9:05am swiftly followed by a red card and the sound of a highly distressed child.

This is not an unusual scenario when there are children with unmet Attachment needs who have “flipped their lid” and are not able to self-regulate their emotions or even express their feelings in what would be considered a socially accepted way.

The red card is part of our time-out system and the shoes – well they were both a metaphorical and literal sign that things had “kicked off” with the child and that support was needed.

Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory explores the need to create a lasting and secure psychological connection with significant others, especially in the early years of life. If we have not had that deep, early experience of love and empathy (because the mother or main carer was unable to give it to us) we may not be able to feel it ourselves in the usual way.

If we did not have our emotions regulated, or soothed, when we were very young, then we might not be able to control our own feelings and actions in later life (for more, see Headteacher Update, 2019).

Unmet needs?

Ripley Infant School is a two-form entry school situated on a housing estate in the Derbyshire town of Ripley. There are 165 pupils on roll.

We have seen economic and social changes in the local community which have resulted in more children being identified as vulnerable. The pressure on school to meet the needs of both pupils and their parents/carers has increased.

Children were entering school with so much “emotional baggage” that they were unable to access their learning effectively and fulfil their potential. As a result, in 2015, the school employed Kathie as a learning mentor and emotional literacy support assistant to work with these children and their families.

In July 2018, we were both accepted on to the Derbyshire Virtual School Attachment Aware Schools Programme providing the school with opportunities to access high-quality training and undertake Action Research.

In September 2018, staff perceptions were that we were providing pupils with a safe space by setting up a tent in the classroom with cushions and soft toys. It was soon realised that this was not suitable for all children as their needs were individual.

We quickly identified the need to consolidate staff knowledge and understanding of Attachment Theory so that our approach was consistent. We wanted to provide our vulnerable pupils with a wide choice of “safe people” and “safe spaces” to access when co/self-regulation was necessary.


Through staff CPD, including INSET training provided by Kate Cairns Associates, and staff meetings, awareness of unmet Attachment needs and emotion coaching strategies were explored. Staff were given tools to identify pupils’ emotional needs and appropriate interventions were provided.

The intention was that vulnerable pupils would be able to find their “safe space” in whatever form it may take and access the tools to co-regulate and self-regulate their emotions.

It was also recognised that staff dealing with vulnerable pupils are on their own personal, emotional journey and sometimes are not in the “right place” to deal with issues.

A blue card was introduced to the existing yellow and red time-out card system. This “gave permission” to staff to have some time away from a child, or situation, by sending them with the blue card to their partner class – allowing for a “cooling off” period. There is no questioning of the child nor formal consequences as a result of the blue card, it is simply a recognition that space between the staff member and child was necessary.

A process was introduced whereby the emotional wellbeing of all pupils was assessed using the Leuven Scale to ensure every pupil was included and any previously unrecognised needs were not missed. First pioneered by

Professor Ferre Laevers and his team at Leuven University in Belgium, the Leuven Scales help you to understand how focused and comfortable children are in a setting.

From that staff discussed individual concerns with the pastoral team so that appropriate interventions could be put into place.

The impact

  • Whole school wellbeing and engagement scores on the Leuven Scale improved from the beginning of the project as staff were able to apply their knowledge and understanding of Attachment Theory in their general practice.
  • Twenty-two children started the project scoring three or less for wellbeing. This reduced to 17 by the end assessment point. Meanwhile, 37 children scored three or less for involvement at the beginning, reducing to 22 by the end of the assessment point.
  • Five out of six of the focus children for the project improved from their baseline scores on their individual targets, following access to a variety of interventions. Although they did not all necessarily achieve the targets that were set there was clear evidence that progress has been made.
  • Staff knowledge and understanding of Attachment Theory had been developed and additional CPD will continue across the full range of roles within school.

Our learning

As a result of this project we have learned that there is always a reason for any given behaviour and emotionally appropriate responses will support and regulate children. Everyone goes on an emotional journey throughout their day and the emotional state of all involved parties need to be considered and reflected in any given response to a situation. Staff now have the tools to draw upon to identify children’s emotional and Attachment needs and have the capacity to signpost them to the most appropriate support or intervention.

Having the whole school community on board and consistent when applying the practices and processes is vital, as is having “champions” within each team throughout the school. The ethos of the school needs to reflect Attachment Theory in order to embed the developments that have been made.

What next?

This is just the beginning – we intend to develop our work further so that all our staff have the capacity to plan and have strategies to be proactive rather than reactive to unmet Attachment needs. The school training schedule will ensure that staff knowledge is consolidated and developed to ensure succession planning for the future. We acknowledge that there is a continuing need to have a better understanding of families so that we can work together to support the children in and out of school.

  • Paula Doleman is headteacher of Ripley Infant School in Derbyshire. She has a particular interest in Attachment theory and the impact of adverse childhood experiences on learning. Kathie Skermer is learning mentor and emotional literacy support assistant at the school and her focus is providing emotional support for children and their families to enable academic progress.

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